Beware of weasel words

I'm rarely accused of being overly optimistic about anything, especially "leading-edge" wireless developments such as high-speed multimedia applications.

          I’m a disciple of the Woody Allen school of thought, which preaches that most of existence is horrible and the rest is even worse. I’m rarely accused of being overly optimistic about anything, especially “leading-edge” wireless developments such as high-speed multimedia applications.

          Why? Anything leading-edge is always late. Also, major spectrum for US cellular and paging services isn’t likely to be allocated for years, so third-generation (3G) wireless services will have to be developed within current allocations. Besides, it’s economically and technologically more difficult to offer bandwidth-intensive applications such as streaming audio and video.

          It’s well known that today’s so-called wireless internet services are agonisingly slow for downloading regular web pages, and some restrict you to accessing only specific pages. One piece of good news is that forthcoming technologies will help the wireless internet catch up to the hype.

          Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) operators are praying that packet data services such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) will transform the lacklustre cellular data market into a robust business with higher speeds and always-on reliability.

          But beware! GSM operators and handset vendors have been churning out press releases promoting speeds of “up to” 115Kbit/s (or thereabouts). Ask them when you, personally, will get those speeds — and at what cost. Typical GPRS rates now are 10Kbit/s to 30Kbit/s, and the higher speed is only downstream to the handset.

          GPRS is now available in many Europeans countries and should be in the US within the next six to 12 months. Even by late next year, carriers will still probably have to employ the weasel phrase of “up to” when referring to speeds, but maximum data rates for some networks could be closer to 50Kbit/s to 60Kbit/s (though not with heavy traffic). This assumes that operators will be able offer acceptable pricing — acceptable for themselves and users — for those faster speeds.

          More wishful thinking

          Cellular operators employing Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology also are weaseling out of reality, typically touting the next upgrade, called 1xRTT, in terms of “up to” 144Kbit/s.

          Within another couple of years, users on 1xRTT networks could see speeds that are as fast as those of GPRS networks, or perhaps faster. One CDMA data protocol, 1xEV, promises speeds of up to 2.4M bit/sec., but don’t count on that in 2002 or 2003. Count on 10% of that, maybe, if all of the stars and planets are perfectly aligned, in two or three years.

          Faster data rates are only one component of creating a viable wireless business; another is usability. Handsets are great for voice, but most phones — with tiny keypads and monochrome screens — are ergonomic disasters for data.

          While many of the coolest cellular phones are introduced first for European GSM networks, the US gets the latest PDAs. Major PDA manufacturers have gotten the wireless religion, especially for converting business users to wireless.

          In a year or two, it will be difficult to purchase any PDA that doesn’t offer cellular and/or paging options. Many cellular operators, alas, will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into promoting PDAs because they view phones as the mass-market device, despite their limitations for data.

          However, phone handsets will become increasingly fun — and useful — with color LCD screens and sound capabilities. Subscribers will be able to store more data, such as MP3 audio files and corporate data, as phones include additional internal memory and compact flash-type storage. Color will improve navigation and readability.

          A wild card in the wireless deck is wireless LANs. If there’s a proliferation of 802.11 “hot spots” — where mobile users can get shared wireless network access at 1Mbit/s to 10Kbit/s — then cellular operators who charge usurious rates for 30Kbit/s speeds will find fewer takers.

          The bottom line: Wireless already provides valuable access to email and select corporate data. Speed matters, but so do many other factors, such as reliability, device selection and support. Networks will slowly get faster and more reliable. Just be skeptical of the press releases.

          Reiter is president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, a consulting firm in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Contact him at reiter@wirelessinternet.com.

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