Mon, 07 Apr 2003

What is 3G anyway?

When a new technology evolves, we call the original the "First Generation". Then we have a Second Generation, a Third Generation and perhaps a Fourth Generation. Beyond it, we usually choose to simply erase the older generations from memory and lump them all together as "earlier generations".

And, very often we are not able to see the cutoff line where the first generation stops and the second generation begins.

As technology evolves, there are usually times where the new generation is gradually introduced while the old is slowly phased out. Quite often this has to take place as a humongous amount of money was already invested in the old technology and the operator would like to make sure that at least a major part of it has been recouped.

Add to this the fact that there are often competing technologies trying to replace the existing one. A case in point is the cellular phone services. The more we try to define what we mean by the Second Generation, the 2.5G and the 3G, the more confused we become. To complicate things further, the so-named 4G is being developed as operators are weighing which one of the 3G technologies will make the most business sense.

What is clear is that the cellular phones now can do a lot more interesting things than just enable us communicate with one another. The new abilities are made possible by the increased bandwidth that the operators provide thanks to new technologies such as the General Packet Radio Services (GPRS), which allows us to sent pictures and short video and audio clips over the air.

For now, it looks that the next generation-3G-will be dominated by the CDMA2000 spearheaded by the American company Qualcomm. The competing technology is WCDMA, which is being driven by the GSM bloc. The third standard already recognized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the TD CDMA. Collectively, the three technologies and two others are lumped together into what is called International Mobile Telecommunications-2000 (IMT-2000).

We are all looking forward to the arrival of the 3G, as it promises a higher data speed. As more and more of us have become so dependent -- and addicted -- to e-mail and the Web, for example, we are waiting impatiently for the days where we can send and receive multimedia e-mail messages on our cellular phones as we move freely from one place to another. The larger bandwidth will also allow phonemakers to add more intelligence to our already smart cellular phones. Life will never be the same.

But, there is a problem. In many countries, 3G operators have to pay a huge amount of money to get the license to use the frequency that the 3G system will utilize. Investment is also required to get the infrastructure for the 3G network up and running.

At the same time, handsets are not available in hordes for the 3G services as they are for the 2G and 2.5G services, and handset makers will wait until demand grows before they start pumping up their production. Because they are still making a limited number of 3G handsets, the prices are still very high and consumers wait until they go down. A familiar story.

Countries like South Korea, Japan, China, the U.S., Canada and Brazil have seen 3G deployment with various degrees of success. Here in Indonesia we are going to have 3G too this year.

In the meantime, technology companies continue to squeeze more bandwidth from their existing technology and products. The EDGE (Enhanced Data Rate for Global Evolution) technology being pushed by the GSM bloc, for example, will enable operators to increase the data speed for its customers using the same radio frequency for which they already have the license. Base stations made in the past two years are already EDGE-capable. All that is needed is the software to manage the services.

And, just last week DTAC of Thailand announced a successful call made over the EDGE infrastructure that it has built with the help of Nokia. You see, the 3G market is truly one of the most dynamic and confusing today.

-- Zatni Arbi