The ITU Takes Mobile into the Third Millennium

ITU Press & Public Information Service

The ITU is currently working on one of its most ambitious projects ever: a federation of systems for third generation mobile telecommunications that will provide wireless access to the global telecommunication infrastructure in a global roaming offering through both satellite and terrestrial systems, serving fixed and mobile users in public and private networks. Coined IMT 2000, it will make it possible to communicate anywhere-anytime offering a seamless operation of mobile terminals worldwide.

Just as you thought you’d finally worked out how to programme the pre-sets on your new cellular phone, the world of mobile communications is about to reinvent itself yet again. Get ready for ‘3G’, the new breed of ‘third generation’ mobiles which will offer videoconferencing, access to the Internet and a whole lot more.

Development of these next-generation systems has been underway for several years now under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union. The international telecommunications community has charged the Union with the task of developing a new standard for the mobile phones of the 21st century which will endow them with sophisticated broadband capabilities and pave the way for the development of an exciting new breed of ‘personal communicators’.

This new framework of standards is known under the generic name of IMT-2000 (for International Mobile Telecommunications-2000). The project represents the culmination of some ten years’ of study and design work to create a new system that will take mobile technology into the Information Age. The most exciting development in mobile communications since the advent of digital systems back in the early 1990s, IMT-2000 also represents one of the ITU’s most important achievements in the last decade of the 20th century.


Since the launch of the first mobile phones just two decades ago, mobile telephony has achieved astounding success with the consumer. No longer the playthings of the rich or the tools of high-powered business men or women, cellular phones have evolved to become an everyday accessory.

Penetration in the leading users of wireless technologies – such as Sweden, Finland or Norway – has now reached 40% of the population, while the rest of the world, from the richer OECD nations to the world’s developing countries in Latin America, Asia and, to a lesser extent, Africa, continues to notch up wireless growth rates of as much as 165% per annum.

J.T Bergqvist, a senior vice president with leading mobile phone manufacturer Nokia, says he believes the uptake of wireless telephony will continue to grow steadily well into the next century, even overtaking wireline in some markets. "Penetration in the world’s highest markets is expected to rise to 50% by 2003," he says. "In the developing world there is much room for growth, and wireless is now sometimes taking precedence over wireline. China, for example, has developed the concept of the People’s Phone, which is based on wireless technology."

Michael Callendar, a leading figure in the development of IMT-2000 through his chairmanship of Task Group 8/1 of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, agrees. "The global market for mobile is forecast to grow from today’s figure of around 200 million to around 2.4 billion users by 2015 – which means today’s market only represents around 10% of future demand," he says.

But while it’s clear that mobility is here to stay, the new-found freedom customers enjoy with their cellular phones is hampered by problems with international roaming, and performance levels much below what their can routinely achieve with their wireline telephone at home or in the office. That, however, is soon to change . . .


Users of today’s sophisticated and diminutive mobile phones might well ask why the world needs a new mobile standard. After all, mobile telephony has improved dramatically in recent years – phones have become much smaller, reception and voice quality have become much clearer, and network drop-outs, while still not a thing of the past, have been reduced considerably since the earliest days of mobile telephony.

While it’s true that today’s phones are years ahead of the clunky old bricks which represented the first analogue generation of cellular telecommunications, these new digital models have their limitations. For a start, they are simply not capable of supporting the high bandwidth applications which characterize the kinds of systems users will demand as we move into the next century. Today’s cellular phone generally operate at speeds of just 9.6kbps – very slow by comparison with wireline communications, and certainly nowhere near fast enough to support applications like audio and video e-mail, real-time videoconferencing or high-speed Internet connection.

But there’s another reason to make the leap to next-generation of mobile technology – the complicated maze of mobile standards now in use in different countries and regions around the world. At present, many mobile phone users are frustrated by the fact that even though they can enjoy international roaming within their own region, their phone simply does not function in certain countries. This means either losing contact while travelling in certain regions, or having to go through a complicated procedure of renting a special phone with a new phone number. Not surprisingly, neither of these solutions please the growing number of regular business traveller, who are beginning to demand a system which can deliver a constant level of reliable service in an ever-widening number of countries.


Globalization, the increased mobility of the workforce and changing work and leisure habits are all putting pressure for the development of a single global standard for mobile communications. Users are only too aware of the limitations of the current system. But for cellular operators and manufacturers too, the current plethora of standards represents something of a headache, even while it can offer benefits for companies which happen to possess a competitive advantage in a particular technology.

