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Commentary: Mind the Wireless Gap

Light Reading
LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading
2/25/2002
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CANNES, France — One curious thing about covering the 3GSM World Congress here is the gap between what operators, equipment vendors, and application developers promise for third-generation networks and the frustrating, hair-tearing reality of simply trying to use a mobile phone as a communication tool right here, right now.

Slipping smoothly (“They seek him here! They seek him there!”) among corporate yachts and exhibit booths, your Unstrung correspondent has encountered everything from full-motion video, to color interactive portals, to swelling ringbones lightyears beyond the crude beeps and bloops of today. It’s all quite outré.

And all very well – enough to bring out the gadget freak in the best of us. But Unstrung has to wonder if it would be too much to ask the industry to get some of the simple stuff right first.

For instance, the Unstrung team has been using Orange UK mobile phones on this trip. People flew in from the U.S. and the U.K. with the phones, only to find that Orange UK needs to be told before you leave that you are going to be roaming on its sister company’s network. In its turn, Orange France will not accept the British pay-as-you-go swipe cards.

We’re not saying this is a widespread problem, but we’ve heard and seen plenty of horreur stories at the conference, everything from patchy coverage and poor reception to the inability to access WAP services. Surely, it should be possible to create a system that allows you to simply and easily roam over GSM networks. Shouldn’t it?

Hélas, it does not look as if third-generation networks will remove such blind spots. Indeed, new networks will undoubtedly bring new problems.

To cite one example, NTT DoCoMo launched the first commercial 3G service in Japan late last year. The FOMA (Freedom Of Mobile multimedia Access) service, which uses the wideband-CDMA air interface, offers near fixed-line voice quality and audio/visual capabilities – at least when you’re in the open air.

“FOMA works well outside, but it doesn’t work well in buildings,” according to Greg Drayton, general manager of mobile network engineering at Telstra Corp.

It is now common knowledge that early third-generation networks are not going to offer anything like the data transfer speeds of 2 Mbit/s that operators were talking about. However, if this means that companies focus on getting coverage and roaming and all the unexciting, base-level tinkering and tiresome inter-company agreements in place, rather than trying to blind us with the latest all-singing, all-dancing, multimedia application, maybe this is not a bad thing.

After all, there is no point in talking up what 3G technology can do, if it doesn’t make the sometimes vexing process of wireless communication easier.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
http://www.unstrung.com

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