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Going 3G: Can you hear me now?

The decision to "go 3G" requires careful consideration. Here Lisa Phifer outlines several factors that will assist you in making an informed decision about when and how to invest in 3G wireless services.

In last month's column, 3G wireless: The long and winding road, we explored the complex history of wireless wide...

area networking. We saw how isolated first-generation voice services evolved into second-generation national and international networks capable of carrying voice and data. We learned how capacity was increased by sending packet-switched data over new radio technologies such as GPRS/EDGE and CDMA2000 1xRTT. Today, those interim 2.5G technologies are being replaced by their third-generation descendants: UMTS/HSDPA and 1xEV-DO/EV-DV.

In this month's column, we look at carriers that offer these high-speed wireless broadband services and at factors to consider when making your move to 3G.

Coverage is key
In the U.S., carriers are building out 3G networks, focusing on major metropolitan areas. Where 3G service is unavailable, devices fall back to older, slower networks – your UMTS card will try EDGE, then GPRS; your EV-DO smartphone will down-shift to 1xRTT. Thus, a primary consideration is true 3G coverage. Identify and prioritize the geographic areas where employees work, live, and travel. Compare those needs against carrier broadband network coverage maps to determine where 3G service is likely.

Suburban areas where 3G is now spotty may soon improve. Rural areas where 3G is nonexistent may stay that way for quite a while. Don't buy 3G expecting ubiquitous coverage today -- you will be disappointed. To set realistic expectations, take a test drive in locations where true 3G will be critical for you. That might be corporate headquarters, cities where your salespeople spend most of their time, regions serviced by field technicians -- needs vary widely, so don't assume that someone else's carrier is right for you. Even modest investment in trial use can pay huge dividends in larger rollouts.

To learn more about 3G services and current coverage, follow these links:

  • Cingular Wireless: HSDPA BroadbandConnect service is available in more than 50 cities, listed here. National GPRS/EDGE data coverage can also be found here.

  • Sprint Nextel: EV-DO Mobile Broadband service is available in 220 metro markets and 466 airports, listed here. Note that maps show both current and planned EV-DO coverage and Sprint's older Nationwide PCS network.

  • T-Mobile: UMTS and HSDPA are currently available outside the U.S., but only GPRS and EDGE are available within T-Mobile's U.S. network today.

  • Verizon Wireless: EV-DO Broadband Access service is now available in 181 metro areas and 72 airports, including cities listed here. Both Broadband Access and National Access (1xRTT) coverage maps can be viewed here.

The need for speed
In a worldwide mobile usability study conducted by Action Engine Corporation, 64% of mobile data service users found the experience of searching the Web on their mobile phones disappointing or somewhat disappointing. Top culprits were data entry difficulty and slow response times. Data entry should be considered when selecting a mobile device – for example, QWERTY keyboards and thumb wheels are important for email and Web access, respectively. Response time must be evaluated when selecting a wireless service.

Advertised 3G data rates reflect total capacity, under optimal conditions. In practice, data rates vary, influenced by such factors as signal strength and number of users. For example, Cingular Broadband Connect, Verizon Broadband Access, and Sprint Mobile Broadband all advertise average or typical download speeds of 400-700 Kbps, with peak rates (or bursts) up to 2 Mbps. Furthermore, devices may fall back to 2.5G services automatically, but users still feel the impact of lower bandwidth through slower application response. Mobile users who wander into extended coverage holes of course feel the pain of application disconnection/restart.

To avoid unpleasant surprises, specify concrete application requirements for throughput, response time, and connection duration. Then benchmark a prospective carrier's 3G service in representative locations. If you require large file downloads or uploads, for example, repeatedly transfer sample binary and text files to measure average throughput and success ratio. If you need good Web response time, average results from an Internet bandwidth meter such as CNET, 2Wire or PCPitStop. If you require sustained mobile connectivity, listen to an audio stream while roaming the coverage area. Bear in mind that upstream and downstream capacities differ, and that device, location and movement all matter. Your objective should be to build confidence in a service's ability to meet your needs – not to prove that the service will always exceed your needs.

