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What exactly is the difference between UMTS and GSM?

Well the first thing we need to clarify here is

that calling the original voice service GSM is a bit of a misnomer. GSM is actally the name given to
the entire system !on which a cell !hone and its service are !art. The term GSM encom!asses
everything from the air interface to the way in which the switches interact with one another" as well
as to the landlines to which they connect. #owever" in this context we are sing GSM to refer to the
old $.%G service that most &orth 'merican(s )now as GSM. UMTS is the new iteration of the GSM air
*)ay" so now that we have the nit!ic)s ot of way" let(s delve into the differences between the old
and the new air interfaces. The original GSM service was based on a T+M' ,Time +ivision Mlti!le
'ccess- scheme. This a!!roach bro)e ! a single channel into varios slots" which !hones too) trns
transmitting on in order to share the channel. The new UMTS service ses a .+M' ,.ode +ivision
Mlti!le 'ccess- scheme.
That immediate begs com!arison to the existing networ)s that most &orth 'mericans refer to
generically as .+M' ,which" li)e GSM" is a bit of a misnomer-. .rrent .+M' !roviders inclde /ell
Mobility" Tels" S!rint 0.S" and 1eri2on. The com!arison is certainly a valid one" bt rest assred that
both of these systems are 3ite different" thogh they are based on a similar air interface technology.
The big difference between a T+M'4based system and a .+M'4based system is how the !hone deals
with handing off from one cell site to another. 5n T+M'4based systems the !hone mst wholeheartedly
switch from one channel to another in order to switch towers. There are no halfway measres here"
it(s all or nothing. 's a reslt" all T+M'4based GSM !hones sffer from slight ,bt rather annoying-
interr!tions in the adio stream whenever a handoff occrs" and if one doesn(t occr in a timely
fashion" the ser can ex!erience rather devastating degradation of the call 3ality.
5n a .+M'4based system all callers and all cell sites o!erate on the S'M6 7869U6&.:. The calls are
se!arated by the magic of encoding differences that can be sorted ot by the receiver. 7or this reason
handoffs can be achieved withot sing an all4or4nothing a!!roach. ' !hone can gently shift from one
tower to the next by selectively receiving the data stream from mlti!le sites simltaneos.
Sbse3ently handoffs are not adible.
#owever" there is a !rice to be !aid for this a!!roach. 5n order to .+M' to fnction correctly" each and
every !hone on the networ) mst be o!erating ;st a hair above the noise floor. To !revent them from
occasionally falling throgh the noise floor" ra!id corrections in transmit !ower mst be made. The
conce!t wor)s exce!tionally well in !ractice" bt occasional bots of frame errors do occr" and so
while .+M' doesn(t have the interr!tions from handoffs" it does offer its own ni3e ty!e of adio
!roblems. #owever" the overall effect on a conversation is mar)edly less annoying in a .+M' system
than in a T+M' system.
So" does that mean that UMTS sonds the same as existing .+M' networ)s? The answer to that is a
resonding &*. 5 long ago reali2ed that the decision by 9alcomm to em!loy noise4cancellation
technology into their 618. .*+6. was a hge mista)e. 5t has reslted in virtally all .+M' !hones
sonding slshy and distorted whenever there is even a small amont of bac)grond noise !resent. 5t
is the one reason why 5 !ersonally have avoided .+M' systems and 5 cringe whenever 5 have to ta)e a
call from someone sing one.
5 was therefore very concerned that UMTS wold sffer the same fate. &ow that UMTS is here" 5(ve had
!lenty of o!!ortnity to test it ot and 5(m delighted to find that the GSM engineers were wise enogh
to avoid ma)ing the same mista)e. While 5(m not <==> sre" it seems that the exact same 'M8 .*+6.
!resently sed in $.%G GSM networ)s is sed in UMTS. 5f any attem!t is made to redce bac)grond
noise by the .*+6." 5 certainly can(t detect it" and so as a reslt there is no slshiness or distortion
called by bac)grond noise.
Many years ago 5 wrote an editorial entitled 7tre .*+6.S and what we might have to !t ! with
,htt!?@@www.arcx.com@sites@6ditorials.htmA7tre.*+6.s-. &ear the end of the article 5 wrote?
I've got my fingers crossed that the engineers working on the CODECs for W-CDMA (M!"# are not
$%ite so sing&e-minded' ("M %sers have a m%ch higher e)*ectation of so%nd $%a&ity and I rather
s%s*ect that their deve&o*ment teams %nderstand this'+
7ortnately 5 was right" and it seems that GSM sers have no reason to fear that UMTS will sond
anything li)e the !resent .+M' networ)s.
Throghot my testing sing a Sony46ricsson BC%=i 5 was extremely im!ressed with the overall lac) of
interr!tions to the sond as 5 travelled far and wide. 5 was also im!ressed with how the sond 3ality
on UMTS was indistingishable from that of GSM" bt withot all of the annoying handoffs and
!rolonged bots of frame errors when a handoff did not occr in a timely manner.
Way bac) over <= years ago 5 was mesmeri2ed by the hy!e 9alcomm !blished abot the ca!abilities
of .+M'" bt ever since the day the first .+M' networ) went online arond here 5(ve been terribly
disa!!ointed. UMTS however has !roven that the hy!e was actally tre" bt it too) a bnch of
engineers who cared more abot sond 3ality than they did abot stffing as many sers into the
available s!ectrm as !ossible" to finally achieve it. 5n short" UMTS is .+M' done right.