3G Networks Facing a Stress Test

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While much of the talk focuses on various approaches to 4G services, the most widely deployed wireless broadband network will remain 3G for the foreseeable future. This week, comScore said the U.S. has caught up to western Europe in the total number of devices getting their data in this manner.


They key numbers, which are based on three-month averages, are related in the release: U.S. subscribers have 64.2 million devices, which outpaces the Western European countries' 63.4 million gadgets. comScore says 28.4 percent of U.S. subscriber have 3G devices, while 28.3 percent of Western European subscribers do.


There are a couple of caveats, however. comScore only counted the U.K., Germany, Spain, France and Italy in the European contingent. Secondly, the U.S. penetration rate is actually third behind Italy (38.3 percent) and Spain (37.2 percent). It only becomes the winner when the three other countries are factored in. Despite those issues, however, the bottom line is unmistakable: The U.S. is making up for lost time when it comes to 3G.


It's almost funny that the industry refers to a monolithic service known by the term "3G," since it is made up of a variety of approaches utilized by different carriers to reach the higher data throughput levels needed for data services.


This MSNBC story provides a good review of the complex way by which major U.S. carriers got from there to here. T-Mobile and AT&T evolved from Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) roots, while Sprint and Verizon Wireless used Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) 2G networks. Verizon and Sprint moved to Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) 3G. AT&T and T-Mobile detoured into Global Packet Radio Service and Enhanced Data rates for GSM (GPRS and EDGE) before moving into Universal Mobile Telecommunications Services (UMTS) for 3G. AT&T's faster version of UMTS is called High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA).


The increasing services and number of devices means that stress on 3G networks is going to accelerate. For instance, Dell CEO Michael Dell said that netbooks -- smaller than laptops, bigger than smart phones -- may be subsidized by carriers. Speaking at the Citigroup Technology Conference this week, Dell said that netbooks will be second or third devices for many in developed economies. The point here isn't Dell's strategy, but the fact that additive uses of 3G networks, be it from smartphones or new devices, clearly is chewing up a good deal of bandwidth.


Perhaps the growth is a bit too fast. As reported at IT Business Edge and elsewhere, a second lawsuit over iPhone 3G was lodged last month. The piece, which notes that 1 million iPhone 3G phones were sold in just the first three days they were available, said that one of the suits claims that the iPhone switched to a slower network because of a dearth of capacity on AT&T's 3G network. Apple has upgraded its software, but that doesn't seem to have solved the problems.


Growth, of course, is great. It is vital, however, that it be accompanied by network expansion and capacity upgrades. It will be interesting to watch whether the two rise in parallel during the next few years.