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ANYONE FINDING THEMSELVES near a television lately will have picked up on the fact that wireless companies are selling network quality as their biggest differentiator. But beyond the “It’s the network” and “Raising the bar” slogans lies the reality that not all networks are created equal. In fact, most are a hodgepodge of cellular technologies dating back to the first wireless build 22 years ago. For VARs and dealers, understanding what exactly is carrying calls for your customers can raise the bar for their businesses, too.

In general, today’s wireless networks fall into two camps: CDMA, or code-division multiple access, and GSM, or the global system for mobile communications. In the United States, GSM players include T-Mobile USA Inc. and Cingular Wireless LLC, while Sprint Nextel Corp., Verizon Wireless and Alltel are CDMA carriers.

The primary difference is that GSM is a global standard, so GSM phones will roam seamlessly across the globe provided the handset is quad- or tri-band (meaning it works on three or four frequencies), and the subscriber has signed up for an international voice plan from the carrier. CDMA roaming is a trickier beast. It generally is available only for 3G subscribers, and often requires manual handset updates once in-country. Roaming agreements between CDMA carriers are less prevalent, too, making for more expensive international roaming minutes.

Another difference worth noting is GSM phones use subscriber identity modules (SIM cards), which are smart cards roughly the size of a postage stamp that securely store a key, identifying the mobile phone service subscriber, as well as subscription information, saved telephone numbers, preferences, text messages, pictures and other information. Often the dealer can provide a value-add by installing these, and they can be edited to accommodate new applications or storage needs. But they also can pose security threats if stolen – there have been instances of fraudsters using stolen SIM cards to set up an international voice gateway for VoIP termination and billing the charges back to the unwitting subscriber.

CDMA users meanwhile rely on intelligence built into the handset or stored on the network. Micro hard disks and flash drives are becoming increasingly available to expand on-handset storage for pictures and messages for CDMA handsets.

WHAT UP, G?

The two cellular standards are each following their own paths of development, grouped into 2G, 2.5G, 3G (the current state-ofthe- art technology) and 4G (future) networks.

Second-generation wireless networks are older, low-speed circuit networks, used for voice communications only. Most rural areas outside the Interstate highway corridors still are consigned to living with 2G only, although this is slowly changing as carriers continue to upgrade networks. The GSM version of 2G is sometimes called TDMA, or time-division multiple access.

So-called 2.5G networks comprise the majority of network footprints outside the top 100 metro markets. These offer higher data rates than 2G technology and enable the delivery of basic data services like text messaging. They also enable always-on communications rather than session-based calls and can support IP traffic. TDMA/GSM added general packet radio access (GPRS) as its 2.5G data component, and then enhanced data rates for GSM (EDGE), which was slightly faster still. CDMA developed to CDMA2000 1x- RTT, which has speeds comparable to EDGE. EDGE and CDMA2000 are sometimes considered early 3G technologies.

Third-generation wireless networks are the latest generation of mobile services. They provide better quality voice and high-speed data, support for packet applications and access to the Internet. GSM 3G networks are termed UMTS, or the universal mobile telecommunications service, in the United States, while wideband CDMA (WCDMA) is an effectively synonymous term for UMTS used elsewhere in the world. Just to make matters more confusing, it contains the acronym “CDMA” in its name, but it’s part of the GSM family and is not a CDMA technology.

The CDMA version of 3G is CDMA2000 1xEV-DO (evolution, data-optimized) technology, which in optimized conditions enables high-speed wireless connectivity comparable to wired broadband.

A kind of 3G-plus is being deployed now, in the form of the faster, DSL-like HSDPA/ HSUPA (high-speed downlink packet access/ high-speed uplink packet access) on the GSM side. Meanwhile, EV-DO Revision A and Revision B improve first-generation EV-DO speeds for CDMA carriers.

Looking toward the future, fourthgeneration wireless networks are not expected until at least 2008. They will support IP end-to-end, and will enable personalized, high-definition multimedia and video services. Some 4G technology candidates are mobile WiMAX, the GSM standard’s UMTS Long Term Evolution (LTE), and CDMA EV-DO Rev. C (a.k.a. ultra-mobile broadband or UMB).

Got all that?

PLANS, PLANS

As far as who’s doing what, there’s been a significant push by operators to upgrade their networks to 3G in order to pave the way for high-profit data and video applications. As subscriber penetration reaches a saturation level and voice revenue remains flat, carriers are turning particularly to wireless data to continue to grow. Revenue, compared with a total of $200 million in 2000, reached $11.3 billion for 2006, according to the trade association CTIA. “And it’s just going to get bigger and bigger,” says Joe Farren, spokesman for the industry group. “What was a cell phone is now a multifunctional lifestyle tool.”

Dealers should be careful when selling PDAs, smartphones and feature phones for their ability to take advantage of high-speed services, because 3G isn’t available everywhere. In fact, from a geographic standpoint, most areas in the United States have access only to 2.5G services, making it essential to check carrier coverage maps when recommending phones and applications.

T-Mobile had been left out of the 3G game, but was the high bidder in last year’s auction for advanced wireless spectrum, gaining muchneeded broadband spectrum in the top 100 markets. T-Mobile will build out a UMTS/ HSDPA broadband network, scheduled to go live this year and be completed by 2009, all for the relatively modest price tag of $2.66 billion.

As far as those services go, the carrier has not revealed specific plans. However, at a recent press conference T-Mobile CEO Robert Dotson said the carrier will first concentrate on “services people are already using,” such as email and social networking, and make landline displacement for voice a focus. Enhanced data services, such as mobile TV, will be more of a wait and see, he said. Executives added that T-Mobile plans to deploy dual-mode Wi-Fi/ cellular laptop cards to take advantage of the fast data access on the new cellular network as well as T-Mobile’s large hotspot footprint, a potential killer play for the business market.

