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Outwardly mobile: What can disabled users expect from UMTS, the new generation in mobile communications?

UMTS summarised

UMTS, as the European implementation of the world-wide IMT 2000 concept of mobile communication, is bound to have a dramatic effect on the lives of every citizen although it appears to be an unknown quantity at the moment. The mobile phone has developed in a short time from a specialised and expensive (and closely regulated) item of business equipment into a commonly available lifestyle accessory. The next decade will see a far greater change as UMTS brings a wide-band capability to the mobile terminal. The Internet has opened new horizons in global communication and information transfer between fixed points, but UMTS and IMT 2000 will remove the connection constraints and make this capability truly portable.

UMTS is therefore much more than an extension of the GSM network of digital mobile phones, although it will evolve from this platform. As well as offering much improved geographical coverage, it will provide high-speed data transmission that will transform the use made of the mobile terminal - mobile phone will then be an inadequate description.

UMTS terminals will be able to send and receive speech, text, music, graphics and data, thereby offering multi-media facilities. A UMTS terminal and a lap-top computer will provide access to the Internet and the Web. The network will function as an information highway, giving access to a range of Internet Protocol based services. It will inter-connect with the PSTN and may ultimately replace it.

Development of UMTS technology and services is quite deliberately being left to commercial market forces, because this is seen as the only way to provide the flexibility and rapidity of response essential in applying a fast-moving technology. Although the stated policy of the EU is to ensure equality of access to the Information Society and, specifically, to provide access for elderly and disabled people, there is a danger that they may inadvertently be left out through the pace of progress. This danger must be recognised, and all instances watched for, so that correcting measures can be put in place just as soon as the technology has stabilised sufficiently to allow of it.

UMTS, standing for Universal Mobile Telephone System, is the name given to the third generation of modern mobile telephone services, following on from the first generation analogue cellular networks and the second generation digital global system for mobiles (GSM). Once that statement has been made there is little to add, except that there is much conjecture and little hard fact about UMTS. Why should this be? Most major technological developments are trailed well in advance, to whet the appetites of potential customers, to enhance the image of their originators and to steal a march on the competition. Why, then, so much secrecy about UMTS? Is it real or is it science fiction, more prophesy than substance?

UMTS is real enough. It marks the beginning of the end of fixed telecommunications, of digging up streets and hanging wires from poles in order to transmit signals from place to place. It means that the telephone becomes truly personal, with the telephone number being associated with an individual and not with a residence or an office. It means the ability to use non-voice as well as voice telecommunications anywhere, to send and receive Fax and Email: messages on the move, to access the Internet and to download or transmit data packages without having to seek out a fixed terminal. It means that the Information Society will become precisely that.

Picking the right technology

The rewards for the successful providers of UMTS, and for the communities which adopt it, are potentially enormous but so are the calamities for those who get it wrong. Wrong, in this context, has little to do with technological superiority and much more to do with bringing a commercially acceptable product to the market-place at the right time. Therein lies the reason for the apparent secrecy. When the telecommunications sector was dominated by massive national monopolies with no fear of competition, new developments could be trailed to the public long before they were ready to be rolled out. Methods of inter-working between incompatible systems, across national frontiers, could be negotiated slowly and precisely in committees. Teams of experts could develop technical standards with painstaking thoroughness, while their commercial colleagues forged parallel agreements for the sharing of traffic revenues. Nothing could move until there was consensus, and innovations could be disclosed and even shared in pursuit of the common interest of the service providers. This is no longer the case in the new fiercely competitive world of telecommunications.

In a competitive regime, the supplier who reads the signs from the market-place carries off the prizes. The product need not necessarily be the best or even the cheapest, but if it has a collection of properties which takes the public's fancy it will succeed. In the IT and consumer electronics sectors, there are abundant examples of good quality products which have failed to gain the universal acceptance needed to generate support with service, consumables and external compatibility. Because this universal acceptance is market-driven and not controlled by formal standards or administrative actions, the so-called 'industry standard' has far greater leverage than any negotiated approach. The recognition of this hard fact of commercial life lies behind the silence on UMTS. Legislators and regulators have realised that their skills do not lie in the reading of the world's markets. They have concluded, no doubt wisely, that they would be doing no favours to anyone if they were to impose technological solutions that turned out to be what the commercial world impolitely refers to as 'turkeys'.

Technology-led or market-driven?

