The third generation of mobile telecommunications technology - or 3G for short - should be fully implemented sometime between 2003 and 2005. When that happens, 3G says it will bring the full Internet to mobile devices at rates as fast as 2MBps.
Businesses stand to gain better-quality, ubiquitous connections for all types of mobile devices. Employees will be able to do much more and do it faster from the location that makes the most sense.
But will it really happen? For 3G to become a reality, network service providers, application developers, and hardware makers will all have to pull their weight. Existing networks must be upgraded, compelling software must be developed, and useful, affordable devices will have to be manufactured. If any one of these players falls short, it could mean the end of the 3G dream.
Network service providers face the biggest challenge because 3G networks will not be easy to create. For starters, operators will have to move from circuit-based to packet-based networks. Although technically viable, circuit-based networks will not be economically feasible as each circuit-based call requires an open connection, regardless of whether data is being transmitted. Packet-based networks, on the other hand, are only taxed when data is being transmitted - a much more efficient use of bandwidth.
Yet work is already being done. All three of the main network types - GSM (Global System for Mobile communication), CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access), and TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) - are being 3G-enabled.
GSM and CDMA networks will require a two-phase upgrade path. Both are scheduled to meet the 3G standard by 2003. TDMA networks will leap to 3G speeds in one step, and installations should begin next year.
It is encouraging that work has started, but two years from now, when GSM and CDMA operators are ready for the second phase of the upgrade process, 3G's future will be under the microscope. Operators may baulk at another upgrade if they did not make enough money during the first phase.
The current lack of available frequencies could delay 3G's rollout as well. And although the White House has issued an executive order to free up frequencies for 3G, network operators will still pay dearly to buy them from their current owners. Again, the operators' willingness to do so will depend on profit forecasts.
3G promises to deliver ubiquitous 2MBps transfer rates to wireless devices within two years. But first, frequencies must be bought, networks must be built, and compelling applications and devices must be developed. 3G is clearly on its way, but so much work has yet to be done that it is more realistic to expect the service in five years rather than two years.