Networking

Cheat Sheet: 3G - in all its flavours

So you think you know your CDMA from your, er, CDMA?

3G? Simple - doesn't it just mean faster mobile networks?
In a word, yes, though we're not only talking about speed when it comes to 'third-generation' (or 3G, get it?) mobile.

Really?
Think about the possibility to run all sorts of applications on a mobile network very well - in addition to voice and SMS, think messaging, video, gaming and more. And operators will also be able to handle voice better, given capacity constraints on 2G networks.

So conversation over? 3G or UMTS does all that…
Well now you mention UMTS or, as I'm sure you were about to say, Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service. It's worth talking standards a moment. They will ultimately have a big effect on what you can do with the technology, where and on whose network.

Go on.
To start at the top, the current 3G playing field has been shaped by two main developments. At a lofty, international, let's-all-get-on-together-and-hold-hands level, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) encapsulated years of jockeying over 3G in the 1990s with the creation of IMT-2000. This can be seen as the granddaddy of all 3G standards.

Then there was wrangling in the late 1990s between equipment makers - mainly Qualcomm of the US and Sweden's Ericsson - that saw rights of CDMA patents being settled. Qualcomm ended up as the patent holder to most CDMA technology.

Hold on - CDMA?
This isn't the place to go into every acronym but let's say that since the late 1990s two clear 3G camps have developed.

So 3G isn't all about IMT-2000?
If only. The term 3G clearly implies a 1G and 2G. Those terms weren't particularly used in the 1980s and 1990s, for analogue and then mainly digital networks, but 3G became a convenient shorthand for what would come next.

And that is…?
Two types of network, mainly. Those that use GSM now - which includes virtually all of Europe - see an upgrade path to 3G from their second-generation GSM networks to a type of 3G called W-CDMA, also synonymous with the term UMTS, which you brought up a minute ago. That upgrade path comes via GPRS, sometimes called 2.5G, and maybe even EDGE, sometimes referred to (awfully) as 2.75G.

I think I'm still with you.
The important thing to remember is that from GSM, used mainly for voice, we are moving through various data-centric standards until we hit 3G. UMTS is 3G but not all 3G is UMTS.

Which implies another camp...
Exactly. In some other countries, for example in parts of the Americas and Asia, CDMA was the second-generation choice for some operators, known as the brand cdmaOne from Qualcomm. These operators' upgrade path is from cdmaOne to CDMA2000 1x. This then moves to ever-faster flavours, namely CDMA 1xEV-DO then CDMA 1xEV-DV. And you thought the GSM acronyms were a pain.

So who is winning the war, as it were?
In one sense, CDMA. After all, both standards are fundamentally based on CDMA, much to the joy of Qualcomm, which is why that vendor also likes to see W-CDMA rollouts eventually happening.

But it's not a CDMA love-in, is it?
No. There's a lot of antagonism in the industry. For example the GSM camp, driven by the GSM Association, has been interested in rebranding 3G as 3GSM, as in the name of the annual trade show, only that naturally excludes the CDMA camp. Note early this year they quite openly talked about GSM connections passing the one billion mark - the greater milestone for everyone was the whole industry passing that mark some months earlier.

Meanwhile, as we've seen this week, the CDMA Development Group happily talks about "3G leadership" and passing the 100 million mark - naturally that's only for CDMA2000 connections.

How about in Japan? Don't they use a lot of 3G now?
They do indeed but the plot thickens. Japan's second-generation mobile communications were mainly based on a standard called PDC, which rather inconveniently didn't work with networks overseas. But that is changing with 3G.

And they use…?
Well, all the flavours. Of the three operators, the smallest and last to 3G, Vodafone (previously J-Phone), uses straightforward W-CDMA. The second-largest - and fastest growing - is KDDI, which uses CDMA2000. Meanwhile giant NTT DoCoMo uses W-CDMA too. Only so it could push ahead at the end of 2001 to be the first sizeable 3G rollout globally, it tinkered with the W-CDMA type of 3G initially. However, the long term has become one where roaming will be possible between Japan and other countries.

And a good thing too. But there's still no global 3G standard, nothing like the ITU's original dream?
No and that's certainly a shame. There will be world phones, based on 'world chips' from various silicon manufacturers that allow roaming not only between second- and third-generation networks but between W-CDMA and CDMA2000 networks. But then there's China…

China?
Yes. Recent research suggests standards enforced or adopted by the Chinese will have a big knock-on effect in other countries. In mobile, that's significant. Wary of standards decided in Europe or the US or elsewhere, China has developed a third 3G standard with the help of Siemens. It is called TD-SCDMA and is likely to be used by at least one of that country's operators, even if it's only because the government there demands that. It's unlikely TD-SCDMA will ever make it elsewhere but China will be such a large mobile market (in fact already the world's largest) that it will be another consideration for many equipment makers, if not non-Chinese networks.

And dare we ask what's beyond 3G?
Apart from the obvious answer of 4G - which few people are really willing to talk about, given the huge mountain 3G has been to climb - there is what's being called 3.5G. This means even faster speeds, naturally, using technologies such as HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) and Flash OFDM. There is even talk of high-speed WiMAX technology being used in handsets, as opposed to connecting fixed computers or simply for backhaul, instead of cabling.

Will all this matter to end users?
It shouldn't. We should all just get phones and data cards that work better as we use certain services, whatever they may be. But operators and others will always be tempted to blind us with the tech. Pushing CDMA this over EDGE that or what one country is able to do versus another is commonplace. At the heart of such differences are the ongoing CDMA and GSM camps.

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