If the choice of technology is to be left to the commercial players then the primary role of regulators has to be to identify and inhibit actions which are anti-competitive. Meanwhile, the commercial players will regard their technological innovations as high-value items to be kept secure until ready for profitable release, so disclosure is limited to that necessary for their collaborators to produce essential supporting products and services. The development of UMTS in Europe is proceeding according to these principles, with the identification and adoption of the fundamental technical standards being left primarily as a task for industry. Companies with relevant technology to offer can therefore work in confidence with chosen partners while avoiding premature disclosure of their system details to competitors. The result should be a set of packages that are available globally, through partnerships and product licence agreements, but this approach does not guarantee compatibility between competing technologies. There are concerns that the emergence of differing systems will bring problems of incompatibility, although it is of course very much in the commercial interests of service providers to ensure that traffic that originates on one system can be routed to another. Without such inter-operation the concept of a 'universal' mobile system would be a nonsense.

Although the market-place will ultimately exert pressure for compatibility, it does not follow that the added-value services offered by one provider will be matched by all others. The competitive edge of one player over its rivals is as likely to hinge on the availability of unique add-on offerings as on the tariff levels for a basket of basic services. The essence of the competitive approach is that the market will ultimately pick the best products and leave the others to wither, with the implied outcome that the less successful suppliers will go out of business or be absorbed by their rivals. The consequence for their customers could at worst be cessation of service or at least a loss of some features which had been attractive in the first instance. The more cautious consumers may prefer to wait until the 'cutting edge' of technology has stabilised before sampling UMTS. The size and reputation of the service provider is no guarantee that a winning technology has been picked, as witnessed by the battle for videotape recorder supremacy, although the more prestigious companies are less likely to leave customers unsupported. However, less spectacular forms of market failure can give rise to problems and, for disabled users, there is the difficulty that their needs may be overlooked in the intense pressure for commercial success in lucrative markets.


If the regulators cannot ensure that all UMTS systems are fully compatible, they can at least urge that a common level of service is available to all users wherever they may go. With a fixed system, it may not matter very much if the technology used by one service provider is not compatible with any other, because the service will only interconnect with the others at defined points, where suitable interfacing equipment can be installed. The same was true of early mobile networks, because traffic between them had to be routed through fixed gateways. But a global or universal system implies that wherever the users of mobile phones may travel, their terminals will continue to operate. The only practical way to achieve this is by allowing subscribers to one network to have access to other networks when away from their usual territory. This facility, which requires a high degree of technical compatibility as well as a sophisticated system for call logging and charging, is known as 'roaming'. Within Europe, there will be an obligation upon Member States to encourage UMTS network providers to negotiate cross-border roaming agreements to provide seamless community-wide coverage. This principle is expected to operate globally, but it will come about largely as a result of commercial pressures. Customers will expect their terminals to function anywhere, regardless of which service providers they have signed up with. The service provider has to ensure that his offerings are in line with market needs and, in a truly seamless service, the customer would not be aware of any geographical or technological frontiers.

Technical standards

For UMTS to be realised, and for it to achieve this objective of seamless world-wide coverage, it is evident that a high degree of standardisation will be necessary. Some of the standards are needed from the outset; for example, terminals cannot be manufactured unless there is an agreed air interface which will enable roaming terminals to operate on different networks. The European telecommunications Standards body ETSI is charged with preparing a common and open standard for Europe, but that standard is to be offered to the International telecommunications Union (ITU) as an option for the world-wide system. Since other standards are being prepared in the USA and Japan, and these will also be put forward as options, it does not follow that the ETSI standard will succeed. As UMTS aims to be world-wide, and all the larger manufacturers are looking for global markets, one likely possibility is that the industry representatives will be pressing for sufficient commonality in all the options for it not to matter very much which might finally be adopted. In that case, the role of the standards bodies would be seen to be subservient to a separate form of industry consensus.

What will UMTS offer?


As a European system, UMTS is required to be capable of supporting certain features. Chief amongst these is a wide-band multi-media capability, that is, not just voice or text but all the elements of speech, music, text and graphics that are available simultaneously from - for example - a personal computer when connected to a source such as an Internet site. This capability must be realised in locations which are out of reach of the GSM system, although Member States may need to invoke some form of universal service approach to ensure coverage of the more remote areas. It does not mean that each and every terminal will provide the facilities of a PC, but an appropriate terminal could replace the present modem and telephone line in order to input and output data.

