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The holy hype around 3G

Cell phone inventor Martin Cooper explains why he believes 3G is still failing the wireless industry.

Have third-generation services failed the wireless industry? Martin Cooper, the man credited with inventing the cell phone, thinks so.

Cooper, chief executive of broadband wireless provider ArrayComm, is among the tens of thousands of telecommunications executives at the ITU Telecom World 2003 conference in Geneva this week to attend the event sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union. Even with the telecom industry in serious decline, the show is still four times the size of Comdex.

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Martin Cooper, chairman and CEO, ArrayComm

Cooper said his Geneva plans include focusing on what he calls the telephone industry's biggest failure: the usage of wireless technology to deliver broadband to the masses. Before leaving for Europe, Cooper spoke with CNET about why he believes 3G will continue to disappoint.

Q: What is the main point you want to get across when you get to Geneva?
A: I'm going to focus on this holy hype around 3G. The carriers have been promising this stuff for the last five years. But those of us who are engineers have known that the key things are just not deliverable.

What are these key things you're talking about?
Multimedia is not deliverable. That's been their magic word. We'll all be doing multimedia. But if you think you can experience the power of the Internet on a 1-inch screen, you've got to be out of your mind. What makes you say that?
The carriers are talking about things like 2-megabits-per-second download rates.
It's been a history of trying to squeeze applications into a particular technology.
In reality, a cell phone channel has a total of 1.1 megabits per second that can be deliverable. So when you get right down to it, consumers are all sharing that same pipe. But they will be lucky to download at a speed of a couple hundred kilobits--and at a very high cost. So this maximum speed is too slow for things like video? What else? Is their strategy sound?
Cell phone carriers' systems were designed to deliver voice. At the moment, they're competing only on the basis of price, and prices are so low, they aren't recovering their investment. On the data side, they haven't worked out their strategies.

But didn't they spend billions of dollars on the 3G spectrum licenses?
I believe they got in trouble by spending huge amounts of money for 3G spectrum. It was a frenzy. In the long run, that spectrum will be extraordinarily valuable, but in the short run, they don't have very much to do with it. Only NTT DoCoMo and Hutchison 3G UK have started using the spectrum.

So, what's your best estimate for when 3G hits the airwaves?
We were going to have 3G in 1999. Then 2000. Then 2001. Now carriers are talking maybe 2005. They keep moving away, because it's so far just not economical.

What will you be talking about in Geneva?
I'm talking about the failure of 3G to provide broadband wireless. There is a new technology that is already doing that successfully in several places. It's ours, naturally.

What must carriers do to get 3G into the air?

The old monopoly system in which you have one carrier is disappearing.
The wireless Internet of the future is not based upon the network technology but on the needs of different kinds of applications. To put it differently, it's been a history of trying to squeeze applications into a particular technology. The world of the future is starting out with applications and creating network technologies that are optimized to fulfill them.

Can you offer a historical perspective for this week's meeting?
We all know that the telecom industry went through a meltdown, and there is an apparent recovery going on. But I don't think that there will ever be a true recovery. The industry will be reborn in a way that accommodates a new way of doing business.

How is that changing?
The old monopoly system in which you have one carrier is disappearing. Some cities now have six or seven different wireless carriers from which to choose. But for now, at least in the wired arena, there's still one carrier. In the future, the consumer will have more choices.

But apparently, the ITU show remains nutty, to put it mildly?
I went to ITU 1999 and ITU 1995. The main exhibit hall is really nuts. People were spending $25 million on booths, with elevators. It will be more toned down this year, but yes, there will still be $25 million booths.