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The high-tech industry usually doesn’t like government regulation, but it has changed its mind now that it has the hot new “3G” to sell. The technical cognoscenti know that 3G stands for third generation wireless, and it could soon be on everyone’s tongue — and ear and palm. This grandchild of the cell phone combines the cell phone’s usefulness for voice calls with a super-fast wireless connection to the Internet. Some think it will be “the indispensable life tool.” Others aren’t so sure. The U.S. government is caught in the middle. The cellular phone, which made its U.S. debut about 20 years ago, ushered in a wireless revolution here and around the world. Cell phones rely on low power, computer-controlled radio transmitters distributed around a city in “cells” to control wireless calls. First generation cell phones used analog signaling, a technology that was almost obsolete by the time it was introduced. The second generation came along a few years later. It employed digital signaling and, in the United States, was dubbed personal communication service. The new name was intended to distinguish PCS from the analog cell phone and its reputation for poor transmission quality. Radio spectrum had to be reallocated from another service to make room for PCS. The government was eager to do this for several reasons. For one thing, first generation wireless had proved popular. For another, Congress was thinking of allowing frequencies to be auctioned off, from which the Treasury might gain billions of dollars. In fact, the PCS auctions raised more than $18 billion. The improved 3G technology marries the cell phone to the small, personal data assistant, or PDA. The 3G handset will add to basic telephone functions such computer functions as the storage and display of an address book, calendar, and notes. Handsets can also be capable of connecting wirelessly to e-mail and the Internet. Of course, 2G phones can do this much. The difference in 3G is the speed at which it connects to the Internet. Today, a customer who uses his or her wireless device to check e-mail or surf the Internet is limited to data transmission rates ranging between 9.6 and 28 kilobits per second (kbps). (A standard telephone line connection uses a 56 kbps transmission rate.) But 3G systems will operate at up to 384 kbps if the user is walking and two million bits per second (Mbps) if the handset is stationary. The stationary rate will be 200 times faster than today’s 9.6 kbps wireless connection and will be equivalent to a so-called broadband connection. This high-speed access has advantages. It means that if users pay for service by the minute, they will pay for far fewer minutes when downloading e-mail or surfing the Web. More important, it opens the way for entirely new uses for wireless. At 3G speeds, users should be able to receive live video and audio feeds over their cell phones. They could download a music file in seconds and listen to their favorite songs over their cell phones. They could retrieve guidebooks, service manuals, or novels while on the road. Of course, the industry still worries that it has yet to come up with the “killer application” — a use for 3G that would truly make it indispensable for consumers. Some say that game-playing is a possibility. Perhaps, but a public already annoyed by cell phone calls in theaters and restaurants hardly seems ready to tolerate users playing computer games over their mobile phones in those places. GOVERNMENT FAVOR The U.S. government has come down squarely in favor 3G. In an October 2000 report, the Council of Economics Advisers urged deployment of 3G in the United States. The president agreed and established a timetable for regulatory action to make additional frequencies available. The CEA found that the technology offers clear benefits to consumer and government. Moreover, it reasoned, domestic deployment of 3G is needed if the U.S. high-tech industry is to keep pace in worldwide competition for wireless and Internet applications. The CEA cited with approval the glowing tribute given 3G by the International Telecommunication Union: “[T]he new mobile handset will become the single, indispensable ‘life tool,’ carried everywhere by everyone, just like a wallet or purse is today.” Regardless of whether it achieves such praise or ubiquity, 3G does incorporate important technologies. First, both 2G and 3G transmit digital signals. This means that the words you speak and the data you enter into the handset are converted by computer chips into 1s and 0s before being sent over the air. Chips in the other person’s handset convert the digital signals back into speech. Digital signaling has the advantages of improved sound quality, better privacy, and more-efficient handling of transmissions. Second, 3G will be a “packet switched” network, like the Internet. The computer chips in the handset chop up data messages into packets, like mailing envelopes, and beam them though the air. Each packet contains digitized To and From information as well as the message. Computers in the communication network use the address information to send the packets to the intended destination, where the packets are reassembled in the proper sequence. Packet switching allows for efficiencies in the communications network. When you are typing on your keyboard and pause to think, a conventional telephone network keeps the circuit open and transmits silence. It doesn’t make use of the dead time. A packet switched network does. It detects the pause in the transmission and uses that time to send someone else’s packets. Voice calls can be sent through a packet switched network as anyone who has used Internet telephony knows. However, voice packets must be assigned a priority in traversing the network. Otherwise, the voice packet might have to wait its turn to be transmitted, and conversation would be interrupted. Whether 3G will be able do this without the delays that sometimes characterize voice calls placed over the packet-switched Internet remains to be seen. If it cannot, then 3G networks will lose some of the expected efficiencies. Third, 3G networks will get such additional spectrum as the government allows. If radio frequencies are like water pipes for phone calls, the government hopes to make a lot more pipes available. And this is why the industry wants government help. STANDARD ISSUES You can’t go out and buy a 3G phone now — at least not in the United States — because no wireless carrier has converted to the technology. For several years, international telecommunications manufacturers and providers battled over a single, worldwide technical standard. The International Telecommunication Union, which determines such things, finally adopted five alternate standards. The ITU also came up with a suggested list of radio frequencies on which 3G could operate around the world. The hope was that worldwide standards would allow a road warrior in Kansas City, as an example, to make a call or check e-mail via the same 3G handset from home or from San Francisco, Paris, or Vladivostok. The promise of 3G is to give Americans cell phones that will look more like miniature computers than telephones. Professional workers won’t need to commute to offices any more. Airport waiting rooms and restaurants will become offices on the fly. In short, 3G is intended to allow you to communicate with anyone, from anywhere, in any way, and at any time. Whether and when this will happen depends in part on changes in government regulation. A high-tech industry that typically shuns Washington needs the government to make additional radio frequencies available for the service if its success is to be insured. Washington, D.C. lawyer James H. Johnston is a frequent contributor toLegal Times. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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