Internet Access

UMTS will provide high speed access to the Internet, as well as to Intranets and any other systems using the Internet Protocol (I/P). It is to be a broadband service with data rates of up to 2 Mbit/s for a stationary terminal, less when on the move.

High quality voice

The quality of speech transmission is to be better than is often associated with mobiles, and on a level with that of fixed networks.

Service portability

An individual user will be able to receive service in any or all of the public/private/business environments, and through fixed as well as mobile terminals, because UMTS will combine all these separate elements within a single service.


Operation of UMTS is to be seamless between terrestrial and satellite links and when roaming in GSM style networks.

Air Interface

A new air interface for terrestrial radio networks will provide access to all services including packet data transmission, with the potential to adjust bandwidth (data rate) on demand for asymmetric traffic. By this and other means good spectral efficiency will be achieved.

Core Network

By evolution from existing core network systems, such as GSM, the functions of call handling, service control, location and mobility management and full roaming functionality will be developed. Convergence between fixed and mobile networks will be allowed for.

But what does it mean to the user?

This is the point where prediction takes over from hard fact. Although UMTS is a European operation, it is intended as a component of the world-wide IMT 2000 concept (described later). A mobile UMTS terminal will - eventually - be able to function anywhere in the world regardless of the location of the user's contractual service provider and it will furnish access to a range of broadband services wherever it is used. The terminal will therefore be a fully mobile wide-band network termination point, to which the user may connect all manner of network peripherals including personal computers, scanners and printers. With a mobile phone and a portable computer, access to data services and the Internet will become possible anywhere, even on the move. It is envisaged that the core network will be organised somewhat like the Internet, that is, as an information highway which carries data on behalf of others. That data may be freely accessible by anyone, as with a public Website, or it may be restricted to a defined group of users forming a private network, or confined to a single pair engaged in a telephone call.

It is expected that basic UMTS terminals will be small and inexpensive, although even for voice-only service they will need to be quite complex. The operational requirement for seamless functioning means that they will need to support both terrestrial and satellite elements of UMTS networks, as well as providing full roaming on the GSM networks from which UMTS is likely to evolve. UMTS terminals are likely to be dual band/dual mode hybrids capable of automatic selection as they move from one area of coverage to another.

Some terminals will be even more sophisticated. One manufacturer has shown a prototype video UMTS terminal that will allow high speed downloading of cinema films which can then be viewed on its small in-built screen. With Internet access at 2 Mbit/s, downloading of Email:s, files, graphics and images will be quick and easy. Even on the move, when data rates may drop to about 140 kbit/s, video-conferencing should be possible with suitable terminals. The choice between simple terminals with inter-connected accessories and more complex, special purpose, dedicated terminals will be governed by market forces. UMTS is already being hailed as the gateway to a new information-based lifestyle so it is only to be expected that new ranges of innovative products - perhaps with 'designer labels' - will emerge to exploit its potential to the full.

Exclusive or inclusive

Some terminal accessories will be embedded in consumer products almost without the user's knowledge. The 'Bluetooth' technology, which has recently been announced, provides for information transfer to and from domestic appliances with the outputs then relayed to a mobile phone. It is suggested that, if your refrigerator monitors an impending lack of milk, it can then activate your UMTS phone to alert the local super-market, which then sends a message asking you to confirm that you want some delivered.

While some of the offerings may seem to derive from 'technology push' without any obvious evidence of consumer pull, there is no doubt that the broadband UMTS services offer great potential for domestic as well as business users, especially if the start-up costs can be carried in the business sector. Although there are ethical issues in the exploitation of technologies such as Bluetooth, which go far beyond the regime of telecommunications regulation, the scope for improving quality of life - for people with disabilities in particular - is considerable.

Although basic UMTS terminals may be cheap when manufactured in large quantity, it does not follow that UMTS services will not be expensive. The capital costs of providing a UMTS infrastructure, as distinct from a slightly upgraded GSM infrastructure, will be enormous and consequently roll-out will be dictated by the potential for revenue. The initial broadband coverage is therefore likely to be in major cities and business centres, and along travel routes frequented by business users. Experience shows that charging for telecommunications services is based upon a combination of time and bandwidth, with distance as a secondary factor, so a 'bandwidth on demand' service like UMTS can be expected to be costly for any wide-band elements. This will be off-set by lower time charges when downloading data, for example, and for users who need mobility the service will be particularly attractive.

