What's ahead in mobile technology

Two IT managers are unwinding after work.

"UMTS 3G barely got off the ground before HSDPA was launched, and HSUPA is on the horizon," one of the managers laments. "And are mobile WiMax and FLASH-OFDM 4G, or is 4G something else entirely?"

Maybe that's not real-world barstool chit-chat, but it does reflect the maze of terms and acronyms -- and confusion -- that is accompanying new and future generations of mobile broadband service.

"There is a great confusion about what all these acronyms mean and how the different services are packaged," said Anthony Ephremides, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland.

This confusion reverberates through the hallways of businesses as IT and telecom managers struggle to understand newly available mobile technologies, those that are coming soon and how to pick the best one for their enterprises. The first step is understanding what the technology currently is -- and will be.

Track 1: 3G And 3.9G

Think of mobile broadband as a train station. On Track 1 is third-generation, or 3G, cellular data service, which operators have been deploying for the past couple of years. 3G service now covers most large and medium-size cities in the U.S., Europe and large swaths of the rest of the world, particularly in Asia.

Ephremides noted that the third-generation designation comes after 1G, which was analog voice service, and 2G, which was digital voice service. Early cellular data systems such as 1xRTT (1x Radio Transmission Technology) and EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) often are called 2.5G.

Confusing matters is the fact that carriers with different technologies have deployed different flavors of 3G. For instance, carriers that have CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) cellular networks, such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint in the U.S., have deployed the first generation of EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) 3G service. UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) and, more recently, HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), have been deployed by Cingular and other carriers worldwide that have GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks. All these current forms of 3G provide typical download speeds of about 500 Kbit/sec. and typical upload speeds of less than 200 Kbit/sec.

In the short term -- say in the next year to 18 months -- many cellular operators will roll out enhanced versions of 3G that will increase speed, coverage and capacity, according to David Debrecht, Nokia Corp.'s director of technology for broadband wireless access. For instance, EV-DO Revision A and HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access ) will increase typical download speeds to more than 1 Mbit/sec.

"Rev A is coming sooner than some people think," Peter Cannistra, a director in Sprint's Broadband Strategy Group, said in an interview. "We'll see typical speeds of 1 Mbit/sec., but upload speeds will be the biggest improvement over [first-generation] EV-DO -- it'll be two or three times as fast."

In the years after that next generation of 3G is deployed, cellular operators will roll out significantly improved technologies. The first of these will be what some people call 3.9G, or Long-Term Evolution (LTE), according to Debrecht. It will offer speeds several times that of current 3G services such as EV-DO, he said.

Current 3G is circuit-based technology, much like what cellular operators have been using for years. That is to say, it's a point-to-point technology in which each connection requires a dedicated circuit. However, LTE will be IP-based, Debrecht said, with the more flexible packet-based routing of such systems.

"It's not quite 4G, which is the system everybody's trying to get to in the long term," Debrecht said. But LTE is OFDMA-based, at least for the downlink, he said. OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing) and its follow-on technology, OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access), are the basis for newer types of wireless broadband, which are discussed in the next section.

LTE is in the middle of the standardization process now, Debrecht said. Optimistically, LTE could be standardized, and infrastructure equipment could be available in as soon as two to three years, he added.

Track 2: Wireless broadband

On Track 2 are so-called wireless mobile broadband technologies. The best known of these technologies is mobile WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), which could start appearing in a handful of markets in pre-certified form by the end of this year. A fixed version of WiMax is already available in many markets.

Mobile WiMax is best known because its most visible advocate, Intel Corp., has been waging a relentless marketing campaign for the technology over the past couple of years, just as it did for Wi-Fi. The technology scored a major victory recently when Sprint announced that it would use it for a new nationwide wireless network. A fixed, point-to-point version of WiMax already is available in many markets.

However, mobile WiMax is not the only type of mobile wireless broadband. Qualcomm is the champion of FLASH-OFDM, which it acquired when it bought Flarion Technologies last year. Qualcomm also owns an extensive portfolio of patents related to both OFDM and OFDMA. Another player is IPWireless Inc., which developed a type of wireless broadband called UMTS TDD. Both FLASH-OFDM and UMTS TDD already are available and have met with some success in markets around the world.

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