W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) is a type of 3G cellular network. W-CDMA is the higher speed transmission protocol used in the Japanese FOMA system and in the UMTS system, a third generation follow-on to the 2G GSM networks deployed worldwide.
More technically, W-CDMA is a wideband spread-spectrum mobile air interface that utilizes the direct-sequence spread spectrum method of asynchronous code division multiple access to achieve higher speeds and support more users compared to the implementation of time division multiplexing (TDMA) used by 2G GSM networks.
Code Division Multiple Access communication networks have been developed by a number of companies over the years, but development of cell-phone networks based on CDMA (prior to W-CDMA) was dominated by Qualcomm, the first company to succeed in developing a practical and cost-effective CDMA implementation for consumer cell phones, its early IS-95 air interface standard. IS-95 evolved into the current CDMA2000 (IS-856/IS-2000) standard.
In the late 1990s, NTT DoCoMo began work on a new wide-band CDMA air interface for their planned 3G network FOMA. FOMA's air interface, called W-CDMA, was selected as the air interface for UMTS, a newer W-CDMA based system designed to be an easier upgrade for European GSM networks compared to FOMA. FOMA and UMTS use essentially the same air interface, but are different in other ways; thus, handsets are not 100% compatible between FOMA and UMTS, but roaming is supported.
Qualcomm created an experimental wideband CDMA system called CDMA2000 3x which unified the W-CDMA (3GPP) and CDMA2000 (3GPP2) network technologies into a single design for a worldwide standard air interface. Compatibility with CDMA2000 would have beneficially enabled roaming on existing networks beyond Japan, since Qualcomm CDMA2000 networks are widely deployed, especially in the Americas, with coverage in 58 countries . However, divergent requirements resulted in the W-CDMA standard being retained and deployed.
Despite incompatibilities with existing air-interface standards, the late introduction of this 3G system, and despite the high upgrade cost of deploying an all-new transmitter technology, W-CDMA has been adopted and deployed rapidly, especially in Japan, Europe and Asia, and is already deployed in over 55 countries .
W-CDMA transmits on a pair of 5 MHz-wide radio channels, while CDMA2000 transmits on one or several pairs of 1.25 MHz radio channels. Though W-CDMA does use a direct sequence CDMA transmission technique like CDMA2000, W-CDMA is not simply a wideband version of CDMA2000. The W-CDMA system is a new design by NTT DoCoMo, and it differs in many aspects from CDMA2000. From an engineering point of view, W-CDMA provides a different balance of trade-offs between cost, capacity, performance, and density; it also promises to achieve a benefit of reduced cost for video phone handsets. W-CDMA may also be better suited for deployment in the very dense cities of Europe and Asia. However, hurdles remain, and cross-licencing of patents between Qualcomm and W-CDMA vendors has not eliminated possible patent issues due to the features of W-CDMA which remain covered by Qualcomm patents.
W-CDMA has been developed into a complete set of specifications, a detailed protocol that defines how a mobile phone communicates with the tower, how signals are modulated, how datagrams are structured, and system interfaces are specified allowing free competition on technology elements.
Elsewhere, W-CDMA deployments have been exclusively UMTS based. See the main UMTS article for more information.