How to buy your very own Tower of Babel

In Italy, it is said that the most common phrase used on mobile phones is "Mamma, butta la pasta," or "put the pasta in the pot, I'll be home in a flash."

Oct 1st, 2003

Bought a phone recently? Once upon a time there was a device called a telephone. You could have a telephone in any color you wanted so long as it was black. In order to thoroughly confuse the customer, the telephone companies quickly began to spawn alphabet soup. First, there was POTS, plain old telephone service (yawn!).

Then there came DDD or direct distance dialing (i.e., further than you could see a body waving a flag). In the U.K., this was called STD, an unfortunate acronym by U.S. standards. POTS meant that you were tethered to a wall, sometimes by a long curly wire that could never be unsnarled. This could drive you potty. This did not go down well with the gabblers of the world so various geeks came up with the idea of the cellular phone. Instead of being tied to your office or monkish cell, you could carry an electronic cell around with you and annoy everybody within shouting distance. In Italy, it is said that the most common phrase used on mobile phones is "Mamma, butta la pasta," or "put the pasta in the pot, I'll be home in a flash." Basta!

In most of the civilized world, this cell phone headache was known as GSM, the global system for mobile communications. GSM was based on TDMA (can you hear me, now?) or time-division multiple access, a system that worked fine in town and across country. But in the U.S. and a few other stubborn countries, the dictated choice was CDMA (no, I can't hear you) or code-division multiple access. A Tower of Babel ensued in the offices of the telephone service providers around the world. The search for UMTS was on (that's universal mobile telephone service just in case you are acronym-challenged). Funny thing, but POTS was universal long before GSM. But I digress.

This holy grail has become known as 3GSM, the third-generation global system for mobile communications that promised, "gasp!" mobile Internet. There have been some hiccups along the way resulting in 2.5GSM (don't ask) and EDGE (enhanced data rates for GSM evolution). This is because, until recently, mobile phones used to transmit data using a system known as CSD (circuit-switched data) that chugged along at a piffling 9.6 kbit/s when Mars was aligned with Venus. Its big brother HSCD (high-speed CSD) wasn't much better if and when you had a reliable connection. To say that these systems were slow is an understatement. More fun could be had watching grass grow or inventing even more acronyms.

For the verbally challenged—read "teen-aged"—market, first, we had SMS, the short message service that offered 160-character-messages you bang out by using opposing thumbs on an increasingly minuscule telephone number pad. This gave rise to such abbreviations as IMHO (in my humble opinion) or LOL (lots of laughter) and others of a more salacious nature that the copy editor would not allow me to print here in this upright, sober journal. Kids love SMS, but, then, they speak in SMS, too. Coming shortly to your neighborhood are phones equipped for MMS—multimedia messaging service—described by one enthusiastic web site as the "killer app" of cell phones. If that means that MMS will kill off mad-dog barking cell phone users, I'm all in favor of it.

Now, we have GPRS, which has nothing at all to do with GPS, the global positioning system based on satellites. No, GPRS is general packet radio service that promises laptop users a data rate of up to 115 kbit/s or about three times the speed of a hard-charging 56k dial-up modem or half the speed of a domestic cable TV or a phone company DSL connection under extremely good conditions. And check the pricing. Highway robbery is the phrase that comes to mind.

Just don't call me or send me e-mail and I won't call you. CUL8R. I promise.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Online Editor
jbairstow@pennwell.com

P.S. Credit where credit is due department: I found a lot of this acronymia in a web site called www.mobilejargonbuster.com believe it or not! I'm still confused.

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