Accelerated mobility

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.


Welcome to the cheap seats

Any industry that finds itself in the sights of Stelios Haji-Ioannou has cause for alarm. The entrepreneur who founded EasyJet and the whole EasyGroup family used this year's 3GSM conference in Cannes as a platform for his new, low-cost mobile phone service.

Stelios is promising to apply EasyJet economics to a mobile phone sector he believes is over-obsessed with innovative new gadgets and expensive new features. Instead, he will go after the cost-conscious minority, estimated to be between 10% and 15% of UK mobile users. For businesses with huge mobile phone bills or those that who would like to issue mobile phones to more employees, that may offer some opportunities.

Stelios will not be selling those phones: his EasyMobile users will have to have their own handset. Users will set up and service their accounts online (although the phones themselves will not support Internet browsing). As a virtual network operator, EasyMobile will be running over T-Mobile's network, but it is only offering voice and SMS services, not data.

However, Stelios was not the only executive appealing to the cheap seats in Cannes last month. Ed Zander, CEO of Motorola, used the event to launch the company's new low-cost phone. This, developed in conjunction with the GSM Association, should sell for under $40 and is aimed at emerging markets where handset prices remain a barrier to mobile take-up. The GSMA hopes that competition between manufacturers will quite quickly cut the cost of such phones to around $30.

The initiative reflects the changing economics of a mobile industry that has increasingly saturated its initial – and to date most lucrative – markets. Countries such as the UK now have more than one active mobile phone per adult head of population, so handset makers, equipment companies and network operators are looking further afield for growth. In Europe, however, operators are still trying hard to increase average revenues per subscriber (ARPU), and data-based services appear to be their tool of choice to do this.

The latest handsets, especially those based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile and Symbian software, have increasingly sophisticated support for music and video playback. In Asia, handsets are already on sale that support live TV viewing, including from digital satellite transmissions. As that wave hits consumers, businesses will be able to exploit the lower cost of devices with better screens, multiple processors, memory expansion and additional connections, such as WiFi, to run their applications.

Network operators at 3GSM did appear to be more accommodating to WiFi networks as a technology that can exist alongside 3G, and a growing number of handset companies are now making devices with WiFi and support for GSM.

Companies such as BenQ, which have not so far featured in wireless enterprise deployments in Europe, could provide competition for the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Nokia.

But as a showcase for enterprise mobile applications, this year's 3GSM congress can only be seen as disappointing. Consumer applications and handsets dominated, although there was much talk from operators such as Orange on wireless and fixed line convergence, and evidence that voice over IP is starting to become a realistic application, at least for WiFi-equipped smart phones.

GSM Association chairman and Hutchison executive Craig Ehrlich concedes that mobile enterprise technology is receiving less attention than businesses – and the GSMA – might like. In fact, enterprise data applications remain among the most profitable revenue sources for mobile operators, so expect the GSMA to put renewed effort into promoting business applications next year, when 3GSM moves to Barcelona. "Business applications are the jewel in our crown," says Ehrlich. But it might be too much to expect to see Stelios in Barcelona offering low-cost data cards.



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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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