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Whither 3G?

By David Hellens
May 1, 2002

This bribble was received following this recent comment piece discussing whether we really need 3G mobile technology. Find out how to submit your own Bribble here.

There is always a lobby that says that the next wave of new technology won't happen. For the sake of entertainment, my favourite example comes from the 19th Century, a clergyman who believed the railways would never work because trains travelling faster than 25 MPH would suffocate their passengers. Ah, retrospect - you know it makes sense!

Will 3G succeed? Or will WLAN disrupt it and stop it dead in its tracks? Tell me now if you can, I've got money on it! In simple terms, my answers would be: yes and no. Here's why.

3G is also known as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) Notice the first word 'Universal'. It states the ambition of the technology right at the outset: ubiquitous national and international cellphone coverage for a fast, always-on service. By contrast WLAN was designed originally for local network coverage, within one building, say.

The crucial question is now: can we use existing global networks (especially fixed line) together with WLAN and bypass the need for 3G? Unhelpfully, I believe the answer is both 'yes' and 'no'.Yes, it is a theoretical possibility, but no, there are too many practical objections for it to really come about.

I'll start with the issue of roaming, somewhat the point for mobile technologies. While WLAN can be interfaced to other global networks, it is still local, with a reach of several hundred feet, depending on surrounding conditions. In wireless terms, when you get out of range you drop the connection. It is proposed that it will be located at 'hot spots', cafes, stations etc. By definition then, for roaming access, there will be many 'cold spots' too. If my teenage son is engrossed in his PDA on the bus, with a game of 3D Quake (which he has just paid for) he will not be best pleased to lose his always-on connection every time he passes a patch of the city still held by technology luddites.

If it's bad for my teenager, it's ten times worse for business users who depend on reliable connections when their affairs can hang on the immediate, accurate exchange of up to date information. They may not want to go somewhere else to connect. They may well not be able to.

Anyone remember the Rabbit phone idea in the eighties with its 'call points'? It didn't work and was squashed by companies offering more ubiquitous cellphone coverage. Move away from a hot spot and you simply can't receive wirelessly. The whole point of roaming is that the connection stays with you, you don't have to go and find it.

Advocates of WLAN claim their networks are so much cheaper to set up and maintain. In contrast 3G is already a byword for costly rollout. If it is genuinely cheap to set up and maintain a WLAN service (that can be interfaced to someone else's national network for wider area coverage) that implies low barriers to entry. What's to stop hundreds of other 'me to' organisations from jumping on the bandwagon?

We've been here before. Remember the boom? Lots of  alternative telecoms with big ideas and a bit of backing? Ah, retrospect. Perhaps Orange will soon run ads about being 'reassuringly expensive'?

I'd also note, by the way, that any network that pretends to national or international 'wireless' coverage, however achieved, is not going to be cheap. But that may well be beside the point as far as many businesses are concerned. Cheap is desirable (especially now), but not always at the expense of  proper coverage, quality of service, security and adequate support. None of these will be guaranteed in a system predicated on cheapness. If they are provided, the service is unlikely to be cheap.

There are persistent question marks over the security of WLAN. These issues are being addressed and no doubt the situation will improve, but as far as I'm aware they are still there. That is something many business users will be forced to take into account after September 11th. And when things do go wrong, I have no doubt many will prefer the backing an organisation that they know and trust to fix things properly. A good track record matters, even if it costs a bit more.

So on the grounds of ubiquity, security, service, connection quality, and support, I suspect many will pay extra for a superior, universal service.

Disruptive technologies often have to work hard over a long period to lose their 'wild frontier' status. Just look at how long it has taken for Linux to penetrate the big time. There are more issues: the number of users in a locality, the intensity of  calls on bandwidth (video etc.), interference and so on. Still, the above will do for a start. WLAN a 3G killer? Don't bet on it.



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