Hard decisions
3G services can be accessed from PDAs and smartphones with embedded wireless modems or from laptops equipped with wireless connection cards. Many factors -- such as target applications and intended usage -- play a role in device selection. In this tip, we consider another important factor: carrier support.

It is possible to use an "unsupported device" on a given carrier's network -- for example, I once purchased an unlocked T-Mobile PDA and used it with my Cingular phone's SIM card and GPRS/EDGE data service. But this approach can result in interoperability problems and support issues. For best results, choose a 3G device that is not only compatible with your carrier's network but is explicitly supported. For example:

  • Cingular sells two HSDPA-capable PC cards: the Option GT Max and Sierra Wireless Aircard 860 PC Modem. Cingular also supports the HSDPA cards embedded in some new Dell, Lenovo and Sony laptops.

  • Verizon sells several EV-DO devices, including Verizon Wireless PC 5740, V620 and Kyocera KCP650 PC cards; BlackBerry 7130 and 7250 PDAs; and Motorola Q and Samsung SCH i730 smartphones. Laptops with Verizon 3G on board have been announced by Dell, HP and Lenovo.

  • Sprint Mobile Broadband PC cards include the PC-5740, Sierra Wireless AirCard 580 and Novatel Wireless S620; and PDAs include the BlackBerry 7130e, Treo 700p and PPC-6700. Sprint 3G-compatible laptops include the Panasonic Toughbook.

Most carriers severely discount equipment purchased with a one- or two-year service contract but charge $175 per device for early cancellation. Some also offer equipment upgrade discounts to existing customers. Either way, it makes good sense to buy 3G hardware and services at the same time.

The bottom line
Cost plays a major role in choosing a 3G service. Surveys show that half of those companies not planning to use mobile data services perceive cost as the top barrier, with "value for the price" being the most important characteristic in making purchase decisions.

3G service plans are available to individuals, small businesses and large enterprises. Discounts are usually given to those who purchase both voice and data services on the same plan. Employers can negotiate volume prices when purchasing 3G services directly or discounts to be applied when employees sign up for individual service plans.

Metered data plans charge for bytes sent and received, whereas unlimited plans incur a predictable monthly fee whether you use the service or not. Businesses should ask about plans that let a pool of users share prepaid bandwidth, particularly for employees who will use data services infrequently (on the occasional business trip, etc.). Mobile employees who become addicted to wireless email – the crack-berry syndrome – will obviously need unlimited data plans. Keeping in mind that corporate discounts vary, here are some published data plan rates from several U.S. carriers:

  • Sprint: Laptop connection plans start at $39.99 for 40 MB or $79.99 for unlimited data (discounted to $59.99 for Sprint voice customers).

  • Verizon: Broadband Access unlimited data plans start at $59.99, with combined voice/data plans and metered data plans also available.

  • Cingular: Laptop Connect data plans start at $19.99 for 5 MB, plus $0.008 per additional KB, or $59.99 for unlimited data when purchased with a voice plan for the same device.

Other plan options to consider include the ability to use a 3G phone as a data modem (for those who use both smartphones and laptops), bundling of Wi-Fi hot-spot plans with 3G plans (for travelers who visit non-3G areas with local hot spots), and support for international roaming (when using a "global" wireless device). Finally, consider enterprise mail service connectors and value-added mobile applications – for example, field force management, fleet administration, and salesforce automation applications from Verizon, Cingular and Sprint.

Eventually, many workforces will benefit from the high speed and mobile reach of 3G wireless. Like any significant investment in network services, the decision to "go 3G" requires careful consideration. We hope the factors outlined in this tip will help you to make informed decisions about when and how to invest in 3G wireless services.

About the author Lisa Phifer is vice president of Core Competence Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and management technology. Phifer has been involved in the design, implementation, and evaluation of data communications, internetworking, security, and network management products for nearly 20 years. She teaches about wireless LANs and virtual private networking at industry conferences and has written extensively about network infrastructure and security technologies for numerous publications. She is also a site expert to SearchMobileComputing.com and SearchNetworking.com.
This was last published in July 2006

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