"Operators do not want to have to support networks running a range of different systems, it’s inefficient and costly," says Callendar. "Furthermore, equipment manufacturers would be able to achieve much better economies of scale if they didn’t have to manufacture different types of equipment to support different standards. And of course it’s very inefficient for customers who have to change phone set every time they move to a country with a different standard. The forces of globalization are exacerbating the problem of multiple standards, as operators begin to move into foreign markets – and these forces are putting great pressure on us to find a solution."


First and second generation mobile systems were not designed to be global systems but rather national or at best regional. The ITU was therefore not expected to set standards for these systems. But in the wake of the globalization of the world economy and the need for players to gain worldwide mobility, the ITU started some ten years ago to work on a new generation of systems that would overcome today’s market fragmentation. Through the ITU’s ongoing Study Group programme, experts from the private sector, including all the major cellular equipment manufacturers and telecommunications carriers, meet regularly in Geneva and elsewhere to develop mutually acceptable voluntary standards which can be adopted by the global telecommunications industry for the benefit of all.

But while the world’s vast network of wireline telecommunications, satellite systems, undersea cables and fixed radio links were developed under the auspices of the ITU in an internationally cooperative manner, the first mobile systems tended to be the product of national or regional bodies. Way back in the 1980s when analogue and then second generation digital standards were being developed and implemented, these organizations had no way of predicting just how mobile users would become.

With the number of mobile subscribers worldwide now expected to rise to 500 million by the turn of the century, uncertainty about the future of mobile communications is a thing of the past. Secure in the promise of a growing number of subscribers, the telecommunications industry began to think about developing something that would solve the problem of a plethora of incompatible standards which complicated equipment production, network operation and management of the radio frequency spectrum.

Working under the auspices of the ITU, the industry acknowledged that the evolutionary path to third generation systems which would support the kinds of applications users would want in the 21st century called for a unified global mobile standard which would offer true global roaming, anywhere, anytime. It set about making this vision a reality in 1986, when the first work began on what is now known as IMT-2000. Today, after more than 10 years of coordinated standards development, IMT-2000 is on the brink of becoming a reality.


One of the cornerstones of the ITU’s vision of IMT-2000 was a unified radio frequency spectrum allocation around the world, obviating the need for complex equipment which could operate over – and automatically adjust to – a range of different frequencies. The Union’s World Administrative Radio Conference in Torremolinos in 1992 identified 230MHz of spectrum for IMT-2000 on a global basis, and beefed up that allocation slightly for the satellite component of the system at WRC-95.

Decisions by ITU’s WARC-92, further corroborated by WRC-97, call for administrations to "make the necessary frequency available "for IMT-2000. Although in most parts of the world regulators are making the necessary provisions at the national and regional levels to assign the 2 GHz band to IMT-2000 services, the situation is different in North America. Personal Communications System (PCS) – as 2nd generation systems are known in North America – are operating or licensed in most of IMT-2000 identified spectrum. Intense efforts are being undertaken in ITU to come to grips with this disparate situation bringing to scene the prospects of a harmonized world-wide spectrum for IMT-2000.

Further consideration of worldwide spectrum requirements for IMT-2000 is already on the agenda of the next ITU World Radiocommunication Conference, and it is likely that future conferences will also continue to examine the necessity of further allocations to accommodate the increasing amount of broadband traffic, as third generation systems become entrenched and applications become increasingly interactive.


Third generation systems – or 3G, as they are often called – will offer much more than today’s voice-dominated mobile networks. The portable phone of tomorrow will represent a totally new breed of equipment, an amalgamation of several of today’s existing but differentiated products.

Mike Short, Director of International Affairs for Cellnet, the mobile arm of UK giant BT, sees next-generation mobile as a "standard life tool, as universal as the wallet but a lot more useful."

"Tomorrow’s mobile will be the product of the convergence of the infocommunications industries," he says, "a hybrid between a computer laptop and a mobile phone, with even more functionality than today’s standalone units can offer."

This hybrid ‘personal communicator’ will combine a wide range of different functions in a single, pocket or purse-sized unit. It will be voice activated, obviating the need for clunky number pads. It will come with a flexible, pull-out screen for videotelephony or for viewing pages on the World Wide Web. It will serve as a portable computer which can connect seamlessly and quickly to the remote corporate network; a communications device capable of sending and receiving data, voice, sound and images; and an electronic secretary which reminds us of our daily schedule, books our meetings, dials our routine calls for us and automatically connects us to virtual meetings via audio- and videoconferencing functions.

