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A Wireless Decoder for 'Wi-Curious’ People

7/25/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

By now, it’s clear that the Next Big Thing is getting your high-speed connection wherever you are — even if you’re outdoors; even if you’re in a moving vehicle; even if you’re an ocean away.

The jargon of wireless technology is thick: Wi-Fi, WiMax, 3GPP, LTE, GSM. Keeping it all straight, while keeping everything else straight, takes concentrated effort.

For that reason, this week’s translation seeks to serve as a tip sheet for we “wi-curious” — raised wired, open to alternatives.

Before we go in, remind yourself: Behind this clutter of acronyms are radios. It’s all about what languages they speak, over which stripes of spectrum, using how much battery power and how honkin’ a processor.

At an industrial level, wireless technologies identify like this: Who’s using it, with what spectrum? Will it work overseas? How fast is it, up and down? How soon will gear be ready, relative to competing options?

Because it is the intended direction of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, per their deal with Clearwire and Sprint, let’s start with WiMax. As a tech spec, its name is IEEE 802.16. For cable, it’ll move across the 2.5 GHz spectrum. International adoption is not yet a strong suit, beyond Korea and Pakistan. Speed-wise, it runs in the range of 3 to 5 Mbps to the handheld and 1 Mbps from the handheld. Gear can be gotten, “but at a rather glacial pace,” noted one waiting observer.

Stripped way down, WiMax is Wi-Fi at vehicular speed.

WiMax is up against global steamroller “LTE,” for “Long Term Evolution.” LTE is the brainchild of the cellular community — which, it bears noting, is reaching saturation on wireless voice service. In that sense, wireless broadband is to cellular what telco landlines were to cable: A sexy new cash spigot.

In the U.S., T-Mobile plans to go LTE. So does Verizon Wireless. AT&T says LTE. In Europe, pretty much everybody is LTE. The two groups behind it are 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project, and GSM (Global System for Mobile, LTE peaks at 100 Mbps toward devices sharing a 20-MHz swath of spectrum.

But LTE is to its professed implementers what DOCSIS 3.0 is to cable: A hardened spec, in the hands of the vendor community, waiting to become product. Trials this year; gear next year.

What about an über-phone, with as many radios and protocols as necessary to work everywhere? I tried this out on a wireless aficionado pal. Her response: “Yeah. And the battery will last like 10 minutes.”

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