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APRIL 28, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 16 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Asiaweek Pictures
Nokia's concept 3G terminal is a personal computer in your pocket

Broadband Mobile
By JIM ERICKSON AND STUART WHITMORE

Within a few years, more people will be accessing information by mobile phone than by PC. That shift will take place partly because of the introduction of WAP (wireless access protocol), which makes it possible for the first time to surf the Internet using cellular handsets. But WAP, a limited solution hampered by s-l-o-w data transmission rates, is only the beginning. Coming fast on the heels of WAP rollout is "3G" -- third-generation network technology that will increase the speed of mobile downloads to the point where they will match or even exceed cable modems.

3G is not one technology, but several competing wireless communications standards. They are similar in that they transmit data in packets, the same system that is the foundation of the Internet. Over-the-airwaves transmission rates of up to 2 megabits-per-second are possible; that's 36 times faster than 56-kbps modems most Internet users have in their homes. Each 3G technology is geared to some degree to offer an upgrade path for cellular carriers based on the network they already have in place. For example, EDGE (Enhanced Data Rate for Global Evolution) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) are designed for GSM networks prevalent in Europe and much of Asia. WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) and CDMA 2000 offer improvements to cellular networks commonly found in the Americas, Korea, Japan and increasingly China. GSM networks can also be adapted to WCDMA.

The muddle of acronyms is symptomatic of the problems faced by carriers as they seek to upgrade. Ideally, a single standard will emerge so that any cellphone will work in any city anywhere. "A lot of work is going on trying to bring all the different standards into one," says Nigel Litchfield, senior vice president for Nokia mobile phones in Asia. The noise and confusion of competing technologies could slow the adoption rate.

But oh, the possibilities. Broadband wireless will turn cellphones into information appliances capable of true multimedia services. "I hesitate to even call it a phone," says Litchfield of Nokia's prototype 3G handheld communicator. Full-color video transmission will be possible. 3G devices will handle videoconferencing. You may be able to download and watch a movie while waiting at the airport. A few clicks away will be music and video games, and locater services to help you get around the city. You may store a family photo album on the Internet and download color pictures of the kids anywhere.

With 3G, customers will be connected to the Net whenever their phone is activated. This "always on" capability makes possible so-called "push" applications, where customized information is sent to a user automatically. In other words, if war breaks out in the Middle East or an interesting stock falls below a certain level, customers can be notified instantly, without having to log on.

Although whizzy multimedia services may seem distant, 3G is closer than you think. Cable & Wireless HKT and Nokia of Finland have already completed the first phase of 3G tests over a CDMA network in Hong Kong. Several other Hong Kong carriers expect to introduce GPRS (considered an interim step to true 3G) later this year. South Korea's SK Telecom plans to be one of the first in the world to introduce 3G commercial service. A late-2000 rollout is planned, although in early stages the transmission rate will be a relatively leisurely 144 kbps, not fast enough for proper video.

Heavy-duty multimedia probably won't reach consumers for at least two years. Nobody is really sure what services will sell, so there is a lot of trial-and-error ahead. It may take even longer before the necessary hardware becomes affordable. The types of screens, batteries and microprocessors needed for acceptable video display in a portable, lightweight device are currently prohibitively expensive or non-existent. Officials for cellphone maker Ericsson say that the first 3G handsets will likely cost more than $2000. At that price, most consumers may decide the future can wait.

MORE TECHNOLOGIES FOR TOMORROW

cover story | high-capacity memory cards | broadband wireless transmission systems | "Bluetooth" short-range communications chips


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