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ALTOM: How does 3G matter to your cell phone?

January 2, 2010

As of this writing, AT&T’s wireless division and Verizon Wireless are locked in mortal map combat. Every Verizon ad seems to feature a U.S. map colored with zones where each carrier claims to have “3G” coverage. Verizon’s near-total red coverage is contrasted with AT&T’s paltry patches of blue. AT&T has even sued Verizon to get those ads off the air.

I suspect most viewers of those commercials were unaware that there were ever Gs one or two, much less what 3G is all about. That’s because there wasn’t any 1G or 2G at the time. It took having the third one to put a number on a G.

“G” is short for “generation.” 3G is the third generation of cell technology. The first generation was pretty much a hybrid of radio and your ordinary home phone, known as “analog.” You might remember a 1970s TV show called “Mannix” that featured a private eye driving around in a variety of cars with a mobile phone. That phone was an analog one. Mannix had to call a mobile operator to dial his number. Phones from that era were not attractive or even particularly “mobile”: The Ericsson MTA, one of the first, weighed 90 pounds. They had very limited range and no security at all.

Real cell technology, where calls are handed off from tower to tower, started when Bell Laboratories worked out the standard in 1970 and called it “AMPS,” for “Advanced Mobile Phone System.” The first actual network launched in Chicago in 1978. Phones became smaller, but were still the size of bricks. It was the era of 1G, the love child of Alexander Graham Bell and Marconi.

As anyone who has ever tuned in to an AM radio can attest, you can’t make a lot of calls in a small geographic space using only analog radio. Engineers were well aware that moving to digital signals instead of analog would enormously boost the efficiency of their networks, but the technology was slow in coming. In 1991, the first digital phone network was flipped on, in the technological hotbed of Finland.

Digital technology offered several benefits to consumers, among which was “SMS,” or “Short Message Service,” which is still in use today, only we call it “texting.” The phone user could now surf the Web, after a fashion. 2G had arrived. Radio was now joined by computer technology, and hereafter your mobile phone wouldn’t just switch on, but reboot. Analog wouldn’t die out for some years, though, finally succumbing for good only in 2008.

Although phones now had digital capability, they were hungry for more: more speed, more features, more value for the dollar. Various standards appeared that promised one or all of these things. But there was concern that, like 1G and 2G (as well as other technologies), 3G might end up being dominated by whatever standards might be left standing in the marketplace, regardless of their technical merit. Consequently, a single organization, the International Telecommunication Union, promulgated a combined set of 3G standards in 2000.

The first 3G network went online in Japan even as the standards were emerging. Then one went live in South Korea. The United States got going with Monet Mobile Networks, but that didn’t last long, as Monet choked to death on red ink in 2004. The first U.S. company to get lasting traction in 3G was Verizon Wireless in 2001. AT&T and Sprint soon joined Verizon.

3G technology is specifically for today’s smart phones. There are some small benefits to 2G users, such as enhanced security. But mostly 3G is designed to make it easier to send video and other bandwidth-hungry material. To me, these capabilities are overkill for most users, and I suspect that, when you wipe away the gee-whiz factor, such phones are more than most people need. 3G is expensive for the carrier to implement, and that cost has to come out of customers’ pockets somehow.

And what of the red and blue maps? It turns out AT&T has indeed lagged behind Verizon in 3G coverage. Verizon’s entire network is 3G, in fact, while most of AT&T’s is still 2G. But I very much doubt that most customers will notice the difference. Verizon doesn’t spend much airtime actually laying out benefits of its 3G. Verizon assumes you’ll want them, even if you don’t know what they are.

3G is important if you want to push your smart phone to its electronic limits, but not otherwise. 3G may not be much of an improvement at all, in fact. The standard doesn’t actually specify lower limits for data transfer rate, so it’s possible you won’t get much better performance from 3G than from 2G. If all you do is text and make calls, the difference between a 2G and 3G network won’t matter to you in the slightest.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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