April 16, 2001, 11:42 AM — The wireless world is moving toward 3G high-speed networking, but several obstacles must be overcome before users can transmit data at 384K bit/sec using their wireless handsets.
Just as wireless service providers need to deploy new hardware and software to support data transmissions that are 20 times as fast as the speediest mobile service today, they will also have to map out roaming and interconnection agreements.
Network operators are scrambling to make connections that will let these next-generation wireless networks deliver the same level of domestic and international roaming service as standard wireless voice networks such as GSM or Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA).
While CDMA networks are more popular in the U.S., there are several GSM wireless service providers in North America. And the GSM numbers in the U.S. are set to grow as AT&T Wireless upgrades its dated Time Division Multiple Access network to GSM-based 3G technology called general packet radio services (GPRS).
GPRS is an interim technology that is typically called 2.5G because it supports up to 144K bit/sec instead of the 384K bit/sec support, which by definition is a requirement for any 3G network.
Service providers say they are ready for GPRS, but have yet to address how they can support regional or international roaming that will let users make and receive calls as well as transmit data.
GPRS roaming services won't happen until network operators implement GPRS Roaming Exchange technology. Service providers are testing the technology, but industry insiders say roaming support that includes data traffic will not be available before year-end.
Analysts agree that a roaming system is key to GPRS's success. The advantage of GPRS is significant for mobile professionals, eliminating the need to establish slow dial-up connections to send e-mail or surf the Web. But those buying such services will also want roaming support.
"For the end user, it could mean a lot less hassle in trying to figure out where you have coverage," says Aberdeen Group senior analyst Kelly Quinn. "It will mean convenience and ease of use."
GSM provides users with near-universal intercountry roaming support, especially in Europe. But roaming will quickly turn into a luxury when service providers begin upgrading to GPRS. Roaming agreements must be forged between wireless service providers and ISPs.
"You have to have the same functionality in the data world as you have had in the voice world, and to do that you need [GPRS Roaming Exchanges]," says Stephan Deutsch, a spokesman for UUNET, a division of WorldCom. "The idea is to connect as many people with each other and make sure you are the company connecting them."
Network infrastructure and management companies such as WorldCom, Equant and Infonet Services are pushing to be leading providers of these wireless exchanges.