Hurry Up and Wait for Speedy Wireless Nets

By Tom Spring, PC World |  Networking

Today, we live in a second-generation wireless world, but the next wave is bearing upon us -- if gingerly. With it comes a promise of a more robust network that puts your whole MP3 collection within reach, keeps your calendar updated to the minute, and even lets you choose and watch a movie on your PDA on the train ride home.

So-called "2G" (second-generation) network technology is differentiated from 1G primarily as a move from analog to digital. Among the common 2G networks are CDMA, GSM, and TDMA. But 2G is slow for data services; most wireless Web access moves at snail-like speeds of 10 to 19 kilobits per second. Proponents of 3G networks promise speeds from 384 kbps to 2 megabits per second. At 3G speeds, mobile phones or handheld devices could handle high-speed multimedia and become all-in-one communication, entertainment, and information devices.

But if you're eager to catch the wave of high-speed wireless services, you may have to wait a few years for 3G technology to cross the ocean from Europe to North America. Such networks are only starting to roll out in Japan and Europe. With them come mobile phones and handheld computers that are not just capable of accessing the Web, but comfortable dealing with cyberspace.

Proponents hope the technology will be to existing wireless access as broadband is to dial-up, providing a worthwhile boost that pushes people to move up the technological ladder. Still, analysts expect the technology's cost and current customer disinterest will keep it from being widespread in the United States until 2003 or later.

Carriers Explore a Half Step

We'll get a little spurt in the interim. Technologies called "2.5G" will deliver faster speeds, between 56 kbps to 144 kbps. Carriers say 2.5G networks, such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), can adequately handle most 3G services. Plus, they're less expensive to implement.

Still, rollout of even 2.5G networks is slow. Large U.S. carriers Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless, and AT&T Wireless are implementing provisional 2.5G networks designed to stretch the costly equipment already in place. Among the progress:

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