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3G at CTIA: Market Momentum -- But an Uncertain Future

The Mobile Observer

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Verizon continues to lead the way with its CDMA EVDO rollout, which is
more broadly available and offers better performance than Cingular's GSM
UMTS system. While recovering from my strenuous daytime activities in
Tampa, I used Verizon's network to fool a few people into thinking I was
working rather than vacationing, and it consistently delivered in excess
of 300 Kbps of downstream data performance. That's not exactly broadband
by my definition, but it got the job done. Oddly enough, while I was in
Tampa, Verizon was running TV ads in the area making fun of the spotty
coverage of Wi-Fi hotspots and hawking its BroadbandAccess service.
Although the company may have the most compelling mobile high-speed data
story to tell in today's market, the $79.99 monthly charge for unlimited
usage is clearly a big obstacle to adoption.

At CTIA in New Orleans, Verizon was singing the praise of Nortel's new
EVDO Rev A base stations, which promise downstream peak data performance
of 3.1 Mbps in a single 1.25-MHz channel. The two companies are
promising market trials in 2006. Not to be outdone, Lucent was showing
off new HSDPA gear, the logical successor to UMTS and the biggest
competitive threat to EVDO, showing actual session throughput in excess
of 1 Mbps and latency of less than 100 ms. That's an acceptable
definition of broadband wireless in my book.

It's one thing to offer base stations, but what about the clients? My
associate, Frank Bulk, has been tracking recent smartphone product
introductions, and his list now includes 16 such devices that support
EVDO and 14 that support UMTS. Samsung even had a prototype HSDPA phone
at CTIA. Unfortunately, it isn't getting much easier or cheaper to
connect your notebook computer to these networks. Falcom USA was
demonstrating a USB EVDO. Nortel was demonstrating the Sierra Wireless
AirCard 850 for HSDPA networks. Sony Ericsson announced a low-cost CDMA
telematics module, coming to a sports sedan near you.

Sprint made a slew of announcements, many focusing on mobile multimedia,
but the one that caught my eye was its new wireless SLA (service level
agreement). I've praised Sprint in the past for offering the industry's
best wireless data services bargain, a $15-per-month all-you-can-eat
plan. But there are caveats. First, that's the price for unlimited use
on a PDA or smartphone, though with the right combination of phone and
Bluetooth, it's possible to use the system as a modem for your notebook
computer. Second, Sprint's network is based on 1XRTT, a data service
that delivers, in my experience, a maximum of about 110 Kbps downstream,
quite acceptable for downloading e-mail. However, I've found that
Sprint's 1XRTT data performance varies dramatically from cell to cell,
such that some deliver a maximum of only 55 Kbps on my Treo regardless
of the time of day. And for me, that's the service I have in cells that
serve both my home and our Syracuse University lab. When I raised this
issue with Sprint and asked for a technical explanation, the company
refused to provide one. Instead, Sprint responded that my performance
fell within its advertised data rate of 50 to 70 Kbps. But that's only
true if you let Sprint do the math, perhaps across its entire customer
base. Using Sprint's service in the two locations I spend most of my
time yields average performance well below 50 Kbps. Will you do better?
Maybe, maybe not.

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