Matt Desch, President of Nortel Wireless Networks says 3G systems will have the power to offer the full functionality of a desktop system in the palm of the hand. "[The new personal communicator] will contain one unique phone number that is yours for life. Always on, and with a battery charge measured in days, not hours, a device like this will continually be connected to the Internet. It will wake you in the morning and travel will you to the office, the mall, the ballpark. It will be with you on the plane to Istanbul or Tokyo or any point in between, hunting and delivering information you have commanded it to find or monitor – headline news with pictures, weather reports, research bulletins, video e-mail, and all the information available on your PC at work," he says.

Space age as they sound, some equipment manufacturers already have prototypes of these new communications devices operating under trial conditions. A few forward-looking carriers, too, have already begun experimenting with new ways these next generation mobile systems might be used. Lars Persson, Marketing Director of Swedish Telia, describes two pilot projects now underway within his company. "Here at Telia we have some very interesting applications already running. One involves payment directly from your mobile phone, without the need for a credit card or automatic direct debit card. The phone itself will make contact with the bank’s computer, verify your credit or check your account balance, and register the debit when you make a purchase. We also have our own voice dialling project, via which users can ask their phone to dial numbers, connect to someone’s voice mailbox, or retrieve messages."


With so many potential benefits and a rapidly growing user base, development of a standard for third generation mobiles has been one of the ITU’s most ambitious projects. The vision of IMT-2000 describes a unified global broadband wireless system capable of supporting data rates of up to 2Mbps and able to be used anywhere in the world – even places normal cellphones can’t reach.

Standards development work for IMT-2000 is currently underway in both the Radiocommunication and Telecommunications Standardization sectors of the ITU(ITU-R and ITU-T). Under the leadership of ITU-R Study Group 8 (System and Radio Aspects) and ITU-T Study Group 11 (Signalling and Protocols) almost 30 new or revised standards for IMT-2000 have already been or will be approved in the next few months, with many more expected in the next two years leading up to system deployment.


When designing the kind of mobile system that would meet the demands of users in the year 2000 and beyond, the architects of IMT-2000 identified several key factors essential to the success of the next-generation of mobile communications.

First, they realized that any new system must be able to support high-speed broadband services, such as fast Internet access or multimedia-type applications. Demand for such services is already growing fast –Ragu Gurumurthy, a New York-based principal with consultants Booz Allen & Hamilton says his company predicts the market for broadband services will be worth up to US$10 billion by 2010. Tomorrow’s users will expect to be able to access their favourite services just as easily from their mobile as they can from their wireline equipment.

Second, the system needed to be as flexible as possible, supporting new kinds of services such as universal personal numbering and satellite telephony. Features will greatly extend the reach of mobile systems, benefiting consumers and operators alike. Ed Staiano, Vice Chairman and CEO with GMPCS operator Iridium, speaks of the importance of an integrated system to replace the fragmented mobile environment of today. "Iridium is already planning its next generation global mobile personal communications system to meet IMT-2000 objectives, with the capability for seamless roaming to and from IMT-2000 compatible terrestrial wireless networks. The IMT-2000 standard process is crucial for this effort. "

Third, the system had to be as affordable as today’s mobile, if not more so. "Pricing is the largest factor holding back faster growth in mobile systems," comments Booz Allen’s Gurumurthy. The ITU recognized that the economies of scale achievable with a single global standard would have the benefit of driving down the price to the user – important for all consumers, but vital to extending the penetration of telephony in developing countries. "For 3rd generation equipment to be taken up quickly by consumers, it must deliver at least the same or better service than current systems, and it must be cheap," notes Nokia’s Bergqvist. "Even though economies of scale will inevitably bring prices down once sufficient volumes are achieved, if the systems are more expensive and don’t initially offer much greater functionality, consumers won’t buy."

Fourth, and perhaps most vitally, any new generation system has to offer effective evolutionary path for existing networks. While the advent of digital systems in the early 1990s often prompted the shutting down of earlier analogue networks, the enormous investments which have been made in developing the world’s 2nd generation cellular networks over the last decade makes a similar scenario for 3G completely unthinkable.

Fabio Leite, an ITU expert on mobile systems and a key driver of the IMT-2000 project within the Union, agrees wholeheartedly. "Protecting current investment is a very valid reason for a transitional phase for the implementation of 3rd generation," he says. "IMT-2000 puts great emphasis on evolution paths, migration paths. The ITU is very market driven – many of our members are operators and equipment manufacturers, so we are extremely sensitive to the need to protect the investment and work already put into building cellular networks."

In designing the IMT-2000 system, the ITU was also aware of the need to preserve a competitive domain for manufacturers in order to foster incentive and stimulate innovation. "The kind of global standard we are talking about really represents a framework," explains Dr Pekka Tarjanne, ITU Secretary-General. "We are always mindful that industrial organizations need to have the freedom to compete when it comes to technology. The aim of standards is not to stifle the evolution of better technologies or innovative approaches."


