Annually, when the mobile industry gathers in Cannes for their flagship event, the 3GSM World Congress, the luminaries try to convey that the current year will represent a watershed for telecommunications. This year they might just be right.
Observers on all sides at 3GSM last month made one firm prediction: By the end of 2005, data speeds for wireless technologies will have overtaken those of fixed lines. And if they are to be believed then the change will provide a significant boost to the opportunities for remote working and enterprise mobility projects.
Although the European mobile operators are still building up their networks for 3G, next-generation data devices will surpass 3G speeds by between three and five times by the end of this year. And, for business, the key aspect of that will be the widespread commercial availability of high-speed data packet access (HSDPA) technology in the second half of 2006.
HSDPA offers the prospect of data downloads of up to 1.5Mbps – almost five times the speed of current 3G technology – and the roadmap for HSDPA supports speeds of over 14Mbps.
This exceeds current predictions for fixed-line asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) technology.
Mobile operator Orange has been testing HSDPA in the UK and France (and provided live demonstrations in Cannes). "HSDPA is the next natural evolution as we move ahead to offering more and more bandwidth," says Vivek Badrinath, executive vice president of products, technology and innovation at Orange.
Orange will initially launch HSDPA as a laptop data card, with HSDPA handsets coming later. "For a laptop user, what you want and expect is a clean, trusted and secure pipe back to the office," says Badrinath. Higher data speeds in handsets, though, will provide a boost for services such as video calling as well as for consumer-oriented features such as music and video downloads.
As with 3G, mobile networks are expected to use a relatively low-key data card roll-out to test their HSDPA networks and to provide services to early adopters, whilst manufacturers work to fine-tune handsets and base station equipment. This approach seems to have worked well for the network operators, as they have largely been able to avoid the extreme hype and disappointment that surrounded WAP with their 3G launches in Europe. However, the mobile phone industry is also making a conscious effort to manage customer expectations.
According to Craig Ehrlich, a board member at mobile service provider Hutchison and the chairman of the GSM Association, operators in particular are being more circumspect about promising additional features before they are ready to deliver them. "But HSDPA has mushroomed, which is a very, very good sign given the small incremental amount of money it [HSDPA] needs to take data to much higher speeds," he says.
Largely, the mobile phone companies will be able to roll-out HSDPA using their existing infrastructure, with much of the network equipment needing only a software upgrade to run HSDPA sessions.
The one meg mobile
Nokia Networks, the mobile equipment manufacturer, expects its first customers to go live with HSDPA in the second half of this year. However, company executives caution that the HSDPA roadmap supports data rates that are higher than might be practical for the mobile operators or for first generations devices.
"The HSDPA PC cards are capable of 1.8Mbps but at the end of the day it is about total system performance," says Kai Kanola, Nokia Networks' director of strategy and business development. "You may get that as a peak rate, but less in a loaded network." He suggests that businesses should be able to rely on speeds of between 700Kbps and 1Mbps under most operating conditions; this is comfortably ahead of fixed-line ADSL speeds.
A further benefit of HSDPA and its successor technology, universal packet access (UPA) will be lower latency. Nokia expects latency levels, at under 100 milliseconds, to be around half those of UMTS-based 3G services. This makes for quicker set-up of corporate services such as VPN sessions, as well as snappier access to emails and web pages. Lower latency will also improve interactive services as well as offering greater support for technologies such as voice over IP.
Services such as HSDPA and UPA also allow mobile operators to make more efficient use of their network capacity. In turn, this should push down the per-megabyte cost of mobile bandwidth.
Initially, though, operators might offer HSDPA as a premium service or focus their initial roll-outs on large enterprise customers. The operators' experiences with 3G show that as subscribers are given a faster data connection, they consume more bandwidth. IT directors may want to control access to technologies such as HSDPA or ensure that users who need it are on unlimited-use price plans.