be transmitted via radio frequencies.
The most widely anticipated of the third-generation wireless standards is CDMA (code division multiple access), which uses spread-spectrum technology to spread a signal over greater bandwidth. Instead of transmitting at molasses-like data rates of 9.6Kbps or 14.4Kbps, users will be able to send and receive data at rates that could reach 1Mbps by 2003, according to estimates.
At that rate, field workers will not only be able to download e-mail messages with spreadsheet attachments, for example, they will also be able to navigate the Internet, access digital maps or provide staff with realtime video from the field.
So far, CDMA has caught on in Asia and is being backed by some big vendors in the wireless voice market, including Ericsson and Qualcomm. Research firms, consultants and the trade press are all praising the strengths of CDMA. Rosy forecasts make CDMA seem all but inevitable as the next standard for broadband wireless services.
Not so fast, say backers of other wireless standards. They point to the fact that CDMA is practically nonexistent in the United States as an operating network, and that Europe, the leading market for wireless voice communications, has already adopted another standard for data, known as GSM (Global System for Mobile communications).
These CDMA naysayers point to another wireless standard that has been around a bit longer. TDMA (time division multiple access) uses a different form of digital technology, which divides radio channels into time slots, providing a significant increase in capacity over the current analog cellular system. While TDMA is not quite as fast as CDMA, technological upgrades are expected to improve its speed. A TDMA base station also costs far less to build than a CDMA base station.
Currently, neither CDMA nor TDMA offer much in the way of coverage in the United States, and that's what matters to state and local governments right now, said Cerulean's Bauer. Wireless users would rather put up with the slower speeds than suffer through spotty coverage or no coverage at all. Others, such as IBM's Fuller and David Kerr, an analyst with Strategy Analytics, point to the fact that value-added features drive the wireless market, not capacity.
The question, with any new breakthrough in technology, is whether broadband wireless is a solution for a problem that already exists or just another solution in search of a problem. That's what carriers are asking themselves as they decide whether to invest millions of dollars in a wireless data infrastructure that can deliver a million bits per second over the airwaves to customers that may or may not need such throughput.
Optimists argue that it's best to give the public the megabits of wireless speed, then sit back and watch the fun begin. But if the costs for the service are too high and the coverage spotty outside of the big cities, then it may be many years before broadband wireless ever catches on.