In the alphabet-soup battle to establish a dominant wireless technology for data, HSDPA looks well placed to emerge as the leading standard. But despite what the networks are saying, Duncan Ellison believes that business and not consumers will drive uptake.
However, judging by previous technology wars, it’s likely that no more than two of these will make it to the final shootout. The global corporations behind the competing technologies all have huge marketing budgets at their disposal, as they stand to face huge losses if opinion starts to swing away from their own touted technology.
It’s not surprising then that each company is trying to shout louder than the competition, creating huge confusion in the marketplace.
"There’s little evidence that HSDPA is going to be any more popular with consumers than 3G …"
GSM has already proved to be a huge success, even managing to convince the US to abandon its insular approach in favour of a truly global system.
And while GSM has become the de facto standard for person-to-person voice calls, over the last couple of years there has also been a steady growth in the use of GSM for data traffic, accompanied by a corresponding increase in the capacity of the networks to carry data just as easily as voice traffic.
Initial attempts to provide data over GSM using GPRS were clumsy and poorly organised, but GPRS has now matured to be able to offer enterprise class communications. Many large organisations – particularly in the lottery and ATM industries – are now abandoning landlines and relying entirely on GPRS for thousands of remote terminals.
Bolstered by these increased opportunities for new revenue streams, the operators have steadily enhanced their networks’ capabilities via EDGE and UMTS to HSDPA. The capacity of the wireless networks to carry data has increased many times over, and real achievable end-user data rates have gone from 44 Kb/s to more than 1Mb/s in less than six years – in short, reliable high-speed wireless internet is becoming a reality.
Consequently, interest in HSDPA is rife. Tests with T-Mobile in the UK have achieved a constant bandwidth of over 1Mb/s with relatively low latency (around 120mS); 117 HSDPA networks in 54 countries are currently planned or already launched.
In truth, it is the desire to capitalise on delivering high speed content such as video games and television to consumers that is driving much of the investment by network operators.
However, there’s little evidence that HSDPA is going to be any more popular with consumers than 3G, which operators are still desperately trying to milk for all it’s worth after making massive investments in the technology several years ago. As it stands, no one is any closer to knowing what content will be genuinely popular with consumers, or crucially, how much they’ll be willing to pay for it.
On the other hand, the speed, reliability and availability of HSDPA makes it far more suited to business use.
For example, it can be used for broadband back-up, giving peace of mind to nervous IT directors currently praying that nothing goes wrong with BT’s copper wires.
HSDPA can also enable high-quality transmissions from remote locations – crucial for real-time video surveillance or telemetry.
HSDPA vs WiMax
These facts aren’t exactly going to set the consumer market ablaze, but as more organisations realise the benefits of HSDPA for their mission critical communications, they’ll be the ones driving uptake.
Given this, what then does the future hold for technologies such as WiMax?
Small scale tests have gone reasonably well, and there are even some relatively large scale deployments in the US and Korea. But while these initial installations have proved that this is a technology capable of delivering high-speed internet access to a community, further expansion will require large investment in base station infrastructure.
WiMax stations may be considerably cheaper to install and operate than cellular base stations, but this investment is still necessary – so too is the will to actually install these nationwide, in order to match the geographic coverage of GSM.
In contrast, HSDPA requires only a simple upgrade of 3G base stations – already deployed across much of the countryside.
It offers the reality, rather than the promise of broadband everywhere, and consequently, it has the definite potential to displace the competition in the race to provide truly universal IP access, at a lower cost to both operators and the enterprise.