In time, the growth of competition and payback of start-up costs will bring down prices and this should coincide with a determined move to attract domestic customers, but it is not yet clear how the pricing structures for an essentially seamless service will be worked out. Menu pricing, with the same basic tariffs for domestic and business customers and a list of added value options, might be one answer. Although PSTN and ISDN services will be two of the elements to be merged seamlessly with UMTS, and perhaps ultimately rendered obsolete by it, their separate existence will for a long time act as a source of cost comparison and competition. Broadband applications such as video-telephony, at the frame refresh rates that are needed for lip-reading or signed communication, are not likely to be cheap on UMTS but neither are they on ISDN. Because of its universality, UMTS offers far better prospects of network externality than ISDN and it would make good technological sense to apply it to that purpose at the outset. However, the commercial case might look rather different.

A similar prospect might be encountered with text Telephony, which does not require high bandwidth and is readily carried over the PSTN. But the special purpose PSTN terminals are expensive and there are problems over data protocols. A UMTS network which is geared to text transmission would avoid these problems, for text send/receive terminals would become commonplace, and therefore cheap. Furthermore, a 'bandwidth on demand' facility could be most attractive because the wide-band capability would be needed only for the few milliseconds occupied in transmitting each message, and not for the very many seconds required to compose it. Although text calls would still take longer in real time, in terms of network occupancy they could be cheaper than voice calls. Here again, the ability to realise such potential advantages for disabled users hinges upon the time-scale for rolling out affordable UMTS services for domestic customers.

These few examples show how UMTS might bring welcome services within reach of users with disabilities, as long as the service providers recognise their value as customers. The UK Government has indicated that it will put consumer interest ahead of any other concerns in implementing third generation mobile services, but its powers to do so are limited by its Treaty obligations within the European Union and especially within the Single Market.

The history of UMTS shows very clearly that there is only one objective, which is to come up with a world-beating system. That does mean a system which achieves dominance in the world's markets, which must include consumers, but that may not be what everyone understands by 'consumer interest'. Arguably, it is not in the interests of consumers to be offered a service which is a commercial failure, so there is logic in the Commission's approach, but Member States will need to keep up the pressure to ensure that the words of a Commission document are heeded. In the transition towards the wireless information society, "development of UMTS and relevant standards should be co-ordinated with related efforts, such as ..... access for elderly and disabled persons and research into the possible health hazards of mobile communications".

Chronology and regulation of UMTS

In 1992, the ITU World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC 92) identified the spectrum for satellite and terrestrial parts of a new generation of mobile telecommunications systems. These were designated as Future Public Land Mobile telecommunications Systems (FPLMTS) but were subsequently renamed IMT 2000. In ITU Resolution 212 and WARC 95 it was proposed that the year 2000 should be the target for initial implementation of the terrestrial element.

UMTS is the European Union's approach to third generation mobiles and it therefore needs to be compatible with the concept of IMT 2000. In 1995, the Commission gave ETSI a mandate to prepare the UMTS standards, which would have to take into account the deadlines and final requirements decided upon by the ITU. Although the Commission has re-iterated that the use of standards is voluntary, it has also recognised that a mandatory level of commonality may have to be imposed in respect of the air interface and also to facilitate roaming.

A UMTS Forum was set up at the end of 1996, to advise on the development of a policy framework. This included regulators, operators, manufacturers, ETSI, the European Radio-communications and telecommunications Offices (ERO and ETO), and other interested parties. On 29 May 1997, the Commission presented a Communication [COM(97)217] to the European Parliament and the Council on the further development of wireless and mobile communications. After consulting within the UMTS Forum, a further Communication [COM(97)513] on Strategy and Policy Orientations for UMTS was presented on 15 October. Among the objectives set out in the October 1997 Communication were increased investment security and the preparation of a regulatory framework to promote innovation and flexibility by industry.

These Communications in turn led to a Commission proposal of 29 April 1998 [OJ C131 p9] which resulted in a Common Position adopted by the Council on 24 September. This was translated into a formal Decision of the European Parliament and the Council on 14 December (published in the Official Journal on 22 January 1999 as Decision No 128/1999/EC). This Decision sets out certain actions and a timetable. The European Conference of Postal and telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) is to be mandated from February 1999 on further spectrum allocation. This would include the freeing-up of additional spectrum beyond that set by WARC 92 for the European realisation of FPLMTS. Also from February 1999, CEPT will be mandated to establish 'one-stop shopping' procedures for UMTS services, so that intending service providers can obtain their authorisations from a single approach instead of having to apply separately for the various elements of their licences.

