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Home Page Editorial
(July 25,  2001)

From Publisher and Managing Editor's Desk... 

Would 2.5G GPRS Wireless Networks suffice for Today? 

Six months ago, 3G was the most-widely used word at wireless conferences and shows. The telecom industry was still buoyant. Financials were strong. Sky was blue and there were very few clouds in the sky. A trivia reporter recently commented that the cumulative number of times 3G was used in news releases, glossies and business plans of wireless companies had reached an all-time high. The skyscape has changed a lot.  Pragmatism has taken over. Incremental migration involving minimum capital investment is the recommended strategy. In this context, 2.5G GPRS is the new buzz word. Microcell, a Canadian GSM provider has announced GPRS availability wherever their footprint reaches.  AT&T has also taken the first step in Seattle, USA.  We make following observations on this important change in the strategy of wireless network operators.  

  1. In our view, phased migration from 2G to 2.5G and ultimately to 3G is a good strategy for a number of reasons. Therefore, we welcome efforts by Microcell, AT&T and Cingular to inject some realism in how fast we must change the wireless infrastructure landscape. Many others have revised their strategies during the past three months. Still others are working hard at doing so.

  2. 3G is a more revolutionary change from 2G, requiring a huge capital expenditure and a major implementation process for network operators. Holistic handset specifications from a manufacturers perspective, functional perspective and software architecture perspective have not been finalized. During the last one year, there was a lot of hot air, there were many poorly-drafted design specifications and finally there was a lot of wishful thinking on the part of network vendors who thought that they could drive this market anyway they wanted. The network power houses did not realize that it was not about bandwidth, megahertz, spectral efficiency and TDMA/CDMA debate.  The real debate was about providing personal and professional value to businesses and consumers. 

  3. There are multiple ways to go from point "A" to point "B". In this context, 2.5G GPRS is one of ways that makes more sense for some of the operators, not necessarily all. There are other migration paths that have different problems and benefits. The operators must tradeoff the potential benefits with their chosen approach against those problems. In this analysis, network operators' technological roots and their end destination must be considered.

  4. We recognize and support standards like GSM that has a bigger following than CDMA and TDMA. However, in the interest of standards and standards alone, we can not and must not ignore a superior technology like CDMA and WCDMA. We can afford to have two competing standards. We bring attention to Andy Seybold's recent analysis wherein he showed that in the long run, CDMA is superior for spectral efficiency.  Therefore, we should devise a strategy to give immediate speed and capacity relief by implementing GPRS now where appropriate and then moving to a superior WCDMA standard. 1xRTT may be a perfectly valid strategy for other operators.

  5. Let us encourage and watch closely the 3G trials in Japan, Korea and South America.. As far as other regions of the world (North America primarily and Europe to some extent) are concerned, we must not abandon 3G plans. We do need the capacity and speed that 3G will provide. Therefore, we should just change the time-table for implementing 3G.

  6. Operators must encourage more efficient application design and optimized use of bandwidth whether it is 2G, 2.5G or even 3G. Application network traffic demand will always outstrip available capacity. 

More analysis coming on this topic soon, including our interview with Microcell of Montreal, Canada. Come back next week.

Chander Dhawan - Your Site's Principal Consultant and Publisher

Do you want to make any comments on this editorial? Sent Us Your Comments

Here are reader's comments. 

Dear Chander Dhawan,

I just read your editorial "Would 2.5G GPRS Wireless Networks suffice for Today?" While I agree with much of what you say, I'd like to make a couple of observations.

The wireless industry has never adopted a formal definition of "2.5G" wireless. As a result, GPRS and the first phase of cdma2000 have been lumped together. Let's take a closer look.

GPRS was originally defined to deliver speeds up to 150 kb/s. But in practice, GPRS is delivering speeds of 8 - 30 kb/s. The IS-95B version of cdmaOne, ostensibly a "2G" technology, offers a 64 kb/s mode. Thus, the only remaining advantage of GPRS is that it is packet switched. But so is
Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), which has been around for nearly a decade and runs 19.2 kb/s. The bottom line is that at best GPRS delivers a modest improvement over CDPD and IS-95B using familiar TDMA and packet switching technology.

The other point that deserves more discussion is the status of W-CDMA. The business press has been reporting for some time that W-CDMA is the preferred standard around the world. That may be so, but the most popular paper standard doesn't always win. There are serious questions about when W-CDMA will be ready for full commercial service. cdma2000 (phase 1), in contrast,
is already in commercial service in S. Korea. Given that full commercial W-CDMA service is nowhere in sight, and some industry leaders are admitting that it is at least two years away, it seems time to ask whether W-CDMA could turn out to be too little, too late -- and (compared to cdma2000) way too expensive.

I agree with you that the wireless industry should move full steam ahead with next generation services. But it's time to stop pretending that GPRS is a major step in that direction. It is actually just a modest enhancement to 2G technology and does nothing to bring radio networks closer to 3G -- that requires switching to a CDMA paradigm. And it's time to stop propping up W-CDMA as the preferred standard when there is no concrete evidence that it is competitive with cdma2000. The only thing W-CDMA has going for it is a protected market in Europe. Plus, when writing about W-CDMA much of the business press seems to have suspended the healthy skepticism that has always been applied to cdmaOne and cdma2000. Personally, I have my doubts about whether vendors who spent years resisting the move to a CDMA paradigm have suddenly acquired the ability and passion to lead such a transition.

I also agree that there are more pieces to the puzzle. In fact, I know an inferior technology can win if used with a superior business model. But that usually applies to technologies that are just different flavors of the same paradigm. A new technology paradigm often enables more powerful business models.

Another problem in our industry, I think, is that we tend to believe the current market leader (the GSM industry) has so much clout that they can overcome all challenges. In my experience, the current leader does have a huge marketing advantage, but when confronted with a new technology paradigm may actually be at a disadvantage. The current leader is usually *not* in a rush to abandon the technology that got them to where they are. They pose as leaders of the new paradigm if only because they want to control (and slow) the transition. So now we are hearing (predictably) from Europe that 3G will take longer than thought, even though cdma2000 appears to be right on schedule.

Ira Brodsky
Datacomm Research Company
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