Understanding the Tower of Babble

With the ITU conference in Hong Kong next week, it''s a good time to brush up on your telco speak.

You might know how to change the settings on your phone. You might even be an agile thumb typist capable of 20 words a minute on your short message service (SMS). But regardless of your proficiency with all things cellular, there’s no denying that the avalanche of hype and jargon can get confusing at times. Hopefully this brief guide will help clear the air. The best place to start is with an understanding that there are several layers of technology in the wireless world, each with different standards:

Spectrum

Spectrum is the frequency of radio waves over which voice and data streams are digitally transmitted. Spectrum is actually independent of any of the other technology layers, but because current network systems (GSM, CDMA, TDMA) operate in the spectrum range between 800Mhz and 1880Mhz, the International Telecom Union (ITU) has allocated a new range – between 1885Mhz and 2200Mhz – specifically for 3G networks. Licenses to operate in a given portion of this spectrum are currently being auctioned off for ridiculously high figures in some markets (eg. the United Kingdom) and given away to government-preferred operators in other markets (eg. Japan).

As older networks are phased out and new applications drive operator demand for bandwidth, 3G networks will gradually be allocated more of the spectrum that is currently being used by 2G networks.

Networks

Networks are the physical infrastructure such as base stations and transmitters. The specific technology they use determines how the voice and data streams are chopped up and delivered to and from handsets.

When people refer to 2G or 3G they usually mean the network technology, although implied in most references are the types of applications and services expected to accompany the rollout of these new networks and handsets.

Different countries are operating on different spectrums and different 2G network technology, and what dominates in each market today is going to influence what kind of networks are used going forward.

Currently most handsets capable of global roaming only do so across various spectrums in countries that use the same network technology. A triband GSM phone for example works in the 900, 1800 and 1900Mhz ranges, but is useless in a country that uses CDMA networks. The ITU realized while it was appraising potential 3G technologies that there would have to be a family of standards, and that each standard would be tailored to specific regional requirements and preferences.

Even so, a fundamental goal of International Mobile Telecommunications 2000 (IMT-2000) – which is how the ITU likes to refer to 3G – is to provide universal coverage and enable seamless roaming between multiple networks. There won’t be a single standard for wireless worldwide, but the different 3G standards meet enough common criteria to enable manufacturers to fulfill this true global roaming vision with their new handsets.

2.5G

Before that happens, though, most markets will go through a period of using transition technologies known as 2.5G. One of the key factors in this upgrade is that data transmission rates will improve, meaning faster connections to internet and e-mail. Data will also be packet switched. The always on nature of packet switched systems means that operators can charge users for the amount of data downloaded and transmitted, rather than for the duration of the connection.

2.5G also doesn’t require a completely new network infrastructure, which is a good thing for telcos that have just forked out big bucks for 3G licenses. It is, rather, an enhancement to the current network. New handsets, however, will be needed to take advantage of the improved data transmission. The availability and price of appealing handsets and mobile internet services over the 2.5G networks will be the key determining factors for its success in the relatively short window before 3G networks become the norm.

The average mobile user in many Asian markets is currently buying a new phone every 9-12 months, and everyone from handset manufacturers to application developers are building their business models around this trend continuing through to the roll-out of 3G systems and beyond.

In the US and Korea – where CDMA is the predominant 2G network technology – the interim solution before 3G networks are rolled out comes in the shape of the IS-95B and IS-95C standards. In countries using the TDMA-based GSM networks – Europe and most of the Asia Pacific – 2.5G enhancements come in the form of GPRS or EDGE systems. 2.5G networks are expected to be operating in most developed countries by the end of 2001. Japan however is skipping straight from 2G to 3G.

In Japan the network now being used by NTT DoCoMo for its i-mode service, and also by its domestic competitors, is known as Personal Data Communications (PCD). This system is packet switched, but is still classified as 2G because of the slower transmission speeds. Japan will be the first country to introduce 3G services in May next year; the early move is being driven by huge demand for data services and a lack of bandwidth in the current spectrum. DoCoMo’s desire to be seen as a pioneer/first mover no doubt also plays a part. Europe is expected to trail Japan in 3G rollout by about a year, followed closely by the rest of Asia Pacific, and then the US in 2003.

