• 03/30/2005
    6:37 PM
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3G at CTIA: Market Momentum -- But an Uncertain Future

This year's show is reflective of fundamental changes in the wireless data service market. The hype is gone and the products are here -- but be ready to shell
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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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