Q&A: Cingular's CEO sees multiple challenges with 3G wireless service

TUCSON, ARIZ. -- At the ROAM wireless technology conference yesterday, Cingular Wireless CEO Stephen Carter gave a presentation on the issues confronting wireless carriers. Carter met with Computerworld's Don Tennant ahead of time to discuss some of those issues and what they mean for IT in the enterprise.

Q: Is there a business case for third-generation (3G) wireless services in the enterprise? What can't we do now that we need 3G to help us do?

A: It will make the road warrior's life a lot easier, since the device will dial straight through into your intranet. You'll be able to utilize a much wider array of applications, like downloading slides for presentations.

Q: I can do that on my laptop in the hotel. Why do I need to do it with my wireless device?

A: Why do you need a wireless phone when you could go to a pay phone? It's convenience. It gives you control over when and how you do it. You know the speed, you know how much it's going to cost you. In hotels and other public places, you're not really assured of knowing that you can do it at a certain time. And the enterprise will see benefits from being able to create applications that are specific to the enterprise rather than using generic models -- the ability to tailor and customize.

Q: You mentioned knowing the speeds. Yet we're finding that even the carriers acknowledge that the 3G speeds they have been claiming are really lab speeds and that actual speeds will be one-third to one-half of those (see story).

A: Optimally, if you're sitting in a hotel room in a stationary environment, fairly close to a cell site -- which in an urban environment, you would be -- you'll get pretty fast speeds. We've tried our best to explain [actual speeds] to people. I think the very earliest carriers that were talking about the Internet severely misled the marketplace. In many ways, they did the market a disservice when they advertised Internet [access] by phone, because most people had in mind that they were going to have something like they got on their computer. What people failed to understand, because it wasn't explained initially, was that the applications have to be different. It's not a surfing model, it's a transaction model when you're using a handheld.

Q: Nokia Corp. has acknowledged that its existing handsets aren't 3G-compatible, and there is some debate over whether a recall or a base-station software fix is in order (see story). How does that affect Cingular?

A: We're not aware of any problems with Nokia on our networks, so I can't comment on that. The first phones that will have [General Packet Radio Service] for us are Ericsson and Motorola. Nokia will be later on. By the time we get to 3G [in 2003], I'm not aware that there's going to be any problem with Nokia.

Q: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set an October deadline for the carriers to support location-based services, which would enable authorities to pinpoint the location of 911 callers. Will Cingular be ready?

A: We're still working on exactly what is the best way to try to approach this. There are several competing technologies, none of which seems to really meet the FCC's specific distance and accuracy requirements at this point. The handset manufacturers have definitely got a challenge to meet the requirements, and the carriers have a challenge with the infrastructure. So we're still wrestling with this at the moment.

Q: We're talking six months. Can it realistically happen, or are you going to need to ask the FCC for an extension?

A: I think, realistically, almost everybody's going to have to ask the FCC for some form of relaxation or waiver to allow more time to develop to the spec they require. Or to allow more of a staged approach where we could have a looser standard the first year and more stringent ones as the technology catches up.

It's an area where it's very hard to argue that it's not a good thing. It's something that would be very useful, but I think when it was first discussed and the rules were set up, there were a lot of promises made by manufacturers of equipment that frankly have not yet been delivered. And now, unfortunately, the carriers are in a position where they're supposed to comply by a set date, and I don't think the technology's there yet.

Q: Do you have the spectrum you need to support 3G?
Neither we nor anybody else has enough to do 3G in the European sense. The big six carriers in the U.S., we all have an average of somewhere between 25 MHz and 35 MHz. If you look at Europe, the big carriers there have about 90 MHz. Japan is about the same. So I don't believe that the U.S. has enough spectrum.
Q: What's the optimum solution to that problem?
A: I'm not convinced that you need six huge carriers to get a good, competitive market going. But truthfully, there needs to be more spectrum available. So that means you have to cut out some blocks that are usable and, ideally, compatible with a world standard so you don't end up having stuff made just for the U.S. I wouldn't argue that it should be free, but it should be certain.

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