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Wireless Data Moves Up A Gear

By Tammy Parker

With cdmaOne technology speeding towards ever higher data transmission capabilities, operators are seeking to establish third generation network standards and to develop high-function hardware devices for sophisticated consumers. Tammy Parker

A combination of market drivers and technological advances is taking wireless data communications out of the Dark Ages of smoke-and-mirrors demonstrations into a more user-friendly environment.

In this environment, wireless subscribers will be able to get the network speeds they need, the devices they prefer and the applications they seek. And the cdmaOne community is poised to exploit these developments as it advances numerous high-speed data initiatives on the way to the next generation of wireless.

"Back in the early '90s, everybody was talking wireless data," recalls Perry LaForge, executive director of the CDMA Development Group. However, that talk didn't translate into mainstream success.

Despite these early setbacks, LaForge feels that wireless data offerings are now evolving to suit the horizontal market-that is, consumers-due to the simple fact that the Internet is becoming an everyday tool and users are demanding data mobility.

Wireless carriers have already notched up nine million data users worldwide, according to Sam Samra, CDG senior director of technology programs. Samra quotes studies showing that wireless data currently represents 10 per cent of all airtime. While success has been concentrated in vertical markets such as public safety, healthcare and transportation, he agrees with LaForge that the horizontal market for wireless data is growing. For instance, he notes, some 17 million people are expected to use wireless e-mail by 2002.
According to Craig Farrill, vice president of strategic technology for AirTouch Communications: "The Internet has changed user expectations of what data access means." He adds that the ability to retrieve information via the Internet has been "an amplifier of demand" for wireless data applications.

Correlation

In fact, various studies have uncovered a high correlation between Internet and wireless phone use. Analysts have reported that more than three-quarters of Internet users are also wireless users and that a mobile subscriber is four times more likely than a non-subscriber to use the Internet. Naturally, such keen interest in both industries is prompting user demand for converged services. And with more than half a billion Internet users expected by 2005, the potential market for Internet-related wireless data services is massive.
Operators of cdmaOne networks are well positioned to capitalize on these trends, in part because cdmaOne is ready-made for data. The technology turns voice into packetized data for delivery, and cdmaOne phones already integrate modems. Further, bandwidth on demand is inherent in CDMA and space is not wasted during idle periods.

"CDMA has made its mark in the evolution of second generation systems, and CDMA clearly will play a role in third generation systems," notes Bob Egan, research director with the Gartner Group. He adds, however, "with size comes responsibility", as cdmaOne supporters seek to create a thriving wireless data environment based on an evolutionary approach, with backward compatibility that preserves cdmaOne investments worldwide.

Of course, the CDG is quite active in arguing for a third generation standard that will converge the European Telecommunications Standards Institute's Wideband CDMA with the cdmaOne 3G solution, known as CDMA2000. A converged standard would encourage global economies of scale while helping incumbent operators leverage their existing investments. According to Anil Kripalani, Qualcomm's vice president of global standards planning, harmonization does not mean "our way or no way". The idea behind convergence is to take the best of the different CDMA standards and make one technically superior standard.

Even if a harmonized 3G standard is not settled upon, the cdmaOne community is moving ahead on big plans for a data-centric future. Farrill, who is also past president of the CDG, says the group is advancing five sets of data-enabled service offerings:

  • voice services, including high-quality voice coders and command features like voice-dialing;
  • wireless information, such as e-mail, news, weather, sports, location-based offerings, basic Internet access and other services that do not include images or video;
  • services that do include images and video such as mobile fax and image transfers;
  • network-based agent services that might include media translation services, such as computer-generated voice translations of e-mail for when a user is not able to read e-mail text or contact management applications;
  • and multimedia, which is a combination of the other four categories but offered as an "on-demand" service, with the different modes being accessible simultaneously as needed.

Development effort

As part of that development effort, the cdmaOne community is teaming up with information technology companies. "We have learned how much the computer community wants to cut the cord," says Farrill. The CDG, he says, has had "more meetings in the last year than ever before in its history" with Internet service providers and computing hardware and software vendors.

Farrill notes that AirTouch has also been working with numerous vendors on a variety of wireless data trials. The operator hopes to learn more about the data-access devices preferred by wireless users; the types of information users most often retrieve from the Internet; suitable system architectures in terms of servers and routers; and the real-world capabilities of wireless data networks. Farrill says trials show that today's cdmaOne circuit-switched wireless information services work well and are accepted by users.
In this age of unparalleled telecommunications competition, LaForge sees two critical factors for ongoing success: cost containment and sustained revenue growth. cdmaOne, he says, is uniquely positioned to satisfy both aims, with the technology's capacity attributes helping to keep down costs and the evolutionary higher-speed data path creating new opportunities for sales of value-added services.

Operators climbing the cdmaOne standards ladder to reach higher-speed data access have a number of choices to make, which parallel similar decisions being made by operators using other air interface technologies. Wireless operators can step on every rung by implementing each new data technology iteration. Or they can skip a rung or more, which might save them the cost of implementing multiple sequential standards but can also put carriers at risk of losing data market share while they wait for the subsequent generation to be ready for deployment. Fortunately, CDMA2000 technology has been designed such that second and third generation standards and services can exist in the same spectrum, allowing a cdmaOne operator ultimate flexibility in high-speed data deployment.
Currently, cdmaOne operators are operating under the IS-95A standard, which allows for circuit-switched data up to 14.4 kilobits per second using network software changes. Carriers and vendors are working within this standard to enhance the data and fax capabilities of cdmaOne. An enhancement, IS-707A, supports analog faxing. In some wireless local loop applications, handsets are being designed with analog-to-digital converters to also allow interaction with standard G3 fax technology.

