North America’s 3G freak show.

If you live outside of North America, here’s your chance to point and laugh — mobile users here not only have to choose between two incompatible technologies, but between incompatible bands of the same technology. As if things weren’t confusing enough.

It’s mostly thanks to AWS, short for Advanced Wireless Services. What that moniker actually means for you and I is a decidedly non-standard band of 1700MHz 3G service, where most networks at least operate within the same spectrum of 1900MHz.

Though there are some technical merits to AWS, I think I can say with some confidence that the only reason for its existence is a lack of available 3G spectrum in the United States. This quote, straight from the horse’s mouth, will back me up:

In order to keep pace with this growth and provide additional spectrum for providers, the Commission is currently working to draft rules, auction, and license additional spectrum, labeled AWS, that can be used to offer a variety of wireless services, including Third Generation (“3G”) mobile broadband and advanced wireless services.

Judging by the design on the originating page and the quotes around “3G” I’d reckon that the FCC hasn’t updated their site in at least five years, maybe ten. Anyway, mega-carrier T-Mobile ponied up for the freak AWS spectrum (having no other choice) and in so doing made everything more confusing for everyone.

As with everything else the US & A does, Canada follows in lock-step with an enthusiastic “me too”. Thus, we have Bell, Rogers and Telus (and their subsidiaries) all running 1900Mhz 3G networks for compatible handsets, and upstarts Mobilicity and WIND Mobile (plus Videotron in Québec) running 1700MHz AWS and requiring compatible handsets of their own.

Lest you think that AWS is some abomination to be avoided on principle, it’s not — there are at least two fantastic devices that use it, Google’s Nexus One and Nokia’s N900. There’s a different version of the N1 that runs on 1900MHz 3G, but if you want Nokia’s Linux phone you need an AWS network to run it on, or make do with 2G service. There is but one handset I know of — the pentaband Nokia N8 — that’s compatible with every single 3G network in North America… and its literally just come to market.

I’d love to tell you that 4G/LTE networks will bring standardization in the bandwidths that our handsets use, but it’s just not gonna happen; we’re too far down this crazy road already — or rather, two separate and incompatible ones. Even more if you include the rest of the world.


  1. AC:
    Gotta love how something that’s being spun as a more open market is actually a market with two tiers. The new telcos undoubtedly need to drop a ton of money on the AWS phones instead of being able to buy the same models the big 3 use…

  2. Er, not exactly.

    I wouldn’t call AWS “second-tier” — it’s just a spec that’s incompatible with PCS (1900 MHz).

    And thanks to T-Mobile’s global operations in some 12 international markets, there isn’t any premium on AWS hardware as far as I know…

  3. AC:
    Sorry, I misunderstood. After all, I’m used to the Big 3 Canadian Telcos making it as difficult as possible for new competitors….
    On the other hand, why we don’t have one standard for all phones is another way The Man keeps us down…

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