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The wireless alphabet soup

Here's a glossary of the acronyms, numbers and codes that describe wireless standards, networks and technologies.

7 min read

Every technology breeds its share of jargon and acronyms, none more so than wireless. As is evident in many stories focused on the 3GSM World Congress, now under way in Barcelona, Spain, there's a code for just about every category of wireless service, every network standard and every technical specification. This glossary, compiled by CNET News.com's Marguerite Reardon, explains many of the most commonly used terms.

3G (third-generation wireless)
The generic term for the next generation of mobile communications networks. 3G technology is commonly described as graceful enhancements to the GSM cellular standards; the GSM networks are intended to be upgraded to 3G networks without service interruption.

3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project)
A collaboration agreement that was established in December 1998 by standards bodies in Europe, Japan, China, North America and South Korea. The scope of 3GPP was to create a globally applicable 3G mobile-phone system that would fit into the International Telecommunications Union's International Mobile Telecommunications-2000, or IMT-2000, project. 3GPP specifications are based on evolved GSM specifications, now generally known as the UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) system.

BREW (Binary Runtine Environment for Wireless)
Developed by wireless-technology specialist Qualcomm to provide a standard set of application-programming interfaces for developers to easily add new features and applications to Qualcomm-based wireless hardware. BREW makes it possible for developers to create portable applications that will work on any handset equipped with CDMA chipsets.

CDMA (code division multiple access)
A packet-based wireless-access technology that was improved and commercialized by Qualcomm. CDMA is used in certain cellular phone systems and in some wireless local-area networks, or WLANs. The major benefit of CDMA is increased capacity, up to 20 times that of analog service.

CDMA increases capacity through more efficient use of spectrum. Specifically, it permits many radios to share the same frequency channel. Unlike TDMA (time division multiple access), a competing system used in GSM, all radios using CDMA can be active all the time because network capacity does not directly limit the number of active radios. Since larger numbers of phones can be served by smaller numbers of cell sites, CDMA-based standards have a significant economic advantage over older, TDMA-based standards.

CDMA2000 (CDMA version of IMT-2000 standard)
A family of 3G mobile telecommunications standards that use CDMA. CDMA2000 is an incompatible competitor of the other major 3G standard, known as WCDMA and UMTS.

DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld)
The latest development within the set of DVB transmission standards, which can be used by mobile operators to multicast digital television signals to mobile handsets. DVB-H technology adapts the DVB system for transmission of digital television to handheld, battery-powered receivers.

Commercial launches of DVB-H services are expected in 2006 in Italy, and the Crown Castle International's Modeo is building a U.S. overlay network based on DVB-H that it hopes to sell to mobile operators. Nokia, Intel and Motorola have formed an alliance to promote the standard.

EDGE (Enhanced Data for GSM Environment)
A digital mobile-phone technology that acts as a bolt-on enhancement to 2G (second-generation) and 2.5G General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) networks. This technology works in TDMA and GSM networks. EDGE (also known as EGPRS) can function on any network with GPRS deployed on it, provided the carrier implements the necessary upgrades.

EDGE can offer Internet connectivity and high-speed data applications such as video services and other multimedia benefits. It has been touted as the final stage of GSM standards and is intended to support data rates of up to 384kbps. Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile have EDGE networks in the United States.

EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) or 1xEV-DO
A wireless radio broadband data standard adopted by many CDMA mobile-phone service providers in Japan, Korea, Brazil, Israel, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Venezuela and Mexico. It was originally developed by Qualcomm and was standardized by 3GPP as part of the CDMA2000 family of standards.

In the U.S., Verizon Wireless and Sprint have completed significant deployments of 1xEV-DO. Alltel has also deployed EV-DO to a few markets as of January 2006. EV-DO roaming between carriers is currently not available in North America.

FLO (Forward Link Only)
A technology developed by Qualcomm and commercialized by a division of the company called MediaFlo. FLO is a multicast technology that was designed to increase the capacity and reduce the cost of delivering video, audio and other content to large numbers of users simultaneously.

It transmits packets using OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), a modulation technology that sends multiple signals at different frequencies to get the maximum use out of spectrum bandwidth. It was designed for markets where dedicated spectrum is available and where regulations permit high-power transmission from one or a small number of towers. FLO is also complementary to existing cellular networks using the CDMA2000, EV-DO or WCDMA cellular links. FLO is intended to be an alternative to other multimedia multicasting technologies, such as DVB-H.

GPRS (General Packet Radio Service)
A mobile data service available to users of GSM mobile phones. It is often described as 2.5G--that is, a technology between the second generation (2G) and third generation (3G) of mobile telephony. It provides moderate-speed data transfer by using unused TDMA channels in the GSM network.

