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3G branding absurd, admits Sprint rep

Inflationary pressure

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Both Intel and AMD have received been slammed for misleading customers by labeling processors according to a performance rating rather than clock frequency. The difference between the PR and the "equivalent" Mhz is pretty small: usually only a few per cent.

But what happens when telcos give their networks a "performance rating" that's half a generation out of step? That's exactly what Qualcomm, Nortel and Lucent have attempted to do - and thanks to an astonishing lack of vigilance from the press and consumer watchdogs, they appear to be succeeding. Rather than wait for the introduction of genuine wideband CDMA-based 3G services later this decade, Qualcomm's US carrier customers are being browbeaten into branding the 2.5G services as 3G.

Analog phones were the first generation (1G), digital the second (2G), and packet-based broadband the third (3G). But both popular air interfaces planned faster, packet-based upgrades to their 2G - the global GSM standard with GPRS, and CDMA with cdma2000. long-planned packet-data upgrades to their existing 2G networks - cdma2000 is the CDMA hence the half. Sprint launched its CDMA 1x service and brands its phones with a "3G" logo.

This G-inflation handily lops five years off the roadmaps, which is a boon if you're behind the curve, but it can hardly be considered honest marketing. Theoretically the 2.5G networks (which in CDMA land is called 1x RTT, and in GSM land GPRS) promises speeds of 144 kbps per channel, and 3G of 2 Mbps; in practice they handset receives data at about an eighth of that speed.

A Sprint representative speaking at a panel at Sun's Network conference in San Francisco this week admitted it was absurd.

"If Sprint calls its 2.5G network a 3G network," we asked, "what will it call its 3G network, when that's launched?"

Kevin Packingham a Business Marketing manager at Sprint explained that the new network offered dramatic data speed increases over 2G. But acknowledging that he was speaking in front of a fairly clueful group of international press analysts, concluded: "Yeah, you're right."

The bump from two and half, or two and three-quarters to three is the result of pressure, analysts tell us.

"Eighteen months ago," a wireless analyst told us speaking on condition of anonymity, "Qualcomm Nortel and Lucent started to insist we called it 3G. They came down very hard on analysts who called it 2.5G, which it is, as it's a simple upgrade," he said.

"Anyone who called it 2.5G was slammed."

Not that the sparring between the GSM companies and the CDMA interests has ever been pretty: characterized by "vicious backstabbing, byzantine intrigue and outright slander … like watching a rerun of "I, Claudius" without the orgy scenes," we described it here.

Denial of Service

Qualcomm insists that cdma2000 is and always has been 3G. It points to the ITU definition as proof.

It has a strong case that cdma2000 is superior to GPRS - it increases voice capacity, it's faster and it's more efficient: GPRS sessions are "suspended" when you take a voice call.

" The IS 95B packet data technology does not provide spectrum utilization efficiencies nor voice capacity increases compared to 3G1x," notes Sprint, in an FAQ.

But isn't bracketing cdma2000 together with services that are potentially eight times faster - such as the 'real' 3G specification W-CDMA misleading?

"There are some misconceptions out there," a Qualcomm spokesperson said.

There must be, as not everyone can be right:

In Korea, the sole CDMA stronghold outside the USA, cdma2000 is described as 2.5G. Publications either qualify the definition, or they don't: it depends on who holds the pen.

And even Qualcomm, when marketing cdma2000 to carriers, compared it to GPRS. Officially Qualcomm treats cdma2000 as "Phase One", with "Phase Two" being the 2 mb/s 3G.

This isn't meant to disparage the technology. Quite by coincidence on Monday we got a chance to play with a 3G-branded Sprint phone - not at the Sun show, but during Happy Hour at our city center watering hole - and the user experience of loading Java applet - games, in this case - was slick as we've seen anywhere. It's very good indeed.

But describing it as '3G' is only going to lead to confusion. Speaking in front of an international audience in San Francisco, Packingham won a warm reception for his honesty.

It still leaves the tantalizing question unanswered: when Sprint gets 3G-class 3G, what will it call the new service?

Anyone for 3.5G? ®

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