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Digital Cellphones Standards Slugfest

By Jim Bray

Get ready for another VHS versus beta-style shootout.

This time, the battlefield is in the world of cellular telephones, an arena currently being turned on its ear thanks to the inevitable onslaught of digital technology.

While 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.

Dialing Digitally

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 GSM.

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 little pills.

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 supported.

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.

Automatic Standards…

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.


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May 14, 2006