The skinny on CTIA Wireless 2006

Wireless-service providers and equipment makers gather in Las Vegas to tout the latest.

The wireless industry has headed for the desert.

This week in Las Vegas, mobile-phone operators and vendors will rub elbows with media and entertainment giants as they set the stage for what's coming next in mobile wireless.

The CTIA Wireless 2006 trade show, the biggest event of its kind in the U.S., is expected to attract some 40,000 attendees and will showcase speakers and products from big mobile-phone companies such as Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile. Also prominent among the speakers and exhibitors are mobile-service suppliers such as Nortel Networks and Siemens, handset makers Motorola, Nokia and others, and media and entertainment companies such as AOL, CBS, Disney, ESPN, HBO, MTV and Yahoo.

This mingling of service, gear and content providers reflects the fact that wireless handsets increasingly are taking on new functions. They serve not only as phones, but also as mini TVs, MP3 music players, cameras and even as gateways to the Internet. Mobile operators and handset makers have already begun working with media and entertainment companies to adapt content for the small screen and mobile environment.

For the most part, the next generation of mobile wireless features and services--from mobile TV to full-fledged online access--has already been determined. Now the industry must figure out how to deliver all these new services and applications to the masses.

Speeding up delivery
Number one on the list of issues to be debated at this year's CTIA is where the mobile networks of today will go from here. As networks are flooded with higher volumes of interactive content, faster download speeds will be required.

There are several technologies to choose from when it comes to supercharging the network. Will it be WiMax, designed to provide greater coverage than Wi-Fi wireless service, or will it be the next generation of cellular technology? Then there are the mobile broadcast technologies being developed by subsidiaries of Qualcomm and Crown Castle, which create separate "overlay" networks for delivering live TV.

The industry will also be debating the impact of a growing number of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), which include ESPN, and the Walt Disney Company's Disney Mobile, which is scheduled to launch during the show this week.

Even though phone companies have spent billions of dollars upgrading their cellular networks, they still offer limited capacity. Today's 3G wireless networks, for example, transmit only between 400 kilobits per second and 700kbps per user--not enough to replace wire-line broadband connections.

The new mobile WiMax standard, IEEE 802.11e, ratified in December, is considered a promising next-generation wireless technology because it supports high data rates and has a long transmission reach. The technology supports peak data speeds of about 20 megabits per second with average-user data rates between 1mbps and 4mbps. Transmission distances range from a few hundred feet, in densely populated areas, to between one and two miles, in suburban areas.

A WiMax combination?
Cellular still has a longer reach than WiMax, but supporters of WiMax believe that cellular operators could use the technology to augment their networks and provide more capacity for data applications like mobile Web surfing or e-mailing. Mobile operators might also deploy the technology within densely populated areas while using their farther-reaching cellular technologies to service customers in more rural areas.

Intel and Motorola have been collaborating to develop products that can use the mobile WiMax technology. Intel is already working to put WiMax silicon in notebooks starting in 2007. The effort is widely expected to create a mainstream market for WiMax, just as Intel's Centrino platform did for 802.11 Wi-Fi. Motorola and Samsung are also expected to demonstrate the Korean version of WiMax, called WiBro, during CTIA.

But WiMax isn't the only next-generation mobile broadband technology on the table. Qualcomm, which acquired Flarion Technologies last year, plans to use its Flash OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) technology, a modulation technology that sends multiple signals at different frequencies to get the maximum use out of spectrum bandwidth. The company is expected to talk at CTIA about its plans to put the Flarion technology into handset chips.

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