Digital Cellphones Standards Slugfest
ready for another VHS versus beta-style shootout.
time, the battlefield is in the world of cellular telephones, an arena
currently being turned on its ear thanks to the inevitable onslaught of
yet another VCR-type standards war can be bad news for consumers, the
good news is that you probably won't have to worry about being stuck with
an obsolete cellphone because, by the time one standard emerges as the
winner (if, indeed it ever happens), the new models will be so cheap they'll
be practically giving them away anyway.
Cellular telephones have been
around for a decade or so, and before that radio phones kept people in
touch while on the road (and still do, to a limited extent, in the "boonies"),
but digital cellular phones, with their promise of revolutionizing personal
communications, first started coming to the forefront in 1996.
Digital PCS (personal communications
systems) is the latest and, so far, greatest generation of cellphone gadgetry.
Until it raised its rather attractive head, the rapidly-shrinking wireless
phone used analogue technology - which included with it shortcomings like
garbled signals, limited and overcrowded bandwidth, and sometimes cut
off calls as you went from cell to cell.
As with every other technology
that has gone digital, however, digital PCS promises to fix those problems,
at least to a large degree. PCS' digital signals sound more like an old
fashioned wired phone than the "voice inside a barrel" of earlier
cellphones, far more simultaneous calls can be made on the "digital
band," "handoffs" from cell to cell are much improved (though
still not perfect) - and the digital domain opens up a whole new world
of communications possibilities impossible to fathom with "old tech"
analogue: for instance, paging, e-mail reception, and even videoconferencing.
For those keen on learning
a few more buzzwords and acronyms, the standards around which various
service providers are rallying are, for the most part, CDMA, TDMA, and
All are different methods of
providing you with your digital cellular phone service. The differences
are mainly in how the task is accomplished. Fortunately, consumers will
rarely - if ever - have to deal with any of this.
The CDMA (Code Division Multiple
Access) method uses "pseudo random codes" to slip your call
into the larger digital bitstream that's carrying everyone else's calls
as well. At the receiving end, the codes are used to reconstruct your
unique data, separating it out from the mix. CDMA is said to have the
best sound quality.
TDMA (Time Division Multiple
Access) breaks up the bitstream into time slots, transmitting fragments
of your conversation at precisely timed intervals, while GSM (Global System
for Mobile communications) is an adaptation of TDMA that's used in about
100 countries around the world, mostly in non-North American markets.
TDMA has really been around since the 1960's, so it may not be the most
advanced, but it's still enjoying success and is experiencing real growth
in South America.
Think of the different standards
in the same way you receive AM and FM radio signals. Both radio systems
give you incessant music, talk, and commercials, but in different ways
and on different bands. While you need a radio capable of receiving both
types of broadcast to hear both types, such radios are as common as Carter's
Translating this analogy to
the digital cellphone world, whatever standard you end up supporting via
your choice of service provider still allows you to send and receive calls
from people using the other standards. So the differences as far as you're
concerned are mostly moot: the only time you may have to worry about your
phone becoming a tiny little plastic dinosaur is if your cellular provider
goes the way of the big, flesh and blood dinosaurs, leaving your standard
high and dry, or if you travel to a place where your standards aren't
Who's using which?
So far, CDMA seems to be the
most popular choice on the North American continent, though some companies
are scheduled to add TDMA technology, too.
There's a new trend towards
multi-standard cellphones, however, that may end up giving consumers the
best of all worlds. Some companies plan to offer "tri-mode"
handsets that'll be perfectly happy to work with the "old" analogue
and the newer TDMA and CDMA systems. Test models of these multi-standard
phones have been made.
While it's probably simplest
over the long run to have a single standard, whichever scenario plays
out should allow consumers a relatively painless and seamless transition.
So don't worry too much about
which standard a provider uses when you're contemplating a cellular phone
purchase. Rather, consider factors like airtime charges and what packages
are available. And don't forget issues like "roaming."
Roaming is when you travel
outside your "home area," and means you end up using a different
network than your own. It's kind of like "long distance" in
that you generally pay extra for the roaming charges you ring up than
your normal airtime rate.
If you do a lot of travel,
you'll want to know you'll be able to use your phone when you get to your
destination. Most providers offer some sort of roaming agreements, though
if you roam really far afield you may find your phone requires the installation
of a new chip to make it compatible with the standards there.
If you do a lot of roaming
to an incompatible area a lot, you're probably best served getting a second
cellphone, since it's generally cheaper to get a new phone than to retrofit
an existing one.
Your bottom line?
Don't get hung up on standards. Pay attention to features, packages, coverage
areas, and roaming compatibility.