First among equals?

Competing technologies and standards vie for control of the cellular and Wi-Fi worlds, but for most users the question isn't whether they opt for cellular or Wi-Fi, but which variant of one or the other they choose.

Competing technologies and standards vie for control of the cellular and Wi-Fi worlds, but for most users the question isn’t whether they opt for cellular or Wi-Fi, but which variant of one or the other they choose.

Mobile standards

The cellular world is divided between GSM-GPRS (Vodafone) and CDMA (Telecom), though the two may ultimately merge in the form of UMTS, also known as wideband CDMA. Globally, GSM-GPRS is the more prevalent technology, but CDMA is the standard used in Japan, Korea and parts of the US.

Telecom last year upgraded its network to the CMDA1XRTT variety of the technology, hugely boosting data rates, and Vodafone has added the GPRS data carrying layer to its GSM network. Competition is fierce between the two and gives New Zealand cellular users a good choice of voice and data plans.

CDMA offers significantly higher speeds, with a theoretical maximum of 153kbit/s, though users in the real world are likely to achieve only 40 to 70kbit/s; GPRS offers 115kbit/s in ideal conditions, but on a commercial network you’re more likely to get 30 to 50kbit/s. A plus for GSM-GPRS is that it is present in 80 countries, far more than CDMA, and so roaming opportunities are greater. A number of countries have both GPRS and CDMA networks, but few have nationwide coverage for both, as New Zealand does.

If there is any demographic division in this country between the networks, Vodafone seems to be dominant in the youth market, where text messages are all the rage, while Telecom appears happier going after businesses with bigger data requirements.

Know your Wi-Fi a-b-g

The language of cellular involves acronym mouthfuls like CDMA and GPRS, but in the Wi-Fi world it’s a simple case of knowing your alphabet. Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity and, strictly speaking, refers to the IEEE’s 802.11b specification, which present wireless LANs run on. However, the term Wi-Fi is often used to encompass the emerging standards 802.11a and 802.11g, which will offer much higher data rates than 802.11b — both have a theoretical maximum of 54Mbit/s, five times 802.11b’s maximum.

802.11a is the older of the two and recently passed interoperability testing by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which monitors Wi-Fi standards. (Interoperability means the alliance certifies that hardware from different vendors designed to work to the standard will work together.)

Interoperability testing for 802.11g, which, unlike 802.11a, is being backwards-compatible with 802.11b hardware, is expected mid-year, after as 802.11g is formally approved by the IEEE.

Many believe that 802.11g, with its advantages of compatibility with 802.11b-configured gear, will supplant 802.11a and an example is Apple, which announced last month that it would make future laptops 802.11g-capable but not 802.11a-capable.

Many other hardware manufacturers are hedging their bets and providing chips and other gear equipped for both 802.11a and 802.11g.

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