3G

In the family of standards encompassed by IMT-2000 there are actually five different standards, and three of these look like becoming widespread. W-CDMA, or wideband CDMA, is the network technology being promoted by NTT DoCoMo and other European vendors, and it will be the first 3G network in operation. Besides Japan, other Asian and European countries with a GSM network history will also be using W-CDMA networks. So will Korea, where CDMA is currently in use. CDMA will form the basis of Korea’s 2.5G networks, but in moving to 3G the carriers there plan to switch to W-CDMA.

CDMA 2000 is the network technology being pushed primarily by Motorola and Qualcomm in the United States and South America. Most countries where CDMA has been predominant (except Korea) are expected to elect CDMA 2000 for their 3G networks, although in larger markets it is likely that more than one 3G network type will be in use.

TD-SCDMA is the relatively new standard being developed for the mainland Chinese market by a government research institute in collaboration with Siemens AG of Germany. It’s expected that the Chinese government will encourage domestic mobile carriers to adopt this home-grown standard, but what is perhaps more surprising is that Taiwanese companies are also looking seriously at adopting the technology.

Languages and protocols

This is the part of the mobile world where many people’s understanding falls down. It doesn’t help that they are changing all the time, but the main thing to remember is that languages and protocols are not themselves inherently 2G, 3G or any G. They are merely a means of making existing information from the internet, as well as parallel content developed especially for the wireless world, available on a mobile handset.

WAP and i-mode are the two mobile internet protocols currently being used on 2G networks. Future versions of the two protocols will continue to be used on 2.5G and 3G networks and will take advantage of the increased data capacity of the networks to deliver graphics, sound and video – major improvements over the basic functions available today.

Comparisons between WAP and i-mode are complicated by the fact that i-mode is a brand name belonging to a company – NTT DoCoMo – as well as being the name of the protocol. WAP on the other hand is a protocol managed by an industry association called the WAP Forum. Members of the WAP forum include 95% of the world’s handset manufacturers as well as carriers and developers.

“Comparing i-mode and WAP is like comparing apples and oranges,” says Scott Goldman, CEO of WAP Forum. “It’s quite possible that we could see the i-mode brand and business model running on WAP technology.”

While nothing like this has yet been announced, NTT DoCoMo is forming a mobile internet portal joint venture with Dutch telco KPN, in which it holds a 15% stake. This portal will leverage DoCoMo’s experience with content providers such as AOL and will have gateways to deliver the content to both i-mode browsers and WAP browsers.

As new versions are released of both protocols they will become more and more alike in terms of the language they use. Now WAP uses wireless mark-up language (WML) while i-mode uses compact HTML (cHTML). The difference is that normal HTML internet content can be easily converted to cHTML, whereas content needs to be rewritten for WML. Both protocols, however, will begin moving towards eXtensible Mark-up Language (XML) – a language generally seen as the future for all internet content and one that allows automatic content translation for viewing on any device.

Right now the two protocols are incompatible, and are seen by some as being in direct competition. But in fact they are evolving in the same direction, and will eventually have the same basic make up, whatever brand name is put on top.

Operating Systems

Just to confuse things a bit more, as mobile devices become smarter and smarter they become more like the PCs sitting on our desk and need an operating system (OS) that allows different applications to be installed. This is where the battle is going to get really interesting as the companies involved – Symbian, Palm and Microsoft – all try to emulate what Microsoft managed to do with the Windows desktop OS product range throughout the 80s and 90s and secure a monopoly, or ‘market leading position’.

The various operating systems can cope with whatever kind of network, language or protocol is necessary, so compatibility isn’t really an issue. What is an issue is which OS the handset manufacturers choose to install on their products in the factory.

Given that, it would seem that Symbian, which is part owned by Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Panasonic, is a favourite. Several of the latest phones from these manufacturers this Christmas have shipped with Symbian’s v6.0 OS. But Microsoft isn’t known for sitting back idly and has recently revealed the first prototype phone – from Samsung – running on its Stinger OS. Palm, with its dominant market share in the PDA industry, is also moving aggressively into this area and Motorola has licensed Palm's OS for some of its phones.

Handset manufacturers aren’t bound by exclusive deals and some have agreed to produce different models with each of the OS suppliers. In the end it will be the customers who decide which is successful, and their preferences will depend not only on the ease of use of the OS, but also what applications it supports.

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