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UMTS... GPRS... 3G... SOS?

When the first telephone was developed, its aim was to aid communication. But these days, understanding phones can seem more like a barrier. DW-WORLD tries to explain a little about what's going on in telecommunications.


"No Gerhard, I didn't call you anything. I said U...M...T...S"

For many people, trying to understand Third Generation mobile phone technology is like a being cast adrift in a rolling sea full of acronyms and technical data. However, help is at hand for Technophobes everywhere as DW-WORLD attempts to throw a lifeline to those drowning in confusion by answering these frequently asked questions in our "Dummies Guide to 3G."

What is Third Generation (3G) Mobile Phone Technology?

First generation networks provided simple analogue voice telephony; second (current) generation added some data services like fax and e-mail to basic voice service, with higher rate data capabilities expected over the next few years. The Third Generation of mobile telecommunications should be capable of providing data rates of up to 2 megabits per second, in addition to conventional voice, fax and data services. This offers the prospect of high-resolution video and multimedia services on the move, such as mobile office services, virtual banking and on-line billing, home shopping, video conferencing, on-line entertainment and Internet access. Basically, it's faster and offers a lot more extras.

What is UMTS?

UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) is an acronym to describe a 3G system which will be used in Europe and elsewhere. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is coordinating the international harmonization of standards for 3G, working towards the concept of a family of standards (IMT 2000) which can all work together, rather than a single standard. So eventually UMTS users in Europe will be able to use 3G technology all over the world under a different banner. This ability to use devices on different networks is called roaming and will be made possible by satellite and land based networks.

I hear about GSM and GPRS. What does it all mean?

GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications. GSM is the name of a land mobile pan-European digital cellular communications system. GPRS stands for General Packet Radio Service which is a so-called packet-switched GSM data service. This means it is a network in which information is transferred between subscribers. The phone basically changes from one GPRS network to another without any circuits being set up.

What are 1G, 2G, 2.5G, 3G and 4G?

  • 1G networks are considered to be the first analog cellular systems, which started in the early 1980's and followed on from radio telephone systems.
  • 2G networks are the first digital cellular systems launched in the early 1990's.
  • 2.5G networks (e.g. GPRS) are the enhanced versions of 2G networks with data rates up to about 144kbit/s.
  • 3G networks (UMTS and the others included in IMT 2000) are the latest cellular networks that have data rates 384kbit/s and more.
  • 4G is mainly a marketing buzzword at the moment. Some basic 4G research is being done, but no frequencies have been allocated. The Forth Generation could be ready for implementation around 2012.

    How is UMTS different from current second generation networks?

    UMTS offers the following:

    • A higher speech quality than current networks. In addition to speech traffic, UMTS together with advanced data and information services offers a multimedia network.
    • UMTS is above 2G mobile systems for its potential to support 2Mbit/s data rates.
    • UMTS is a real global system, comprising both terrestrial and satellite components.
    • It provides a consistent service environment even when roaming via "Virtual Home Environment" (VHE). A person roaming from his network to other UMTS operators will experience a consistent set of services, thus "feeling" like his home network, independent of the location or access mode (satellite or terrestrial).

      Are 2G systems such as GSM/GPRS networks compatible with UMTS networks?

      UMTS networks can be operated with GSM/GPRS networks. Systems use different frequency bands, so mobiles, in theory, should not interfere with each other. UMTS specification is designed so that there is maximum compatibility between GSM and UMTS systems. The new Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS laptop data card allows users to swap back to GPRS systems when a UMTS network is not available and is one of the first applications to provide this long talked about service.

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