Editor’s note: Sometimes, deciphering all the acronyms, techno babble and geek speak is just too difficult for most people to understand. Ed Crockett, a technical writer for such companies as Ericsson and Nortel, has made a career of making technology understandable. Beginning today and appearing on Mondays of each week, Crockett will help Local Tech Wire readers better understand a pressing technical matter — from 3G to wireless LANs. Today, Crockett begins a three-part package analyzing the state of the wireless world today. If you count yourself among the people who don’t know what 3G, 2.5G and 2G mean, or what GSM or PCS stand for, you aren’t alone. But a better understanding of those terms is important if you are to make informed decisions about buying a cell phone or considering what to do for your company’s wireless communications.

The future seems to be 3G, but to better define what that term means and where the wireless world seems to be headed, let’s take a look at the present and recent past.

In this, the first of three in a series of reports, we’ll take a look at the state of mobile radio (wireless) from a U.S. perspective, with some global comparisons thrown in.

This report examines 2G (the second generation of mobile technology), the transition from 1G, and the forces that brought about 2G. The second report explains 3G and examines the virtues and pitfalls of 3G. The third report of the series considers 2.5G to evaluate what it means and whether it is a bridge to 3G or a destination?

Digital technology brought the state of wireless squarely into the 2G era with great new features. Initially, digital brought greater security, fraud reduction, more compact size, voice clarity, roaming, Email, and lower price. From a late-2G perspective we can see that digital offers great potential for new services.

Remember VHF mobile radios? There’s a good chance you don’t because they were expensive and cumbersome and only a small portion of the business sector found this pre-1G (analog) mobile telephone a practical solution to personal communications. The shortcomings of VHF radio were numerous: There was the size (big), the cost (expensive), the utility (limited), and the technology offered few of the features that we enjoy today.

1G — In the beginning —

“Freneticism and disappointment, excitement and fear. The history of technology is filled with bursts and busts. Looking backward is not to retreat into the past but to prepare for the future.” — “Past is Prologue.” Wired Magazine, January 2002, 10.01

The first generation cellular (mobile) radio…we can now think of it as 1G…was an analog service that quickly made its way into professional, personal, and recreational settings. First-generation cellular phones were relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and compatible across service lines. All three economic sectors embraced the new technology.

The limits of analog mobile technology became apparent, as the digital revolution of the nineties rendered analog mobile technology obsolete. The era of second-generation (2G) mobile technology was under way.

2G and the technology revolution

During 2G (the second and current generation), a general technology revolution has occurred…computer processors have grown more powerful, hard disk drives have grown larger and faster, the Internet is evolving into a rich information resource and, perhaps more importantly the Internet is becoming a global medium for extending the reach of the mobile phone.

The technology revolution has brought to bear great promise for mobile technology…a promise of almost endless utility, but the promise came with a catch: 2G offers too little bandwidth, inefficiently uses available bandwidth, and lacks global standardization.

Globally, therehas been a rush for new market share and a similar rush for new infrastructure, but without global standards. Dissimilar driving forces fostered dissimilar objectives. High on North American service providers list of priorities were high capacity and backward compatibility. Priorities for the Europeans included trans-Europe standardization (no effort toward backward compatibility) and less concern about capacity.

A menagerie of technologies resulted, much of Europe has gone with Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) [more on GSM below] while much of North America has split between two competing alternative technologies: Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA). These variant technologies have worked well for their constituents but none has been totally compatible with the other. Where GSM does appear in the United States, it is usually referred to as Personal Communications Service (PCS).

The market leader, GSM, is worthy of special note because it may be the foundation on which the future is being built. GSM is well entrenched globally. High technology introduced under GSM include the subscriber identity module (SIM), a powerful security system, low prices, and spectral efficiency.

Stuck in the middle have been consumers who often could care less about terminology and standards. They either want access to wireless email, games, or better reception. 3G, many advocates say, should help resolve many of the compatibility challenges we face today. Will it?

Here’s what a recent FCC report said:
“After an aggressive global build-up of dissimilar mobile infrastructures, it has become clear that every nation will benefit from technology standardization; thus, the vision for 3G has taken shape, and it includes in part: worldwide compatibility, transmission speeds of up to two megabits per second…139 times faster than 2G…global standardization of call detail recording (CDR), billing, and position reporting, bandwidth on demand, streaming video, and CD-quality audio.” (Federal Communications Commission. “Third Generation (“3G”) Wireless.” 10 January 2002.)

Some service providers are moving to embrace 3G, such as Verizon’s deployment of a costly state-of-the-are network in Salt Lake City for the Winter Olympics. Others will, no doubt, find the conversion to 3G to be too costly, too challenging, and even a dubious objective. We will have a closer look at 2.5G and 3G in later reports.

Ed Crockett can be reached at ecrockett@nc.rr.com