Most cellphone users do not know what kind of network their service provider runs, nor whether it is 2G or 3G. Yet behind the scenes, industry lobbies and makers of network equipment and cellphone chips jockey for position as they struggle to make their technology dominant.
Though the front line of the battle is shifting to 3G - or so-called third- generation - technologies, which offer more capacity on their networks and faster data transmission speeds, the previous generation of networks may ultimately determine who comes out on top, because service providers tend to use the same family of technology when they migrate to faster networks.
GSM, the global system for mobile communications, is the dominant mobile phone standard in the world, with a market share of 83 percent. But GSM networks have been slow to move to 3G, allowing CDMA, which is widely used in North and South America, a window that it has quickly exploited.
"It's probably too early to call the death of CDMA," said Martin Garner, the director of Wireless Intelligence.
While the growth of CDMA will not match that of GSM, Wireless Intelligence is forecasting that there will be nearly 500 million people using CDMA technologies by 2010, compared with 340 million today. Those using the 2G and 3G GSM networks are forecast to increase to 3.5 billion in 2010 from 2.1 billion today.
"CDMA is certainly going to remain small when compared to GSM," Garner said, "but they have a decent chunk of the market, a reasonable niche that they will be able to defend."
While companies have staked their future on the continued success of one technology versus another, for people who just want to use their cellphone to make a call, send e-mail or browse the Internet, it may all be academic.
"People make outlandish claims about what one cellular technology is capable of compared with another, but they offer broadly similar performances," Garner said. "One of the technologies will make a move before the other and then have an advantage for a while, but they are basically moving in the same direction at the same speed."