JEJU, South Korea — Most mobile phones you buy in South Korea don’t work in Japan, while a phone bought in the United States may or may not work in Europe.
Consumers have long faced a perplexing alphabet soup of terminology involving disparate wireless technologies and radio frequencies when simply seeking to buy a phone to call business associates or loved ones from anywhere in the world.
The engineers of tomorrow’s mobile technology are hoping to change that.
At a forum last week sponsored by Samsung Electronics Co. on South Korea’s Jeju island, the architects of tomorrow’s wireless future — referred to as fourth-generation technology — discussed ways to help them meet the challenge of true worldwide mobile roaming.
Finding a common radio frequency that could be used anywhere in the world isn’t a simple task, given the current airwave clutter among cell phone, police radio, satellite and other wireless transmissions.
Studies are seeking to determine whether frequencies now in use by other technologies could be shared with new devices that would be able to sense when those channels are busy or free to transmit.
Another idea to free up frequencies would be to reallocate ones now given to obsolete technologies or those that don’t see heavy use.
Agreeing on a single global frequency would also be a key to allowing the new technology to work seamlessly worldwide.
Consumers shouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars for devices that can work with various competing technologies to be able to roam worldwide, said Ali Tabassi, a vice president from U.S.-based Sprint Nextel Corp.
But as is often the case with trailblazing technology, a potential format and frequency war is taking shape, along with a debate over how quickly the industry should move.
Some companies are supporting the technology known as Mobile WiMax, a burgeoning standard now coming into use that has been strongly backed by U.S. chip maker Intel Corp. It offers relatively fast connections over a long range, but not the kind of superfast speeds that are considered the realm of the fourth-generation future.
“We cannot wait for another three to four years for another technology platform to support the Internet-everywhere dream,” said Bin Shen, vice president for broadband at Sprint Nextel, which plans WiMax trials by late 2007 before launching the service in the United States in 2008. “We believe Internet is like air and oxygen in people’s lives in the future.”
There already are limited trials of Mobile WiMax under way in South Korea, with plans to cover the capital, Seoul, by early next year. However, in a sign of the difficulties in deploying a worldwide standard, the South Korean system uses a different frequency than the one planned for Sprint Nextel’s future network because of government restrictions.
Samsung has backed WiMax and is a partner in commercializing the technology in South Korea and the United States.
But at the same time, Samsung is using the forum to show off another potential next-generation technology. The South Korean company is one of several working to develop a standard for a lightning-speed data transmission that hasn’t yet been named and won’t be agreed upon until at least 2010, meaning it won’t be in consumers’ pockets for years.
Some say that’s too long to wait.
“Why can’t users today connect to the Internet everywhere they are?” asked Siavash Alamouti, chief technology officer for Intel’s mobile wireless division. “We’ve got to do it as fast as possible.”