The lowdown on 3G

What is 3G? It's shorthand for the third-generation wireless services that are coming online, slowly, in the United States and elsewhere. By 2005, the thinking goes, large networks should have high-speed wireless pipes for Internet browsing, data transfers and even videophone conversations.

Is it linked to one kind of wireless phone system? No. 3G systems are being developed for both GSM and GPRS networks'which dominate in Europe, Africa and Asia'as well as CDMA networks popular here with carriers including Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Corp. But as with different voice networks such as GSM and CDMA, 3G of one type will not be interoperable with 3G of another.

How will service be priced? Details are unannounced in most cases, but Stephen Carter, president of Cingular Wireless, predicted separate pricing for voice and data services. Some carriers are concerned that the pricing of data services will be beyond what users are willing to pay.
What are the practical applications of 3G? Combined with Global Positioning System information, 3G can help you find the nearest bank, service station or hotel of your choice, as well as direct you to the spot. If you're stuck in traffic, it can get you alternate directions. And sending images via cell phone can be useful in many applications, from inventory to disaster relief.

Why is it taking so long? The new technology is expensive, and there's also a chicken-or-egg situation. When the right killer app for businesses or consumers clicks in the market, demand will be greater and services will be rolled out faster. Of course, without the 3G networks in place, seeing what clicks will be a bit difficult.

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