Member States have until 1 January 2000 to establish authorisation systems for their UMTS operators, with a view to introducing services two years later in a co-ordinated and progressive fashion. The provision of UMTS is to be organised pursuant to standards approved or developed by ETSI, where these are available, "including in particular a common, open and internationally competitive air-interface standard". Frequency bands harmonised by CEPT are to be used and Member States are required to ensure that licences allow trans-national roaming in the Community. They are also required to encourage negotiation of roaming agreements, subject to the overall obligation to grant licences on the basis of objective, non-discriminatory, detailed and proportionate criteria. The numbers of licences to be issued are to be limited only by lack of spectrum capacity but, given that such a limit does exist, Member States are required to co-ordinate their approach in order to avoid wastage of spectrum by authorising incompatible systems.

The only clearly defined property which Member States have to offer by way of a licence authorisation is their UMTS frequency allocation, and this is being seen as a resource of high commercial value. The UK is well to the front in the issue of UMTS licences and is likely to offer the first batch of five for auction before the end of 1999. Other Member States will follow and, unless a special dispensation is applied for, all must have their initial authorisations made by 2002. By issuing authorisations in accordance with the Decision before the 'one-stop shopping' procedure is operational, before the ETSI standards for UMTS are published, and before any criteria for system compatibility have been developed, Member States will be emphasising that the commercial race is on.

Should there be any lingering doubt that this market-led approach is intentional, it is necessary only to read Article 1 of the Decision: "The aim of this Decision shall be to facilitate the rapid and co-ordinated introduction of compatible UMTS networks and services in the Community on the basis of internal market principles and in accordance with commercial demand."

Contenders for licences will have prepared their business cases on the basis of their own projections of what the future holds, and established their auction bids accordingly. Those who are successful will then have the opportunity to put their systems into operation and gather field experience which will in turn feed back into industry standards. This is a chicken and egg process where the egg, at the moment, consists of a list of spectrum allocation. Its growth into a chicken rather than any other form of fowl will depend upon the reactions of the market-place, with the regulators as interested but relatively powerless spectators. This is not a situation where the needs of disabled users constitute a driving factor and the disability bodies need to be watchful as events unfold. It may be that they can do little more than identify potential problems and be ready with suggestions for 'patches' to correct them. In the longer term, as the technology and the markets stabilise, the benefits for disabled users from UMTS and IMT 2000 are enormous. In order to realise these benefits the disability bodies must recognise that, while they may not be able to influence the major decisions, they must be ready to play an active and constructive role with the telecommunications industry and the regulators in promoting awareness of the importance of their clients.

What do disability organisations need to do?

Since UMTS and IMT 2000 are set to develop under the influence of commercial driving forces, disability organisations should not expect that specific telecommunications legislation and regulation will do much - initially, at least - to protect the interests of their clients. There may be scope and the will, once the market has stabilised, to introduce measures which protect disadvantaged consumers without damaging the enterprises in their embryonic state.

In the early stages, such measures seem improbable. The protection which does exist from the outset is that contained in horizontal legislation, which has a more general effect not confined to the telecommunications sector. The UK's Disability Discrimination Act is a good example but, like many measures of this nature, it is not harmonised even across the European Union. Nevertheless, international operators will be influenced by the existence of such legislation in any significant areas of their market, even to the extent of accommodating it within their standard offerings rather than attempting to run with too many differing national packages. As there are very many areas of horizontal legislation which operators will have to be aware of, covering copyright, fraud, privacy, harmful material, financial conduct and so on, there is good reason to highlight this one in case it should be overlooked.

The real question for disability organisations is that of forecasting what kinds of problem might arise with UMTS services and then to take a very broad view of the potential solutions. The difficulty is that UMTS may be viewed either as a relatively simple upgrade to familiar mobile telephone services, or as a totally unfamiliar concept ushering in a dramatically altered style of living previously seen only in science fiction. Both views are valid, in the short-term and long-term respectively. The issues which follow must therefore be regarded as merely examples, by no means exhaustive.

This commentary has been prepared by Tony Shipley for the RNIB Scientific Research Unit and for PhoneAbility (formerly called COST 219 UK Group). The information and comments are presented in good faith but readers intending to act upon them are advised to obtain independent confirmation of critical points before so doing.

ISBN 1 86048 021 7

© Copyright reserved, August 1999


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