On the strength of the upgrade and the ability to provide competitive services, T-Mobile has a goal of increasing its subscriber base by about 50 percent, executives say, up from today’s 23 million – so watch out for promotions.

T-Mobile’s moves are a necessity to compete with Alltel, Cingular, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, which already have 3G capabilities and are offering full suites of multimedia, broadband applications.

As far as services, Verizon Wireless offers EV-DO customers its BroadbandAccess highspeed Internet access (wirelessly enabled via a laptop card) and V CAST, a multimedia music and television entertainment service available on certain mobile handsets, along with several customizable applications for the business market; its EV-DO network offers typical connection speeds of 400kbps to 700kbps. Verizon has invested $30 billion into its network in the last six years to increase coverage and capacity. The broadband data capability was first introduced two and a half years ago in 14 markets and now covers multiple markets in 31 states and the District of Columbia, or roughly half the U.S. population.

Sprint’s network, Power Vision, covers more than 200 million people in 220 major metropolitan areas. It has implemented CDMA2000 EV-DO Rev. A technology in 21 markets, bringing average upload speeds of 300kbps to 400kbps, with average download speeds of 450kbps to 800kbps. The carrier expects the fast speeds will bolster adoption of applications such as all IP video telephony, high-performance push-to-talk and customized business apps, multiuser video conferencing, real-time gaming, and video streaming of content and live Web cams.

Sprint’s Rev. A coverage in most markets initially is concentrated in airports and business districts where wireless data demand is highest, but will expand to include Sprint’s entire market footprint. Overall, 40 million people now have access to Rev. A, and Sprint expects to completely upgrade the network to the faster EV-DO Rev. A by the third quarter of 2007.

Cingular launched a commercial HSDPA broadband wireless access service in December 2005, the first carrier in the world to do so. The BroadbandConnect network is available in more than 16 major metropolitan areas in the United States, covering 52-plus cities, and the company plans to extend coverage soon to most major metropolitan areas throughout the country. It recently announced vendor relationships to do so.

Customers can use the new Option GlobeTrotter GT MAX LaptopConnect card to receive average download speeds between 400kbps to 700kbps, with bursts to more than 1mbps. They also can access UMTS services in other countries, with average download speeds between 200kbps to 300kbps. Cingular’s 3G handsets can demonstrate downlinks of 1.8mbps, although models that enable 3.6mbps are in the works. High-speed Internet access is the primary focus in terms of broadband services for the carrier for now.

Outside the 3G footprint, Cingular’s EDGE network reaches more than 13,000 cities and towns stateside, and users can connect to either EDGE or GPRS data service in more than 95 countries worldwide.

And finally, Alltel’s EV-DO-based Axcess Broadband network is positioned to enable high-speed Internet access, e-mail and calendars, and downloads of large, graphicrich files to laptops, smartphones or other dataenabled handsets at average speeds of 400kbps to 700kbps, with bursts of up to 2.4mbps. First launched in 2005, Alltel is concentrating its EV-DO buildout in smaller markets. It now covers around 15 rural metro areas, the latest of which are parts of South Carolina and west Texas and eastern New Mexico. However, last May, it inked a 10-year roaming agreement with Sprint to allow its customers to use the Sprint EV-DO network seamlessly, effectively making Alltel’s “EV-DO coverage” the largest available.

Why the Fuss About 4G?

Lately, 4G has been in the news, and you may be wondering why. That’s because Sprint Nextel Corp.’s August announcement that it will build out an 802.16e mobile WiMAX network suddenly made 4G something tangible, set to go live in 2008. Mobile WiMAX also has been deployed in other countries, notably Korea under the moniker WiBro. Subscribers there already are reaping the benefits of 4G. Previously, 4G was a hazy proposition with ungelled standards and service launch dates around 2010 or 2011.

So what exactly is 4G? It’s a faster, more efficient, more ubiquitous and better-quality version of 3G. Sprint’s WiMAX, for example, will use 10MHz and 20MHz wide channels, achieving 40mbps peak rates on the downlink. The carrier says that benchmark has been proven out in its market trials. The LTE and EV-DO Rev. B and C versions of 4G theoretically will offer downloads of more than 100mbps, but those standards are still evolving.

The term also has become shorthand for Internet everywhere — a high-speed wireless network that gives speeds and QoS similar to fiber and will enable business applications and personalized consumer services alike. Mobile carriers, including Sprint, continue their commitments to update existing circuit networks with the faster EV-DO Rev. A technology or HSPxA, primarily to handle voice and the more traditional wireless data applications, such as texting and e-mail. But the fourth generation of wireless networks will be all-IP and will serve the fundamental purpose of enabling and extending the Web.

The 4G vision also unites fixed wireless, wireline and mobility together, making for a seamless shroud of connectivity. The devices will figure out which access network to use, and users simply will go from home to the office and everywhere in-between, never losing their data connections. The underlying connectivity will become a nonissue, making it simple to share content and experiences wherever and whenever people choose.

The result of all this will be a new opportunity for dealers and VARs to offer high-value, Internet-enabled content and revenueenhancing applications. Toll-quality VoIP, presence, mobile television, interactive gaming and social networking are but a few nextgeneration applications. Users will have personalized bubbles of broadband and content they carry around with them, thanks to ubiquitous mobility. 4G will complement a variety of legacy operator needs while opening up new opportunities for developers and usergenerated content. Enterprise applications like m-blogging, Google AdSense tracking, telematics and high-definition video will all be ondemand applications.

And the connectivity will be affordable, likely in the range of $10 to $15 per month.

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