Sprint Targets New G Spot

ATLANTA -- Supercomm -- You've used 2G, will maybe use 3G, might have heard about lab developments for 4G, but have you heard of XG?

Just what we don't need -- another G. But that's the handle Sprint Corp. has given to the futuristic Ethernet-based radio interface it has been developing as 3G's successor. "It's the next evolution of 3G," enthuses Khurram Sheikh, chief technology advisor at Sprint's broadband wireless division.

An enthusiasm not shared by attendees at the Supercomm 2002 session he was addressing -- probably because 2.5G has been a damp squib and 3G is limping out of the starting blocks (see Next-Gen Rollout Survey and Japan's 3G Needs a Kick Start).

Sheikh told the 3G-focused session that Sprint was already three months into trials involving three cells each in Houston, covering 500 homes, and Montreal, where the trial involves 200 "billing sites."

He says it will provide WLAN-equivalent bandwidth to homes and in the public domains across the wireless operator's 2.5GHz spectrum, currently used for MMDS (multichannel multipoint distribution service) operations. Sheikh describes the planned end result as "an Ethernet user experience in a wide-area wireless network."

Sprint would roll out such services using its existing PCS tower sites to capture the "home and portable broadband" markets, offering speeds up to about 20 Mbit/s. "We are very excited about the business case. It will be a very slow rollout, but very focused on profitability and the business case."

Separate, special customer devices would be needed at the start, adds Sheikh, but in time the technology would be integrated into PCMCIA cards that could be used in regular appliances such as laptops.

This seems to be a development that Sprint has been hiding under a bushel. Michael Doherty, a U.S.-based senior consultant at Ovum Ltd. who specializes in wireless and mobile developments, had never heard of XG. "This warrants further attention," says Doherty, slightly bemused by Sprint's plans. "It is a positive thing to look further than 3G. Is the atmosphere amenable to this? Maybe. There are a lot of ideas floating around." [Ed. note: And not all of them grounded in the real world.]

But considering the problems network operators have had getting 2.5G and 3G networks and services into the marketplace, is Sprint wasting time and money on a pipe dream when it should be focused on the here and now? Indeed, Sprint PCS (NYSE: PCS) is set to launch its CDMA2000 1xRTT service sometime this summer (see Guess When Sprint Will Launch Its 2.5G Service), a service it refers to as 3G but which Unstrung places firmly in the 2.5G camp, so talking up the successor to 3G might seem, well, just a bit hubristic.

"We are all looking to the future," says Paul Mankiewich, chief architect and CTO, mobility solutions, at Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), who witnessed Sprint's XG revelations. "We have built many prototypes for next-generation standards, with the main aim of hoping to reduce interference. But if this is not a standard technology then you will not have standard devices, which would mean very high prices for end-users, a situation that would kill anything."

Mankiewich adds that he recently addressed European mobile operators and had talked about research into so-called 4G. "They went mad. They were shouting that they hadn't even got 3G yet." A point worth remembering.

Sprint's Sheikh agrees that it's early days yet, and that cost is a major driver. "We would need scale -- it would have to have wide adoption as a wireless technology. There are plenty of challenges." Not least of which is getting anyone at Sprint to talk further about XG.

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung
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