For fans of 3G who are eyeing the impact of emerging wireless broadband technology, the news is good: In a few years, you'll probably have a choice.

The emerging mobile WiMax standard and other networks that follow you around will probably be sharing the air in the next few years, but they aren't likely to displace the technologies that big cellular operators are deploying now and planning to upgrade, according to carriers, vendors and industry analysts. Instead, look for wireless broadband to be deployed by mobile newcomers, such as cable operators and smaller carriers, and as a supplement to a few big carriers' 3G networks.

Different foundations
Both 3G and mobile wireless broadband systems are designed to deliver high-speed services to users on the move, but they have different technical foundations. Whereas 3G is the latest generation of cellular technology, wireless broadband systems are the first generation of new types of networks. The two paths may converge in a future "4G" system, but that is still years away from being defined, according to Michael Cai, an analyst at Parks Associates, in Dallas.

Today, carriers and analysts view wireless broadband as well suited to rich multimedia and enterprise applications that are more likely to be used on notebook PCs than on handsets. Meanwhile, cellular systems such as 3G can keep doing what they do now, serving many users over a larger area using smaller devices.

WiMax goes mobile in 2007
Much attention has been focused on WiMax, which should be out this year in fixed systems but around 2007 is expected to go mobile with the still-developing IEEE 802.16e standard. The WiMax Forum foresees mobile users getting at least 1 Mbit/s and being able to do real-time applications such as VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls. That compares with average data speeds of about 400 kbit/s to 700 kbit/s on the major 3G systems.

Could Flash-OFDM backed by Qualcomm trash WiMax?
There are other wireless broadband technologies, namely FLASH-OFDM (Fast Low-latency Access with Seamless Handoff-Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing) from Flarion and UMTS TD-CDMA (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System Time-Division Code Division Multiple Access) gear from IPWireless. Both are available now.

CDMA powerhouse Qualcomm's acquisition of Flarion earlier this month could make FLASH-OFDM a formidable competitor to WiMax. Qualcomm said it sees wireless broadband based on OFDM as one of a range of technologies that cellular operators may deploy. But the potential for standards-based economies of scale - even though a mobile standard isn't expected until at least late this year - has put WiMax in the center of the picture for many in the industry.

3G has a five year lead
WiMax can't outrun 3G in the next five years because it will take about that long to get established, in the view of IDC analyst Shiv Bakhshi.

"In the short-to-medium term, it is going to disrupt nothing, because I don't think it'll even find itself a very strong footing in that time," Bakhshi said. "By the time it comes to market ... the cellular world would have progressed, too," he added.

The roadmaps of major mobile operators in both of the world's major cellular technologies, GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and CDMA, are pretty solid, said Cai of Parks Associates. This is largely true even in China, a relatively young mobile market, he said.

Mobile operators can use WiMax to extend 3G
However, cellular operators may embrace wireless broadband technologies to supplement their 3G offerings. One such service provider is Sprint, which plans to have 3G in 200 markets by early next year in the form of CDMA2000-1x EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized). Its next step after that will be an upgrade called EV-DO Revision A, with a bit more downstream bandwidth than current 3G technologies but probably much faster upstream connections from the end user to the Internet, said Len Barlik, vice president of technology development at Sprint.

Even with that speed boost, Sprint is studying other high-speed wireless technologies, such as WiMax. The carrier has announced partnerships with Intel and Motorola to foster the development of mobile WiMax. However, the carrier sees that technology operating alongside 3G. Wireless broadband might complement 3G in areas where there is high demand for wireless data, such as city centres, Barlik said.

Sprint envisions customers using that type of service for what Barlik called wireless interactive multimedia services, which would recreate a "desktop experience" for customers on the move. Uses might include interactive gaming, downloadable video and audio content, videoconferencing and other applications not yet imagined, he said. WiMax might be a less expensive way for Sprint to deliver high bandwidth to customers with those demands, Barlik said. But the carrier is still studying other wireless broadband options.

"We're really trying to explore [the question], Will the technology meet what's being touted at this point?" he said.

In the US, Sprint has the advantage of holding radio spectrum in the 2.5GHz range, apart from its cellular frequencies, where it might be able to use wireless broadband. But even Cingular, the largest mobile operator in the US, is considering whether to use such technologies to complement its 3G UMTS HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) network, spokesman Ritch Blasi said.

Fixed-line players can use WiMax to get mobile
However, wireless broadband may be more important to new rivals of the big mobile operators.

"Fixed-line players who have been kept out of the wireless market because of regulatory fiat are likely to be more enthused about it than the cellular guys," IDC's Bakhshi said. Those players could include cable operators that want to compete with telecommunications carriers by offering a suite of TV, Internet access, wireline phone and mobile voice and data, analysts said.

WiMax will help developing countries
Though some current mobile operators will add wireless broadband to their services, they will be in the minority, said Mark Whitton, vice president and general manager of WiMax and wireless mesh networks at Nortel Networks. Nortel, a major provider of 3G gear, plans to add mobile WiMax to its lineup. In addition to new mobile providers in developed countries - potentially including cable operators, Internet service providers and even media companies - WiMax could present an attractive opportunity to service providers in less-developed countries where current communications options are more limited, he said.

In a large, developing economy such as China or India, "if they decided they wanted to give WiMax a place of prominence, it could accelerate the industry quite a bit," Whitton said.

Multiple networks - one bill
Operators such as Sprint and Cingular would be doing the right thing if they offered subscribers access to multiple types of networks for different uses in different places, all appearing on one bill, IDC's Bakhshi said. Wireless data users are looking for the best experience wherever they are, he said.

"It's not the killer application, it's a killer environment," Bakhshi said.