Mobile 3G wireless has had more ups and downs than a Six Flags thrill ride. First, it was built up as a fast-approaching broadband panacea that would keep us connected, outdoors and in, all the time. Then it plunged into ridicule and ultimately obscurity thanks to infrastructure delays, the economic downturn, and competition from coffee shop Wi-Fi.
And today? With little fanfare, 3G has clearly added a new, if pricey option for those who need high-speed access on the go.
In the U.S., Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel have already rolled out their EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) service -- Verizon to more than 180 major metropolitan area markets and Sprint Nextel to 219. Claimed download speeds average 400Kbps to 700Kbps, and both companies are quickly ramping up for near nationwide coverage by the end of 2006 or mid-2007. Cingular is off to a semirespectable start with 16 metropolitan area markets and promises to connect most U.S. metropolitan markets by the end of 2007. T-Mobile has no 3G service yet but promises a fast ramp-up in 2007.
Meanwhile, 3G speed is accelerating. Cingular's HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), already in deployment, is supposed to deliver sustained downlink speeds as high as 1.1Mbps by the end of 2006, and EvDO Revision B could achieve 14Mbps with new client chip sets within a couple of years.
Although 3G services still can't be considered cheap, prices have moved into range, averaging US$60 per month for unlimited data using a notebook and PC Card, with enterprise volume discounts, discounts for bundled voice and Wi-Fi, special pricing for shared buckets of megabytes, and lower monthly pricing if you use a phone or BlackBerry device as a modem. If you compare this with the average charge of US$8 to US$12 per day for Wi-Fi in hotels and airports, you're in right the ballpark for frequent business travelers.
Hardware options have also multiplied, with certain Dell, Lenovo, and Sony notebooks offering built-in 3G modems, and a number of smartphones offering the same. In many cases you get both 3G and Wi-Fi. Verizon Wireless recently unveiled the first 3G-enabled BlackBerry device, which can double as a 3G modem for a notebook. Intel recently announced an agreement with the GSM Association to publish guidelines for building SIM cards into notebooks that would allow users to connect to both 3G networks and Wi-Fi. And of course there's always the notebook PC Card option from a variety of vendors, including Kyocera, Option NV, Sierra Wireless, and Sony Ericsson.
The 3G premium
Does this mean that 3G is finally taking off in the enterprise? It depends on whom you talk to. "There are few applications, aside from certain verticals, that have the need for 3G performance," says Ken Dulaney, vice president for mobile computing at Gartner. "The typical business traveler leaves the house, drives to the airport, and has maybe a few minutes at the airport to get on a Wi-Fi hot spot and do some work. He uses his BlackBerry to get e-mail. After getting off the plane he typically rushes to his destination. For these uses, Wi-Fi hot spots and BlackBerrys are fine."
Dulaney adds that the price of 3G is still high for most enterprise budgets and that carriers have been somewhat misleading, quoting theoretical 3G speeds in unloaded cells and conveniently limiting their quotes to downstream performance when upstream is typically much slower. And he cautions that notebook-embedded 3G undoubtedly means trouble switching carriers and added expense when carriers upgrade.
Julie Ask, research director at Jupiter Research, agrees. "3G is great for the few frequently traveling white-collar executives who can convince IT the cost is justified." She places 3G enterprise percentage uptake somewhere in the "low single digits" but adds that 3G is generally a more reliable connection than Wi-Fi. "Wi-Fi typically has too much interference, and [it's] on and off. 3G is a closed network."