With many of the most important standards in place, work at the ITU is now focused on selecting the all-important air interface technology for the system, known as the RTT (radio transmission technology). By the deadline 30 June, 1998, the ITU had received 15 submissions from organizations and regional bodies all around the world. These proposals have now been examined by special independent Evaluation Groups, which submitted their final evaluation reports to the ITU at the end of September 1998. The final selection of the key characteristics which will make up the IMT-2000 set of radio interfaces will be made during the period of consensus building ending in March 1999.

For operators and equipment manufacturers, a lot is riding on the choice of RTT. AT&T’s Ken Woo speaks of a "virtual holy war" between competing technologies in the world of mobile communications. IMT-2000 partisans Leite and Callendar also see the choice as a difficult and crucial one for the industry "The problem," notes Callendar, "is that certain organizations have a considerable strategic advantage in certain technologies – and of course they will be loath to lose that."

Leite, though, remains optimistic about the selection process. "We will most probably see a situation where the technology chosen incorporates some of the best aspects of a range of proposals. Despite competing interests, I think the industry will pull together to find a compromise – after all, the willingness of competing players to compromise and cooperate has long been a cornerstone in the development of the world’s telecommunications networks.

"In fact, the RTT selection procedure serves to illustrate very well the role of the ITU. We have the power to bring everyone to the table and to work towards a consensus. That’s our job, that’s why we’re here. The ITU is in the unique position of representing the entire industry on a global level, and we are probably the only organization which could hope to get such an agreement on a global standard," he says.

Radio Transmission Technology Candidates*

RTT Candidate



    Indoor Pedestrian Vehicular Satellite  
DECT Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications



UWC-136 Universal Wireless Communications



Wireless Multimedia & Messaging Services Wideband CDMA





Time Division Synchronous CDMA




W-CDMA Wideband CDMA X X X - Japan
CDMA II Asynchronous DS-CDMA X X X - South Korea
UTRA UMTS Terrestrial Radio Access X X X - ETSI
NA:W-CDMA North American Wideband CDMA X X X - USA
CDMA-2000 Wideband CDMA (IS-95) X X X - USA
CDMA-1 Multi-band synchronous



- South Korea
SAT-CDMA Satellite-based CDMA system - - - X South Korea
SW-CDMA Satellite-based Wideband CDMA


X European Space Agency
SW-CTDMA Satellite Wideband hybrid CDMA/TDMA - - - X European Space Agency
ICO RTT ICO-developed satellite system - - - X ICO
Horizons Inmarsat-developed satellite system


X Inmarsat

* As submitted by the 30 June 1998 deadline.

Leite’s optimism is backed up by leading equipment developers. Åke Persson, Director of Marketing and Sales at Ericsson, says the new system will represent a revolution in the move to the global mobile Information Age. "For the global telecommunications community, IMT-2000 is a decisive moment. It will bring people together and break down geographical and cultural barriers in an unparalleled way." Motorola agrees. "The unfulfilled dreams of the 20th century become realizable with the technology and spectrum associated with 3G," prophesies Executive Vice President Merle L. Gilmore.


Once the decision on a new air interface has been made, work on remaining standards can be completed and ready for manufacturers and operator by 2000.

The first 3rd generation systems should then appear on the market sometime around 2002, probably initially in countries which already have a sizeable mobile user base and a strong demand for the new kinds of broadband services 3G can offer.

The first IMT-2000-based phones probably won’t look too different from the phones we use today, and probably won’t be used very differently. Michael Callendar envisages multi-mode phones which work exactly like a standard digital phone on older networks, but which can take advantage of higher data rates and advanced services in situations where 3G networks are in place. "Convergence of standards into one global standard makes enormous sense, for the customer, for the operators, for the manufacturer. In the transition phase we’ll undoubtedly have multi-mode phones that can speak one of the second generation languages as well as the new third-generation language. Software will ease the pain of transition from older to newer systems for a while, Callendar says."

Nevertheless, from around 2005 it seems very likely that most of us will be using our mobile phones in a very different way. Thanks to the arduous standardization efforts undertaken by the ITU, as well as its unique ability to foster inter-industry consensus and cooperation, we will no longer think of our mobiles as mere mechanisms for chatting to our friends or business colleagues. Instead, they will have become communication devices which give us the freedom to express ourselves in just about any way we can imagine – sound clips, pictures, moving images – from just about anywhere on the face of the planet.

Copyright 1998