Image: Samsung Instinct
Samsung
Samsung's Instinct, carried by Sprint, is its flagship 3G phone, as well as a competitor with Apple's iPhone, carried by AT&T.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/3/2008 8:56:41 AM ET 2008-09-03T12:56:41

If you’re among the growing number of Americans using the Web or e-mail on your phone, the quality of that experience depends on your cell phone company's data network. Wireless carriers all make similar promises of blazingly fast mobile Internet, even more so now with 3G, or third-generation, wireless.

A speedy network with a strong signal brings faster-loading Web pages, quick e-mail delivery and smoother video streams on the go. Of course, sluggish data speeds and lousy network coverage means you'll likely wait until you get to work or home before jumping online via computer.

So what are the differences between the mobile Internet technologies and networks of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, the four major carriers in the United States?

T-Mobile and AT&T both use the GSM, or Global System for Mobile communications, standard, and the most popular form of cellular technology in the world by a wide margin. The GSM Association estimates more than 80 percent of cell phones worldwide are GSM.

In the other corner are Sprint and Verizon Wireless. Both carriers use CDMA-based cellular technology, short for Code Division Multiple Access.

Both GSM and CDMA are 2G, or second-generation, wireless technologies that use digital radio signals to transmit data. First-generation systems were based on analog radio and, compared to digital, were plagued by audio interference and high power requirements on cell phones.

To answer the growing demand for data services like multimedia messaging, e-mail and Web browsing, the GSM and CDMA carriers came up with their own solutions.

3G, as in iPhone 3G, is an abbreviation used for the third generation of cellular phones and networks. Starting in late 2006, Verizon Wireless and Sprint made a transition to 3G EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) directly, while AT&T and T-Mobile both followed a more complicated route.

Before AT&T and T-Mobile began rolling out 3G network services (AT&T is currently expanding its nationwide 3G coverage, while T-Mobile has only just started), both carriers introduced interim standards to handle voice and data transmission.

GPRS (Global Packet Radio Service) and later EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution) allowed for data speeds ranging from a pokey 32 kilobits per second to near-3G speeds.

3G speeds vary
Minimum 3G data download speeds aren't clearly defined, but are often pegged at between 128 and 384 kilobits per second. That’s still slow compared to a household 802.11g Wi-Fi network, which has a maximum data rate of 54 megabits per second.

For those who use the iPhone, a Web page loads about twice as fast on Apple’s new iPhone with the 3G radio turned on, compared to the original phone’s 2G EDGE speeds. (Since the iPhone 3G went on sale July 11, some owners have complained that the 3G network is not working as fast as was promised.)

Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service (UMTS) is the standard that AT&T and T-Mobile are employing for their 3G services, although AT&T is using a faster variant called High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA).

Marin Perez, InformationWeek.com’s associate editor and mobile industry expert, said Sprint's EV-DO 3G network, in its updated Rev. A form, transmits data at speeds up to 3.1 megabits per second. The company’s iPhone competitor, the Samsung Instinct, is the flagship of Sprint’s 3G phone lineup.

“Sprint has a wide, if not (the) widest 3G network of the carriers,” he said.

Verizon Wireless also uses a “fast” 3G, EV-DO Rev. A network “that's taking longer than expected to roll out,” he said. “Devices like the LG Venus, Rumor, and Dare, and even the Samsung Glyde, are helping the carrier attract data-heavy users.”

AT&T, exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the United States, uses UMTS/HSDPA, with peak data speeds of 3.6 megabits per second. By the end of the year, AT&T plans to have 3G coverage in 350 U.S. markets, including the 100 largest U.S. cities.

“AT&T has the handset everyone wants, but their 3G network is still smaller than Sprint’s,” Perez said.

T-Mobile begins rollout
Earlier this year, T-Mobile introduced its UMTS 3G network, with undisclosed data speeds, in New York, Las Vegas, San Antonio and Austin, and plans to add 20 more cities this year.

“T-Mobile's 3G network is still in its infant stages,” said Perez. The carrier may be the first in the United States to use devices with Android, Google’s mobile platform that has been in development for a few years.

“Some fancy Android devices may help spur the rollout, but it'll take time and money to have a large 3G footprint,” he said.

Having 3G networks in place, however, does not guarantee that wireless customers will want to use them. Forty million people, or 15.6 percent of the 245 million mobile subscribers in the United States, paid for mobile Internet services and used them at least once in the past month, according to a July report by Nielsen Mobile. That places the United States at No. 1 in the world for mobile Internet use.

However, an even greater number, 57 percent, or 144 million mobile customers, use data, including text messaging, and the mobile Web, according to the Nielsen Mobile report.

Palm Treo Pro
Palm.com
The Palm Treo Pro is a new 3G phone that also has GPS and Wi-Fi.

So what's standing in the way of broader acceptance of the kinds of data-intensive applications such as Web browsing and mobile TV that 3G networks are designed to facilitate?

“3G extras are expensive, adding as much as $60 per month over the cost of standard service,” said industry analyst Jack Plunkett of Plunkett Research.

The latest wave of feature-heavy phones and smartphones may also scare of some users.

“New, high-tech phones have a steep learning curve since all the bells and whistles require buttons, keys and extensive know-how,” he said.

Or, put another way: “If it ain’t easy, it ain't going to get used,” said analyst Pete Daily of Stratecast, which specializes in telecommunications market analysis.

“Apple raised the bar for ease of use and set-up for a smartphone with the iPhone,” meaning it now “becomes the benchmark for smartphones, to have consumer success,” he said.

Sprint preparing 4G
While 3G mobile networks show great promise for delivering a rich Internet and media experience, Sprint is already preparing the launch of its 4G technology, WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), which promises peak data speeds ranging from 10 to 70 megabits per second.

Sprint has at least a two-year head start with 4G technology. AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile have all pledged support for LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution, a road map for the 4G phase of the UMTS standard. The first commercial deployment of LTE networks in the U.S. is not expected until 2011.

WiMAX is ready to go now. Sprint's XOHM service, its brand of WiMAX, is explained by Sprint Nextel XOHM representative John Polivka: “Imagine a Wi-Fi access point the size of a city instead of a coffee shop or bookstore. WiMAX is a city-sized ‘hot spot’ with better capacity … and better data security.”

Sprint is planning to join its WiMAX business and network infrastructure with wireless Internet service provider Clearwire to launch WiMAX services in Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Chicago by the end of the year.

While mobile Internet access is part of the WiMAX plan, the full scope of the technology includes support for myriad devices including ultra-mobile PCs, USB dongles and network cards for PCs, gaming devices, navigation equipment and digital cameras and camcorders.

The combined Sprint Nextel and Clearwire company, operating as Clearwire, recently announced partnerships with Intel, Google, Comcast and Time Warner Cable for a variety of products and services.

Clearwire’s Chief Strategy Officer, Scott Richardson, is optimistic.

“We believe that Clearwire is the only operator that is truly ready to launch a 4G network today,” he said. “There’s no shortcut in testing and optimizing a new technology. We have been doing this for the past two years and we believe that now we are ready for prime time, and ready to execute.”

Perez, of InformationWeek.com, sees the future success of the mobile Internet as a joint effort.

“The 4G networks, WiMAX and LTE, will offer people Internet connection speeds on the go that will have a major impact on everyday life,” he said. “Things like mobile television, mobile commerce and mobile banking should become second nature. But no matter how fast the connection is, it'll still be on the handset manufacturers to deliver a great user experience.”

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