3G networks get reality check

When carriers broke ground on third-generation cellular networks, some bragged of trouncing 56kbps dial-up. But with 3G networks up, one thing's clear: They're slow.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
Several years back, when wireless carriers broke ground on third-generation cell phone networks, some businesses bragged of systems fast enough to blow by the 56kbps experience of Web providers like America Online.

But with those 3G wireless networks now up and running,

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one thing's clear: The same landline dial-up services the carriers hoped to challenge aren't having any trouble keeping up--in fact, they're faster.

The new 3G networks are designed to deliver peak speeds of between 115kbps and 144kbps, something far above what AOL could ever offer. But instead of being twice as fast, under the best of circumstances the networks can barely match the speed of a typical America Online surfing session, according to figures provided by carriers. During the equivalent of a telephone network's rush hour--the sort of traffic load a 3G subscriber is likely to face--some Web pages arrive at less than half the speed of a landline dial-up connection.

"We tried real hard not to hype that peak number," of 144kbps, said Keith Nowak, a representative for handset maker Nokia. "But some other parties might have been more likely to hype it. In the long term, it's better to use the more realistic speeds."

For now, any disappointment over a network's performance will affect only the earliest users. But the situation doesn't bode well for an industry hoping to recoup the cost of building these new networks by selling downloadable games or business applications needing speed to succeed. And the success or failure of these new services could also affect other companies, including Microsoft, which is hoping to scrape together increased revenue by offering more mobile services.

One analyst believes the actual performance of the networks raises the question of why they were built at all.

"You build this big network, and all you can offer is a 20kbps download?" said IDC analyst Keith Waryas, referring to the low end of a typical Web session on new networks from AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile. "That's not much of an improvement over what the carriers already had."

Jim Gerace, a Verizon Wireless representative, said the carrier's been saying all along that it's more likely that a subscriber to its Express Network, which peaks at 144kbps, will have Web sessions between 40kbps and 60kbps on average.

"Some will experience even better than that," Gerace said. "But 40 to 60 is the number we're sticking with."

AT&T Wireless, the nation's third-largest carrier, says subscribers to its new mMode service can expect on crowded days to download pages

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at 20kbps to 30kbps. The speeds drop to between 10kbps and 20kbps if someone's trying to do the wireless equivalent of a marathon: download video using a heavily trafficked network, according to figures provided by AT&T Wireless.

mMode will eventually replace the carrier's PocketNet wireless Web service, an 8-year-old effort that uses AT&T Wireless' Cellular Digital Packet Data network. CDPD operates at 19.2kbps and has an average user experience of between 5kbps and 9kbps. mMode uses the more advanced General Packet Radio Service cell phone standard.

"Streaming media wouldn't even work at all over CDPD," said AT&T Wireless Chief Technology Officer Rod Nelson.

AT&T Wireless also became the first GPRS carrier in the United States to begin testing a network that uses equipment the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers considers capable of delivering about 2.4mbps downloads.

The tests are taking place in Dallas, where phones are downloading files at close to 400kbps. The company is deliberately choosing to test the equipment at a data rate that's far below the network maximum, Nelson said.

"This is a test network," Nelson said. "You shouldn't assume anything."

In an e-mail, a T-Mobile representative said the average user experience on its GPRS network is about 40kbps. T-Mobile launched its nationwide GPRS service in late 2001.

Sprint PCS's new telephone network uses the same technology as that of Verizon Wireless, and also peaks at 144kbps. The carrier describes an average user's experience at between 40kbps and 60kbps. A Sprint PCS representative didn't immediately respond to a call seeking comment.