Mobile

Super-fast technology may help speed wireless Web

Ma Bell is preparing wireless technology that could make today's "wireless Web" look like an old-fashioned telegraph system.

In the corridors of AT&T Labs, Ma Bell is preparing wireless technology that could make today's "wireless Web" look like an old-fashioned telegraph system.

Dubbed "fourth generation," or 4G, the technology is aimed at supercharging wireless access to the Internet over cell phones and other mobile devices. Where today's mobile-phone connections run at about a quarter the speed of dial-up modems, these systems could start about 90 times faster than a dial-up modem and go up from there.

But don't hold your breath waiting for it quite yet. AT&T executives say it will be about five years before the technology sees the light of day. And there's still a third generation of technology slowly being moved to market that has to launch first.

"The industry is still chewing and swallowing on third generation," said Nelson Sollenberger, who heads AT&T Labs' wireless research department. "That's a pretty big step."

The quest for faster wireless connections is driving considerable research and infrastructure investment across the industry, as companies aim to bring something like the ordinary Web to mobile phones.

The prospect alone has set off an explosion of investment and interest from the biggest Web sites in the world. In Japan, where wireless technology is more advanced than in the United States, the popular iMode mobile Net service attracts more than 150,000 new subscribers per week. The Yankee Group research firm estimates that more than 204 million phones worldwide will be able to get Net access by 2005, while more than 1 billion people will have cell-phone service.

Getting off the ground
But for all this excitement, the actual experience of surfing on mobile phones has proven slow and difficult. Even the best services in the United States have access only to a few dozen "Web" sites, which are slow-loading strings of text that are often difficult to navigate around.

The industry has long pointed to third generation, or 3G technologies now on the way, as the remedy for those ills, however.

Under those technologies, the speeds of downloads will jump from today's molasses-slow average of about 10 kilobits per second to averages of about 384 kilobits per second, or about as fast as an entry-level high-speed telephone Internet line.

That would be enough to offer things like streaming music and video over phones and provide access to Web graphics and other applications.

"Third generation finally gets you across the point where you can do really interesting things," said Rod Nelson, AT&T Wireless' chief technical officer.

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Getting to that point has taken years, however. The technologies were locked in a political battle for much of last year, as the industry tried to settle on a single wireless standard that would be used worldwide. That effort ultimately proved unsuccessful, and the companies instead agreed on a single "three-part" standard for third-generation systems.

Those high-speed technologies will begin reaching the commercial market in Japan as early as mid-next year, but will likely take another year or so to reach the United States as anything other than spotty market trials, analysts say. Several interim technologies will provide slightly faster connections for some U.S. consumers in the meantime.

"The problem is that it's been hyped for too long," said Larry Swasey, an analyst with communications consulting firm Allied Business Intelligence. "But we are starting to see it come to fruition."

Stepping forward
The fourth-generation wireless plans take advantage of several breakthroughs in technology, including some of the same techniques used by fiber-optic firms to boost the bandwidth available in the Internet backbone.

The result of the various techniques is to use the wireless airwaves far more efficiently than second- or third-generation systems, AT&T researchers say. At best, that means more people can use the same amount of wireless spectrum to do more things, along with doing those things considerably faster.

Researchers say that download speeds are likely to range between 5 megabits per second and 10 megabits per second, considerably faster than all but the very fastest home or office Net connections.

This effort will see story: Technology tussle underlies wireless Webrequire upgrades to a wireless infrastructure that is still going through massive changes on the way to third-generation technology, of course. That will slow down the time to market, as will any future standards battles over the worldwide direction for the technology.

Analysts note that consumers have to figure out how to use faster connections in the first place. Ordinary mobile phones, with small screens and number pads instead of keyboards, are badly adapted for high-speed applications. Mobile-phone companies have to figure out what kind of device customers will use for data, whether this is a PalmPilot-like handheld, a laptop computer, or something else entirely.

The slow evolution of third-generation technologies will help answer that question, analysts say.

"Certainly the infrastructure is being put out in piecemeal," Swasey said. "Now they just need to work on devices and content."