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Smartphones And Services Ride Next-Gen Cell Networks

Amid the 3G buildout comes a bevy of feature-rich devices and bandwidth-hungry services.

Streaming video and music, mobile TV, and bandwidth-intensive business applications came into wider use over the past year on mobile phones. The Consumer Electronics Show last week served as a showplace for what's next: wireless services that operate at faster speeds and smartphones that take advantage of them.

Cingular has been upgrading its network since last year to High Speed Downlink Packet Access, or HSDPA, to give users connectivity from 400 Kbps to 700 Kbps with 1-Mbit burst speeds, enough for Web browsing and downloading multimedia files. Cingular's existing Universal Mobile Telephone System maxes out at 250 Kbps. Other U.S. cellular carriers are bolstering their networks, too. Verizon Wireless has upgraded its Evolution Data Optimized network in some cities, and Sprint's doing the same. The upgrades make it possible to send more bits over the airwaves in support of services such as voice over IP and video telephony.

The proliferation of third-generation networks is creating an explosion of new mobile services. At CES, Cingular demonstrated a service, due this summer, that lets cell phone users make live video calls. Customers will need a special Video-Share phone, such as LG Electronics' CU500v, and they'll have to deal with spotty coverage in the early going. Verizon Wireless unveiled V Cast Mobile TV, a service that "marries the phone, the Internet, and television," according to the company. It's due sometime this quarter.

Yahoo came out with a revamped version of its Web browsing and search software for mobile phones called OneSearch, part of Yahoo Go for Mobile 2.0, with services such as e-mail, maps, and news that are in test mode. Mobile search continues to be kludgy, often causing people to click through a list of Web sites on a small device screen. With OneSearch, Yahoo is trying to provide answers to queries more directly. Yahoo has yet to sign up any major cellular carriers to preload Go for Mobile 2.0 on the phones they sell, but consumers can download the app.

NEXT-GEN DEVICES

Mobile devices are equipped to support these new services. Palm rolled out the Treo 750, the latest addition to its line of smartphones that work over 3G networks. It's the first Windows Mobile 5.0-powered Treo to use Cingular's 3G network. With Cingular, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint now offering Windows Mobile Treos with high-speed data capabilities, businesspeople aren't restricted to a single carrier or smartphone model. More important, they finally have fast-enough data connections to use those phones to work remotely.

Motorola unveiled the MotoRizr 76, a Linux-based cell phone that can synchronize with online stores that support Microsoft's Windows Media Player. It also debuted the Yahoo Go for Mobile service on its new MotoRazr phones.

Chipmakers Qualcomm and Broadcom showed their latest technologies for mobile devices. Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset comes with a 1-GHz microprocessor for improved performance and power savings. Samsung plans to embed the chips in future devices. "Our goal is to bridge the gap between mobile phones and laptops," says Alex Katouzian, Qualcomm's VP of product management. Meanwhile, Broadcom is working with manufacturers to get its single-chip HSDPA processor, capable of connecting mobile users to the Web at 7 Mbps, inside phones.

Service providers are putting the IP Multimedia Subsystem in their infrastructures to let cellular, Wi-Fi, wireline, and emerging technologies like WiMax work together. Cingular recently deployed IMS to make video calling possible. Sprint Nextel last week revealed that Chicago and Washington, D.C., will be the first U.S. cities for its WiMax service. Sprint refers to WiMax as its fourth-generation network.

Network convergence is causing excitement among systems vendors, which envision new mobile services generating new revenue opportunities. Cisco CEO John Chambers outlined a vision for creating "human networks." What's that? A person might watch a baseball game on TV, start an instant messaging session or video call with a friend during the game on the same screen, purchase tickets for a future game electronically, and receive a confirmation on his smartphone within seconds.

"Now that broadband is finally taking off in this country, we expect convergence of all forms of human expression," Chambers said. Motorola has a similar vision it's calling "seamless mobility," which refers to enabling content to follow mobile users wherever they go. Both companies have a vested interest in this vision: Cisco because of its investment in technology like TelePresence that combines audio, high-definition video, and interactive elements to deliver content over one network; and Motorola because of its growing portfolio of next-gen mobile devices and communications equipment for service providers.

Building the infrastructure of networks, devices, applications, and services to make mobile technology work as intended is the big focus for wireless carriers, chip and device manufacturers, and software providers this year. They're not there yet, but the pieces are coming together.

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