The next rung on the cdmaOne evolutionary ladder takes a carrier to IS-95B, which delivers packet data at a sustained bit rate of 64 kbps. Samra says that IS-95B requires software and hardware changes to mobiles as well as software infrastructure changes. He adds that IS-95B product should enter the marketplace in the first quarter of 1999.
However, some carriers and vendors may opt to skip that revision and wait instead for the first phase of CDMA2000, the cdmaOne third generation solution. Phase one, also called IS95-C, CDMA2000 Basic or 1xRTT, promises packet data at a sustained bit rate of 144 kbps with software and hardware changes to handsets and infrastructure. 1x is a preliminary step to 3xRTT, envisioned to provide data rates of 1 Mbps to 2 Mbps.
The 1xRTT standard should be locked down in the first quarter of 1999, notes Alan Stoddard, director of CDMA product line management at Nortel Networks. Manufacturers are eyeing carrier trials of the technology starting late next year with the first commercial services appearing in 2000.

Lucent Technologies is among those vendors working on CDMA2000 high-speed data services via a 5MHz multi-carrier scheme. Bell Atlantic Mobile has already committed to phased introduction and testing of CDMA2000 services in 1999 using enhancements to its networks, which primarily operate over Lucent equipment. BAM has noted that because CDMA2000 is an evolutionary upgrade to existing technology, its customers will not need to surrender their current cdmaOne handsets when CDMA2000 services become available over the Lucent infrastructure. "Following an extensive testing program involving the two companies, including Bell Laboratories developers, the technology enhancement will be performed with minimal upgrades to the Lucent-supplied base stations," says the company.
Sprint PCS is committed to conducting 3G trials in late 1999 or early 2000, according to Keith Paglusch, the carrier's senior vice president of technical services and network operations. "We have instructed all of our vendors to move ahead with the CDMA2000 standard for 3G because that's the standard we're going to buy," he adds.

In the meantime, cdmaOne carriers also have a number of other data-enhancement options from which to choose. A fast wireless Internet access technology, Quick Net Connect, is already catching fire in the cdmaOne community. The technology was jointly developed by Qualcomm, 3Com and Unwired Planet and is implemented using the circuit-data standard. Designed for mobile-originated calls, QNC bypasses the public switched telephone network to link directly with packet data networks, thus saving on modem training time at call set-up and eliminating the need for modem pools. "Flavors of this are appearing in standards under development," says Samra. "One way or another, QNC will become a standard."

Another technology, Qualcomm's HDR (for high data rate), offers fast data over a dedicated 1.25 MHz channel that is not shared with voice traffic. According to Michelle French, manager of marketing communications for the company's Wireless Infrastructure Division: "Qualcomm wants HDR standardized. It's proprietary today, but that doesn't mean it will stay so." HDR will require access by HDR-compatible handsets. French says Qualcomm is developing ASICs for HDR-friendly handsets and base stations, with commercial ASIC production slated for the end of 1999 or beginning of 2000.

Enhancement

Furthermore, the CDG is working on designs for Mobile IP, an IP enhancement being specified by the Internet Engineering Task Force that could be tied into 1xRTT implementations. Samra says Mobile IP should be ready by early 1999. A primary benefit of Mobile IP is that it maintains data sessions through hand-offs by letting access devices roam while maintaining the same IP address. This is essential because packets of Internet information are delivered to specific IP addresses. Without Mobile IP, a mobile host gets a new IP address at each point of network attachment and data delivery cannot continue.

Mobile IP is based on the concept of a 'home agent', which tracks a mobile host's location and is affiliated with a static IP address on the home network, and a 'foreign agent', which supports mobility on a foreign network by providing routing to a visiting mobile host. Networks supporting Mobile IP will have to create foreign agents to deliver packets of information to the mobile host.

"Mobile IP is a fundamental enabler for the paradigm that says the successful model for wireless data is to take the connection you have into your corporate intranet and make it wireless," says Thomas Mitoraj, senior manager of product management and strategic planning at Motorola's Cellular Infrastructure Group. Mobile IP, adds Samra, "fits the mobile environment like a glove".

While cdmaOne network standards are moving quickly up the evolutionary data path, terminal vendors are trying to develop complementary end-user devices. One example is Qualcomm's pdQ smart phone, which combines a cdmaOne handset with a PalmPilot-type organizer. Commercial availability is slated for the first half of 1999. Because the pdQ is based on the popular Palm Computing platform, more than 1,000 productivity applications are immediately available to the device's users, including those enabling data synchronization between the pdQ and a personal computer.

Qualcomm will also release a software developers' kit for third-party development of applications. The pdQ itself includes three new Qualcomm-created applications for SMS alert management, e-mail and Web browsing.

Qualcomm is now going a step further by planning a Microsoft Windows CE-based smart phone. The company has also joined with Microsoft to create WirelessKnowledge, which will let carriers offer wireless data services on an OEM basis via the WirelessKnowledge network operations center.

The varied efforts by cdmaOne players show just how vibrant the non-voice market is becoming. A host of challenges remain, however, due in part to the fact that operators and vendors are faced with numerous decisions, both short- and long-term. Sprint's Paglusch notes that operators will choose different service deployment strategies, and infrastructure design must support all of them. Further, he adds, infrastructure vendors will have to accommodate targeted geographic deployments as well as complete network overlays. One critical issue is that handset requirements will have to be transparent to customers, points out Paglusch.

Yet because the evolutionary path of cdmaOne to CDMA2000 allows both groups of standards to co-exist on the same network in the same spectrum, carriers should be able to make incremental implementations of new technology as needed. Such flexibility can help new and incumbent cdmaOne carriers future-proof their networks as the data market gradually fulfils its long-held promise.