GSM (Global System Mobile Communications)
The standard digital cellular phone service that you will find in Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere. GSM is also used in the U.S., but it uses a different frequency than that in other parts of the world. Cingular supports GSM.

HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access)
A new mobile-telephony protocol that's often called 3.5G or 4G Internet. Its purpose is to increase the download speeds of the WCDMA networks. Other technologies it competes with include CDMA2000 1x (or CDMA2000 1xEV-DO), as well as data communication standards such as WiMax.

Cingular announced in December that it plans to deploy UMTS with expansion to HSDPA in 18 markets. By the end of 2006, Cingular will have UMTS service in the top 100 markets in the United States. Cingular currently has 16 cities using HSDPA with speeds of 400kbps to 700kbps under the brand name BroadbandConnect. Cingular faces competitive pressure from operators such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint, which are using EV-DO.

HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access)
A data access protocol for mobile-phone networks that aims to increase upload speeds of WCDMA networks. As they do with HSDPA, some people refer to HSUPA as 3.5G or 4G mobile Internet. While most Internet applications, such as Web surfing, music and video downloads, and e-mail, rely heavily on downlink speeds, applications such as video conferencing also require fast upload speeds. The specifications for HSUPA are still under development.

MIMO (multiple input, multiple output)
Refers to the use of more than one antenna to send and receive two or more unique data streams over the same channel simultaneously in wireless devices, resulting in networks with long ranges and high throughputs. It is currently the primary basis for the proposed 802.11n wireless transmission standard. In some cases, wireless networks using MIMO technology can reach more than 300 feet and still send and receive data at 30mbps.

TD-SCDMA (Time Division-Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access)
A 3G standard developed by Siemens and Datang of China. TD-SCDMA has spectrum efficiency (a measure of the number of users that can receive a transmission in a given geographic area) that makes it appropriate for densely populated regions. The spectral efficiency is three to five times better than GSM.

WCDMA (wideband code division multiple access)
Another name for UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), a cellular network also referred to as 3GPP. As the name suggests, WCDMA is based on CDMA technology and was envisioned for the next generation of GSM. It's a European standard designed to support data transmission rates of 144kbps for use in vehicles, 384kbps for pedestrian use and up to 2mbps for use indoors.

WiBro (Wireless Broadband)
A wireless broadband Internet technology being developed by Korean telecommunications companies. In February 2002, the Korean government allocated 100MHz of electromagnetic spectrum in the 2.3GHz band, and in late 2004, WiBro Phase 1 was standardized by the TTA (Telecommunications Technology Association) of Korea.

WiBro base stations will offer an aggregate data throughput of 30mbps to 50mbps and allow Internet usage within a radius of 3.1 miles. WiBro uses only licensed radio spectrum, which all but eliminates the chance of interference from other transmissions. SK Telecom and Hanaro Telecom have announced a partnership to roll out WiBro nationwide in Korea, excluding Seoul and six provincial cities, where independent networks will be installed.

Wi-Fi or WLAN (Wireless Local Area Networks)
A wireless network based on a series of specifications from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) called 802.11. Wi-Fi uses unlicensed radio frequency, mostly in the 2.4GHz band. It enables a person with a wireless-enabled computer or PDA to connect to the Internet via a wireless access point. The geographical region covered by one or several access points is called a hot spot.
Wi-Fi was intended to be used for mobile devices and local-area networks, but it is now often used for Internet access outdoors. Several cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, plan to install citywide Wi-Fi systems for use by all citizens in each municipality.

There are several types of Wi-Fi: 802.11a (offering transmission speeds of 24mbps to 54mbps), 802.11b (6mbps to 11mbps) and 802.11g (24mbps to 54 mbps). 802.11n (50mbps to 100mbps) is a proposed specification that will become a Wi-Fi standard once it's finalized by the IEEE, and the Wi-Fi Alliance completes its interoperability testing.

WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access)
Also known as the IEEE 802.16 group of standards, defines a packet-based wireless technology that provides high-throughput broadband connections over long distances. WiMax can be used for a number of applications, including "last mile" broadband connections, hotspots and high-speed connections for businesses. The mobile standard 802.11e was just ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a standards-making body, in January 2006.

WiMax is similar to Wi-Fi in concept, but it has certain features aimed at improving performance and that should permit usage over much greater distances. WiMax supports peak data speeds of about 20mbps, with average user data rates between 1mbps and 4mbps. Transmission distances range from a few hundred feet in densely populated areas to between 1 and 2 miles in suburban areas. It uses a combination of licensed and unlicensed bandwidth. Intel, along with several corporate sponsors, is working with the wireless industry to drive deployment of WiMax networks.