A ‘third generation’ wireless communications technology having evolved from first generation analog, and second generation digital, communication technologies.

Whenever someone asks me to explain what 3G systems are, I tend to think of huge departmental stores. All your basic needs – plus a few extra items thrown in to spice things up – under a single roof. A plea to modern man’s psychological need for convenience. And that’s how it is with the current crop of 3G packages. A simple, all-in-one access to everything users could ever want from a mobile phone (and then some).

But seriously now, what is 3G (or 2.5G for that matter)? Basically 3G systems are meant to be the ultimate upgrade to the current 2G systems that are operating under the Global System of Mobile Communications (GSM). GSM is referred to as the Second Generation (2G) of mobile phone technology, with the old analog mobile phone system being the first. Since current 2G phones send and receive data at only 9.6 Kilobits per second (kbps), the advent of text and multimedia messaging (MMS) has meant that the demand for drastically improved data transfer rates has been very strong.

3G systems are designed to offer increased voice capacity and higher-speed data rates by providing a more robust wireless pipeline. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a regulatory and standards-setting body, states that any system claiming to be 3G must be capable of a minimum speed of 144K bits/second, and theoretically going up to 2 Mbps. Very good, you might say. But why is there such a need for speed?

Well, 3G systems aim to provide faster access to all kinds of data, thus turning your wireless phone (or appliance) into a handier, cooler, tool. This speed is matched with the promise that it will "keep people connected at all times and in all places." What results is the capability to access the Internet as you would at home, mobile instant messaging, enhanced multimedia options, usability as a fax/pager/e-mail tool, as well as the obvious premise of crisper and more stable voice communications. Very impressive, but not without a lion’s share of problems.

For starters, 3G services are bound to be ‘expensive’, especially due to the very high prices paid for 3G spectrum licenses. Secondly, the services offered by 3G are nice, but are beyond the current demands of the average user. So now we have a situation where the consumer is not satisfied with the current level of service, yet is also balking at paying so much for something that resembles overkill.

To fill the void, 2.5G has evolved. 2.5G radio transmission technology is radically different from 2G technology because it uses packet switching. GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is the European 2.5G standard, the upgrade from GSM. GPRS overlays a packet-switched architecture onto the GSM circuit-switched architecture. It is a useful evolutionary step on the road to 3G because it gives telecommunications operators experience of operating packet networks, and charging for packet data. Data transfer rates in 2.5G services can theoretically reach 64Kbps.

It is important to note the resulting irony. Because 3G services were too expensive and because the market was not ‘ready’ for them, 2.5G evolved. Now, as it is said later, the evolution of 2.5G has become an obstacle for 3G services to penetrate the cell phone market.

However, 3G cannot be judged merely on the basis of costs and services alone. The value of any consumer technology can only be truly measured in terms of its worth to the average user. And when it comes to mobile communications, the needs of the ‘average’ customer are already being fulfilled through 2G and 2.5G. Most people do not need to use video conferencing or browse complete websites through their cell phones. Most of us are satisfied with constant coverage, the provision to check our email and maybe send a voice message or so. With all of this available in quite affordable packages, experts are beginning to wonder whether there actually is the massive demand to match the hype that was created when 3G first came into the picture.

Market analysts are faced with the challenge of accurately predicting how much technology consumers will actually be willing to pay for 3G services. With 3G providing features that are ‘cool’ but expensive, and with cheaper and adequate alternatives available in the form of 2.5G, the pure cell-phone features no longer hold any ‘pulling’ power. In fact, some critics argue that 2.5G speeds are just fine, thank you, and provide enough flexibility for most applications.

The rapid development of wireless LANs based on the 802.11 standard and the future 802.11g standard means that 3G systems now have serious competition. Although Wi-Fi support is still patchy (and suffers from the same security issues), and some users prefer 2.5G and 3G systems instead of Wi-Fi due to the widespread coverage, wireless LANs have completely taken over the office environment. Not only that but wireless LAN systems are getting faster and becoming more robust. There are plans to develop 802.11 systems that approach 1.5 Mbps in theoretical speeds. Intel and others are also looking into developing metropolitan area networks (MANs) that expand that 300 feet Wi-Fi bubble to about 30 miles, or across an entire city.

In the U.S, 3G services have been slow to start. Only in late 2003 and early this year did commercial 3G packages evolve to the extent that the general public became interested in them. Compare this with the presence of 3G services in Japan since 2001 and the popularity of 3G networks in Europe since 2000 (Finland launched it’s first network in late 2000). Compared to the rest of the developed world, the U.S is lagging behind. And here is why:

A much more developed lower-tier communications infrastructure (2G and 2.5G) has meant that there are more alternatives have been available to consumers. ‘Wi-Fi’ has become the latest rage with tech-savvy consumers, and because it became available before 3G systems were fully operational, it has captured a sizeable share of the wireless business market. U.S companies have several technical and legal issues in acquiring the appropriate spectrum for 3G use from the FCC. As technology becomes more sophisticated and bandwidth increases, systems become increasingly vulnerable to attack by malicious hackers (known as crackers) unless countermeasures are implemented to protect against such activity. Ensuring secure wireless connections in a pre-requisite to any wireless service provider.

Despite the obstacles, 3G is here to stay. The main issue is to work it into the market in such a way that it becomes useful for the majority of people, and not just a select few. Ideally, we are looking at multi-tiered services that offer a combination of 2.5G, 3G and Wi-Fi capabilities to one, national network. Eventually we would be using multiple networks to check our email, leave a message for a friend and download that bonus music video onto our PDA. Being part of a culture that revels on paying a flat rate for unlimited access, I would expect such a network to offer different levels of service, with customers being charged according to their service package, and not having to pay multiple fees for Wi-Fi and 3G access.

Just as PC users are starting to wonder whether there really is a need for faster computers, the whole communications industry might also be entering a period of transition (not just a few years but perhaps a decade or two) where new technologies would not mean that older technologies become obsolete; rather, two separate consumer groups would emerge who would use the old and new technologies side by side.

About the author:

Mike Ber is owner of www.Every.ca , and www.ComputerMagazine.ca

Author: Mike Ber