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Can 3G bear itself?

New high-bandwidth apps might over-tax the infrastucture

The mobile phone industry finally is launching long-awaited 3G wireless services, and already a potentially huge problem looms.

While 3G networks offer operators roughly three times the capacity of current 2G networks, 3G applications, such as mobile TV and mobile access to the internet, enterprise networks and email, guzzle more than 20 times the bandwidth of mainstay 2G applications such as voice and text messaging.

3G wireless devices – particularly handsets with high-resolution digital cameras and colour displays – could spur demand far exceeding the capacity of mobile phone operators' 3G networks.

The industry is working to alleviate the problem by limiting and controlling demand and by applying the latest technology enhancements to squeeze out maximum performance from current 3G technologies. The industry believes it can constrain demand for 3G services, such as streaming media, through a combination of pricing, multicasting and downloading during off-peak hours. The bet is that most customers will be satisfied accessing professionally-created content from a menu.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to develop the leading 3G technologies, Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA) and Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO). The enhanced version of WCDMA is high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA), which promises speeds up to 10M bit/sec. The enhanced EV-DO Rev A promises speeds up to 3.1M bit/sec and lower latency.

But what if users, given a taste of mobile broadband, insist on having it all – using their mobile phones and PC plug-in cards to upload and download whatever content they want, whenever they want it?

Rysavy Research (www.rysavy.com) studied this issue and concluded that mobile-phone operators now must begin planning to meet potentially explosive demand for high-speed services such as mobile video and mobile email.

The leading technology platform candidate for making this happen is multiple input/multiple output orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (MIMO) - also the core technology used by "pre-n" wireless LAN products that have demonstrated superior range than WLAN products based on today's standards.

The mobile phone industry is approaching a crucial juncture. Will it let new entrants, such as the WiMAX Forum, develop higher-capacity solutions, or will the industry take the bull by the horns and lead the development of technology to replace its current 3G standards?

It's a tough call. There's no doubt 3G wireless will be around for at least several years, and systems such as HSDPA and EV-DO Rev A will garner millions of satisfied subscribers.

There's also no doubt 3G technology will continue to be enhanced. However, at some point it might make more sense to adopt a new technology platform that can carry the industry well beyond the capabilities of HSDPA and EV-DO Rev A.

The mobile phone industry must ensure it can meet users' growing appetite for bandwidth. This might require cannibalising today's 3G technology. But it's better for an industry to cannibalise its own technology than let someone else do it.


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