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Mar 28, 2003, 7:00 PM   by Rich Brome

Wrap-Up Report from CTIA Wireless 2003 in New Orleans. An overview of all the major news from the show, put in perspective of what's going on throughout the industry.

CTIA Wireless is the premiere event for the mobile phone industry in North America. Every year, companies gather to show off their latest and greatest mobile technology. The announcements generally reflect the current and emerging trends in the industry, so this wrap-up report is also an overview of those trends.

Most of the announcements weren't too surprising. With the rapid expansion of GSM networks in the U.S., I expected to see a lot more GSM phones than in previous years, and I wasn't disappointed. Push-To-Talk and camera phones are also two current hot topics, and both were well-represented at the show. But there were a few surprises, including several things conspicuously missing from the show.

GSM

GSM has been the dominant digital mobile phone standard globally for some time. But in the U.S., GSM didn't really take off until 2002, when AT&T Wireless and Cingular started deploying the standard nationwide. This massive shift in technology standards was reflected in the phones on display at CTIA. European GSM powerhouses such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and Siemens this year introduced their largest-ever portfolios of GSM phones designed specifically for North America.

One of the key issues in this shift is GSM 850. AT&T and Cingular both own large amounts of valuable 850 MHz spectrum, which they currently use for their aging TDMA and analog networks. In order to make the switch to GSM, they needed to use their 850 MHz spectrum with GSM - something which would require new GSM 850/1900 phones. The first GSM 850/1900 phones were announced at last year's CTIA show, and a slow trickle of additional models have been announced in the year since.

But at this year's CTIA, the floodgates really opened; a deluge of new GSM 850/1900 phones were announced. Siemens introduced the SL56 and M56 - GSM 850/1900 versions of the European SL55 and M55 announced the week before at CeBIT. Nokia announced the 3600 - a GSM 850/1900 version of the 3650, its current flagship Series 60 phone. And finally Panasonic was showing its just-announced X70, which will be available in a GSM 850/1800/1900 version for the Americas.

More exciting, however, are the new manufacturers joining the GSM fray. LG and Audiovox both chose CTIA to announce their first GSM phones for North America. LG announced the well-balanced 4050 and the affordable 4010, while Audiovox announced a series of GSM camera phones, which will start with the GS-200 and continue through the GS-400, with dual color displays and a megapixel camera.

One major disappointment, however, was the relative lack of quad-band GSM phones. In the past, a good "world phone" only needed to support three frequencies (tri-band). But with the advent of GSM 850, a world phone needs to be quad-band in order to get good coverage and reasonable roaming rates worldwide.

Only NEC and Motorola were showing quad-band phones that will be available before the end of 2003. The NEC 515 will most likely be the first. It was announced at last year's CTIA, and has been delayed several times. But it now appears to be very close to release. The Motorola V600 was announced in January, and it is planned for release in the 2nd half of the year. Both are very impressive phones, but two models is a very limited selection for such an important category of phones.

CDMA

CDMA is the other dominant digital mobile phone standard in the U.S. CTIA is the traditional venue for companies to announce their new CDMA portfolios, and this year was no exception. The new attention to GSM actually did very little to pull the spotlight away from CDMA. Two companies making notable new pushes into CDMA were Nokia and Motorola.

In 2001, Nokia appeared to have almost abandoned CDMA completely. In 2002, Nokia came out with a meager CDMA lineup using its new, revamped CDMA chipset. Nokia's 2003 models are a vast improvement, although a significant technology lag compared to the company's GSM models is still apparent. With the new announcements, Nokia for the first time has a full lineup of CDMA phones: the 2200 series covers the low end, the 3586i takes the middle spot, and the 6585 fills in the top end.

Motorola has traditionally kept its GSM and CDMA models in near-lockstep. Most CDMA models have had a near-identical GSM equivalent. In fact, in 2002 Motorola went as far as to drop model number variations altogether, releasing two "T720" models - one for CDMA and one for GSM, and did the same with the "v60i" and "C333". Thankfully, Motorola seems to have ended this confusing naming practice.

Motorola announced two all-new CDMA phones at CTIA - the E310 and V810. Neither has a GSM equivalent; both are visually and functionally distinct from any announced GSM models. The E310 is a gaming-centric phone, while the V810 is a svelte camera phone. Releasing unique models for CDMA is a big step for Motorola, and both phones look very promising; so far it looks like a step in the right direction.

The next big thing in the CDMA world is 1xEV-DO. Huge news came from Verizon Wireless when they announced at the show that they are preparing to launch commercial 1xEV-DO networks in two cities - San Diego and Washington, D.C. 1xEV-DO represents a giant leap forward in data speeds, with a peak of 2.4 mbps, and average speeds around 200-400 kbps (4-5 times faster than Verizon's current 1xRTT network).

At the press conference, Verizon Wireless executive vice president and chief technical officer Dick Lynch indicated that a nationwide launch was likely, and that Verizon plans to launch 1xEV-DO phones, in addition to the expected data cards. Thanks to the high data rates, 1xEV-DO phones can deliver a true "3G" experience, with full-motion video capability.

LG has taken a leadership role in 1xEV-DO handsets in Korea, the only country where such phones have been commercially launched so far. LG CEO John Koo demonstrated an impressive Korean LG 1xEV-DO phone during the CTIA keynote. But more importantly, LG representatives promised that LG intends to take a similar leadership role with 1xEV-DO phones here in the U.S.

The combination of LG's 1xEV-DO phones and Verizon's 1xEV-DO network may finally deliver the much-hyped "3G" mobile experience that has been promised for so long. And it might happen sooner than expected: possibly before the end of 2003.

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