3G or not 3G?

That is the question. 3G aka 3rd generation network aka Universal Mobile Telephony System (UMTS) is the new all-singing all-dancing mobile network standard that will eventually replace the existing GSM (or 2G) networks. Steve Kennedy looks at the pros and cons.

GSM has a lot going for it: universal coverage, roaming and new data services such as General Packet Radio System (GPRS) and even Enhanced Data rate for GSM Evolution (EDGE).

But it is a dead-end technology as it's based on circuit switched systems whereby when a call is made, a connection is made all the way through the network and maintained until the call is ended.

GPRS is a packet service so a session is established (and the service authenticated etc) but packets are only sent across the network when there's data moving.

So when web browsing, when the page has finished downloading and you're reading it, no network resources are being used (unlike circuit switch, where the bandwidth would be reserved whether any data was actually being sent across it).

Unfortunately GPRS eats into the voice capacity of the network and supports about 30-40Kb/s max (when you can get it). The reason most networks have rolled-out GPRS is that it’s a relatively simple, mainly software upgrade to the GSM network.

EDGE has the ability to support much higher speeds (in theory 2Mb/s) but involves GSM network upgrades all the way out to the cell sites.

That costs a lot of money so it has tended to be adopted by operators who didn't go into 3G. So far only a couple of networks in Europe have adopted EDGE.

Why go 3G?

3G is a completely packet-based network, in fact voice should be carried as voice over IP (VoIP) but initially most networks are actually carrying it as voice circuits, but that will change.

Data rates have the potential to reach current ADSL speeds, though as yet they're still limited to about 300Kb/s to end-users.

Network upgrades such as High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) will eventually allow the magic 2Mb/s download speeds, but it's not there yet.

Many people are currently using BlackBerry devices and tend to have a love/hate relationship with them because:

  • They are connected 24 hours a day and are therefore tied to email all the time.
  • The devices aren't that great in terms of ergonomics or as phones.

However they are great business tools and once someone gets one, they tend not to want to give it back. BlackBerrys are limited in functionality though; they are email (and calendaring) specific devices and some other applications can be run on them.

As the market develops, you'll see many more smartphones appear which are general purpose computers that support BlackBerry functionality.

Microsoft has announced that later this year there will be an enhancement to Windows Mobile (5) and Exchange to support push-email.

That's likely to really change the market as companies can just upgrade their existing systems to get the new functionality (BlackBerry users have to install additional servers and so on).

Why will 3G help? Download speeds for a start. The new smartphones won't just have simple viewers on them but complete pocket applications. So as well as receiving an email with the latest PowerPoint presentation, it'll be possible to review and edit it on the move.

Hosted applications

As broadband becomes ubiquitous, companies (especially small to medium enterprises) will move some of their applications to their service provider. Email will be one of the first.

This will have many advantages including not having to have administrators to maintain it, but it will also aid remote access as the business no longer has to worry about secure access from home or mobile workers.

Other business applications will follow, and mobile workers will also gain access to them.

Packets cost money

However the current charges for data need to change drastically. Per packet (i.e. per MB of data) charges mean bills can get very expensive very quickly.

Unfortunately it's a chicken and egg situation: until lots of people use data services the charges will be high, so people won’t use them, which hinders the development of new applications.

Once the networks realize there's a demand and volumes are high, they can reduce per packet charges or more realistically introduce flat rate tariffs. There are already specific business tariffs on GSM for BlackBerrys; it just needs to happen for 3G.

Selecting your network

It's going to be very important to select the right 3G network. 3 is currently consumer-focused and is winning customers on cheap voice minutes.

Though they have data services, these are in a 'walled garden' configuration, which means you can only access the services 3 provides and they don't allow internet access as such, so no access to email.

Vodafone and Orange both launched their 3G services initially as business data services but take-up hasn't been high. The other networks haven’t made up their minds yet.

3G will happen, and it will allow mobile access to applications that are normally tied to the office, but it just may take a while.

Steve Kennedy works in strategy consulting for internet and telecoms for NetTek Ltd.

This article first appeared in the BCS Annual Review 2006.