Mobile Data Services – Going Beyond Wi-Fi

by Reads (4,997)

At this point, virtually all UMPCs, most handhelds, and even many smartphones ship with Wi-Fi. While this is a great mechanism to get online at coffee shops, airports and various other gathering points, coverage, cost, reliability and security are still major concerns for users. Thankfully services from the phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T are getting better, at decreasing prices. But each carrier has their own hardware, pricing model and lingo; making the landscape more than a little perplexing.

Alphabet soup

Do you ever wonder whether mobile operators deliberately try to make their technology sound confusing? After all, why would anyone name a technology EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) or HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access)? At least mobile WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) sounds like Wi-Fi — but, alas, mobile WiMAX service is not yet available. And if the names weren’t confusing enough, the technology continues to evolve with new, equally arcane names such as EV-DO Rev A and High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA).

All in the family

Mobile data services have evolved from narrowband voice service "afterthoughts" to mainstream broadband services. Although there are many mobile wireless technologies, there are just two major technology families deployed in the U.S. today — with a third technology on the way (see Figure 1).

Mobile data access
Figure 1: Mobile data services

GSM Family: Approximately 2.5 billion subscribers worldwide use the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) family of technologies. AT&T (previously Cingular Wireless) and T-Mobile are the major GSM operators in the U.S.

CDMA Family: More than 500 million subscribers worldwide use the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) family. Verizon Wireless and Sprint are the major CDMA operators in the U.S.

WiMAX: The Mobile WiMAX service is not yet available in the U.S. but will soon be offered by Sprint and Clearwire. The technology is based on the IEEE 802.16e standard and promises greater throughput and range than CDMA and GSM.

Making sense of it all

Analyzing and selecting a mobile data service can be a daunting task. A complete analysis requires a thorough evaluation of many service characteristics, and it is easy to lose the forest for the trees. Therefore, when evaluating mobile data services, be sure to stay focused on the following major considerations:

  • International travel: Do you travel internationally? If so, consider selecting a GSM-based service. A mobile phone or data card that operates on a GSM network in the U.S. will also work on the many other GSM networks around the world. It generally just takes a phone call to your carrier to enable International roaming, but it will be expensive, so use it sparingly.
  • Length of contract: The mobile operators have penetrated over 75% of the U.S. wireless market. As penetration rates approach 100%, service providers will become hyper-competitive, resulting in a buyer’s market. Therefore, try to keep your contracts as short as possible because prices will probably fall.
  • Coverage: All of the major providers offer coverage maps. But those maps do not provide sufficient detail to ensure adequate coverage. Check the coverage yourself by asking field personnel, business associates and friends about their experience with the mobile service.
  • Throughput: Downlink speeds (from the network to the phone) are reaching well over 500 kbps, but uplink speeds are still slow. EV-DO Rev A and HSUPA improve uplink speeds to several hundred kbps. Rev A service is currently available from Sprint in many metro areas.
  • Latency: Mobile services based upon EV-DO and HSDPA (or older technologies) can have network latency well over 400 milliseconds. If you are planning to run latency-sensitive applications such as voice, be sure to use the newer EV-DO Rev A and HSUPA (note that the combination of HSDPA and HSUPA is sometimes referred to as HSPA).


Mobile data services now provide high-speed data connections throughout many regions in the U.S., but analyzing these various services and technologies can be confusing and time consuming. If you stay focused on a few "big picture" considerations, you will be able to navigate through the many service options and select the one that is best for you.

About the author: Paul DeBeasi is a Senior Analyst at the Burton Group and has over 25 years experience in the networking industry.

This article originally appeared on — the online authority for the mobile enterprise.



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