In many ways, 3G is the holy grail of the wireless world. It will allow very fast access to the Internet or data networks over wireless devices, such as cellphones. But like almost everything about technology, 3G comes in not one but two versions. One version, called W-CDMA, has become the popular choice of GSM providers. (Basically, GSM is the current standard for wireless phones, pagers, etc. around the world). There's only one problem with W-CDMA: providers need to buy lots of new spectrum of wireless bandwidth to make it work, and this costs billions and billions of dollars. (Just ask the companies in Europe who are in debt up to their eyeballs with new, currently unused spectrum.)
The other standard is CDMA2000. The great benefit of CDMA2000 is that you can use existing spectrum to operate it. But it has to happen in a two-stage process. The first stage will provide speeds of up to 153 kpbs - about three times as fast as your 56 kpbs home modem. (Some people call this stage 2.5G.) In the second stage, which should be in place in the US in about two or three years, speeds of up to 2.4 mbps - very fast - are possible. Some countries, like Korea, are already using this version.
But let me make this discussion of standards real. I recently went for a drive just outside Boston with Sanjeev Verma, one of the founders of a very interesting company called Airvana. Mr. Verma drove me around Chelmsford, Mass., in his company's van to show me what was possible to do online using a wireless device with 3G access to the Internet. (Airvana wants to become the Cisco of the wireless world. Cisco is the company that provides routers to ISPs and other organizations that provide Internet access. Without routers, basically, no one could get online. Airvana provides hardware that allows companies like Sprint to provide this incredible service to its customers.)
We were able to download video and audio clips just as easily as if we were doing it at my desktop at work. Wireless companies will be able to provide portable devices, often handheld, that will allow us to watch streaming video, have a video conference, or download huge images, all while riding in a cab to the airport or lunching in a restaurant. It might all sound like a fantasy, especially after the dotcom bust this year.
But it's no fantasy to Verma and the folks at Airvana, who are already producing their 3G units for companies around the globe. Sooner than you think, we'll all have 3G access, much of it provided by a small Chelmsford company.