CDMA Handsets Line Up Ahead of GSM at the Start of the Race

Two weeks ago, Verizon slowed down their roll-out of a nationwide 3G network due to a lack of handsets, and the wireless industry questioned whether handset manufacturers would have 3G handsets ready for any of the U.S. carrier launches. Now, a range of 3G CDMA handsets are preparing to fill the shelves at the local Mall or Radio Shack. On January 2nd Qualcomm announced that North American operators had begun to receive shipments of 3G CDMA2000 1X products. Kyocera, LG, AirPrime, GTRAN, Novatel Wireless, Samsung, Sanyo and Sierra Wireless are shipping 3G Internet-enabled handsets, PC data cards (PCMCIA cards) and data modules.

Cool Abilities over Cool Form

CDMA handset manufacturers, like LG and Kyocera, have been traditionally regarded as "second-tier" to GSM handset manufacturers like Nokia, Ericsson, and Siemens. However, the silver flip-top LG handset has always been a very cool offering, and the Kyocera smartphone is a perfect toy for the gadget dweeb. Now, with these "second-tier" manufacturers bringing 3G handsets to the market first, there is a good possibility that they will gain more of the market in the U.S. The launch of nationwide 3G services is in the hands of Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS, companies that backed the CDMA upgrade, says Bharat Shah, Senior Director of Business Development at Qualcomm CDMA Technology. "Now it is up to the carrier to unroll the 3G services," he says. "What you shall see is that carriers won't make any announcements until they have nationwide services in place. You will see the start of these sales in 1Q of this year."

Overtaking GSM

Nationwide 3G network upgrades seem to be in a late 60s-style space race: who will get to the moon first? Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS backed the CDMA path -- CDMA to CDMA20001X -- for 3G upgrades, and they appear to be ready to launch their nationwide services first. Both Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS are eying launches of nationwide 3G networks within the next few months, with speeds of up to 144kps. Although this appears to push Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS ahead of even their European counterparts in the 3G race, be prepared to read the small print on their announcements. "Up to 144kps" does not mean consistent speeds of 144kps.

Still, the day that Sprint PCS or Verizon Wireless show examples of 144kps downloading of data they can claim that they have a 3G network. In comparison, AT&T and Cingular backed the GSM progression to 3G networks. They are announcing later launch dates and their GPRS network will have slower speeds than CDMA1X networks. AT&T is predicting a nationwide launch of GPRS services by the end of 2002. Cingular is looking for an early 2002 launch of nationwide services. The speeds AT&T is initially offering will be between 25kps and 35kps, and Cingular will be offering download speeds between 10kps and 20kps - this is a significantly slower than CDMA20001X.

To use 3G services, consumers obviously need both a 3G network and a 3G device. Industry analysts have openly questioned whether the handset manufacturers will have products ready for the network upgrades. Today, both Kyocera and LG offer CDMA2000 1X handsets, the other companies will be joining them subsequently. As for GPRS upgrades, Nokia, the leading handset manufacturer in the world, promised their GPRS (2.5G) handset, the 8390, by the end of 2001. Now Nokia is looking at an early 2002 launch, and Unstrung cannot buy one online to date. Keith Nowak, spokesperson for Nokia, says that it is "too early for specifics" for a launch date for their 3G handsets.

It is not too early for Qualcomm to give specifics for 3G CDMA handsets, says Dan Schrock, president of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. "These new 3G products will offer network operators up to twice the voice capacity of second-generation IS-95A/B chipsets, and will enable data rates of up to 153 kbps for the first time in North America, making wireless Internet surfing easier and faster, and paving the way for many new data services," he says.

Yes, the CDMA2000 1X devices support packet data rates of up to 153 kilobits per second (kbps). These future devices will also allow a variety of features, including dual-band and tri-mode radio configurations, color displays, dual display, Internet access, two-way SMS, voice-activated dialing and speaker-phone ability. As soon as Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS announce their national launch date expect stores to be stocked with them.

What is at Stake?

There are some of us who have pined for 3G for years now, but does the average American know or care about the space race to get there? An interesting question is the relative threat posed to AT& T and Cingular, if Sprint and Verizon should beat them to 3G by a number of months. (Once 3G standards are universal, any debating over types of service or types of device will be limited to the needs of the particular user - at least that's how the party line goes.) In the opinion of Unstrung, this like prerace qualifying for carriers, where they can jostle for pole position before 3G. Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS lead the pack at the start, but the race at this point is still too close to call.
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