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3G mast wars ahoy!

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If you think the mobile phone mast wars have been bad so far, you ain't seen nothing yet. That's according to 3G equipment and software suppliers, who estimate that if 3G is to replace GSM as planned, the networks will need three to four times as many transmitters as they have today.

Peter Jones, strategy and marketing director at wireless performance engineering specialist Actix, warned a conference this week: "A substantial build-out will be needed when traffic takes off - the networks will probably need to be four times as big.

"For example, Orange has around 20,000 cells, it might get to 3G with 40,000 to 50,000. The big problem is regulation - the agony of getting local government to agree to new sites. Re-using existing sites is the opening gambit - it won't scale though, and they're not in the right places."

At issue is the fact that GSM propagates differently from the WCDMA technology used in 3G networks. For a start, how GSM cells overlap is adjusted remotely by altering the frequency each transmits at, but WCDMA is all on one frequency, so adjustment means an engineer visiting the base station and physically realigning the transmitters.

Then there's the way a WCDMA cell responds to increasing usage by effectively shrinking, a phenomenon called cell breathing. This means you need more overlapping cells to provide good coverage - and also that the best site for a GSM mast is not necessarily the best for a 3G one.

"WCDMA is much more dynamic than GSM - users interfere with each other," Jones continued. "Today's networks are focused on coverage. If subscribers really used services such as video streaming and data, the networks would collapse."

"3G networks are not ready yet for widespread adoption," confirmed Mark Hoogerbrugge, worldwide business development manager for test equipment maker Agilent. He added that operators are only now focusing on the data performance of their networks, which is of course vital if they are to sell us anything beyond basic voice services and still make money at it.

He said that classic radio frequency planning and optimisation is pointless in 3G - the only way is to physically adjust the transmitters, then take a measuring rig (from Agilent, natch!) and go "drive testing", using network services such as streaming video, web, email and voice in different locations to see how they perform.

The irony is that both Jones and Hoogerbrugge were speaking at a press event in London, designed to promote 3G and show how far it has come.

They still argue it will succeed though, saying that site or even network sharing may help, as is already done or planned in places such as Sweden. However, there are only 45,000 sites in the UK today, so even with some sharing, more will be needed.

It all poses uncomfortable questions for the 3G operators. They want to believe that WCDMA is the future, but it could just be a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, where everyone involved has invested so much time, technology and money that no-one dares to admit they've picked a wrong 'un. ®

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