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The 'mobile' maze

Confused by the high-tech hype about mobile phone options? If you want to make sense of the confusing scenario, read on...

THE RECENT announcement of slashed tariffs by most of India's cellular phone providers, and the news that triggered it — the entry of Reliance Telecom into the mobile `maidan' with its slogan: "Roti, kapda, makaan and mobile" — has left many consumers confused. How to navigate the jargon jungle, to separate fact from hype and to decide if mobile phones are for you and if so what the options are?

The majority of mobile phone systems worldwide, outside the U.S., use what is known as GSM: Global System for Mobile communication. It uses a technique called Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), that is it chops up the frequency band or part of the electromagnetic spectrum allotted to the phone company into tiny slices and uses one for each caller. Hence there are only so many calls that can be made at any given time. But GSM is useful for offering roaming services — where a subscriber's phone can be switched from one network of cells to another, allowing him or her use the phone virtually around the world. The services provided by companies such as Airtel, BPL, Escotel, Hutch, Spice, Aircel, Idea and Oasis are of the GSM variety.

An alternate technology is called CDMA: Code Division Multiple Access. Here each call is converted into a digital packet and sent on its way, riding on the entire allotted bandwidth. But it has its flip side: new features like short messaging service (SMS) are more complex to add and so is the roaming feature, which allows you to continue using your mobile when you move to a different region or even country.

Which is why CDMA in India has been preferred for the cheaper services in small localised areas where roaming is not required. This uses what is called Wireless in Local Loop (WiLL) — and the two government agencies, BSNL and MTNL, as well as limited mobility providers use CDMA phones to provide this limited mobile service as well as to connect fixed locations in a small area like a town.

Because CDMA is the less-used technology worldwide, CDMA phones tend to be a little costlier: they cost Rs 6,000-Rs.10,000 while GSM phones come as cheap as Rs. 3,000.

These days one demands more from one's phone than mere talking or SMS-ing. One wants to exchange email, send and receive pictures, and even video. A phone that does all this is called a 3rd generation or 3G phone. CDMA technology is easier for this sort of multimedia use; GSM phones can do it, but so far few models have achieved 3G status.

This is the reason why CDMA companies tout their technology as something for the future. The rub for you and me is that these two rival systems are not on talking terms: i.e. if you are currently a GSM-wallah with a service provided by one of the existing cellular providers, you cannot jump on the CDMA bandwagon, just because the offer of Reliance this past month sounded so tempting with its talk of phone calls cheaper than a postcard. The two phones are incompatible.

So what should one do? If you are already a mobile user, hang on to your phone. On the other hand, if you are a new aspirant for a mobile phone, carefully assess your need. Is the phone only for use in your town to keep in touch with family or local contacts? If the chances of your travelling far are rare, go for the WiLL services of Reliance, Tata or one of the government providers that use CDMA. If however, you need to keep in touch while roaming across India (and even beyond), a GSM provider is your best bet.

A.VISHNU

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