Despite HSDPA hype, WiMax can hold its own, says provider

Unwired claims HSDPA lacks upload speeds, spectrum to be true WiMax competitor

The introduction of the latest incarnation of 3G technology into Australia is set to put the squeeze on existing wireless broadband providers, but claims of their eventual demise are unfounded says one service provider.

Telstra and Vodafone got the HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) ball rolling this month with the launch of their new wireless broadband offerings.

Telstra's NEXT G network is delivering voice and broadband services to almost the entire nation and claims its customers will receive average speeds of 550Kbps to 1.5Mbps with a peak download speed of 3.6Mbps .

Vodafone, which has presently only HSDPA-enabled metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne, will offer maximum download speeds at 1.8Mbps. Both carriers offer upload speeds of 384Kbps. To access the networks, customers require an HSDPA data card that slots into notebook PCs. Both carriers are retailing these for $299.

Unlike its 3G network which is aimed at enabling access to both consumers in the form of IP TV or music downloads and business via basic Internet connectivity, Vodafone's HSDPA service is largely targeted at mobile workers who require the extra speed and bandwidth.

"With the introduction of 3G we saw a huge change in the mobile working habits of customers," said Vodafone head of business data, Dave McNaughton. "It untethered their laptop and allowed the same business transactions on the road pretty much as easily as in the office on a fixed link."

Ovum analyst Nathan Burley said HSDPA will pose a major threat to incumbent wireless carriers such as PBA and Unwired, claiming they will find it tough to beat off the mobile operators.

"It is not until 2008 before we get data cards en masse. Then [they] will struggle to compete against HSDPA," he said.

"With four mobile operators in Australia [Optus and Hutchison will soon offer HSDPA services], they will more than likely win the battle," he said.

Unwired CTO Eric Hamilton sees it differently. He says the carriers have been forced to adopt the HSDPA solution because they have no other alternative. Furthermore, he claims the incumbent mobile carriers are attempting to use voice-based technology to try to match the price and performance of the services of existing wireless broadband Internet providers.

"The realities are, of course, that there are limitations," he said.

"The uplink capability in HSDPA is no different to 3G, so while the carriers can talk about high speed downloads, uploads are shackled. A true broadband customer uploads approximately about one half of the bytes that he/she downloads, and the total traffic is in the region of 1.5GBs per month. An HSDPA solution will not cope with any reasonable number of customers acting this way."

According to Ovum's Burley, as of June this year 9 per cent of Australia mobile phone customers were subscribed to 3G, with 14 per cent expected by the end of December and 31 per cent forecast by the end of next year.

Hamilton said that if HSDPA was successful then the next requirement for carriers would be the need to support many customers.

"This would require spectrum and in the 3G bands there is very limited spectral capacity. This means they are limited in the number of customers they can carry without increasing the number of sites on the network and striking interference issues."

Unwired has stated that once WiMax technology is ratified it will move its service off the proprietary Navini Networks technology, which it currently employs, to the new standard.

Alongside the adoption of WiMAX standard there is also work underway to expand the capabilities of Intel Centrino chips to include the WiMAX bands. For consumers this will mean that every notebook will come with the capability to connect into either Unwired's or AUSTAR's WiMAX networks.

"The addition of cards in laptops would seem to be expensive and unwarranted to me, Hamilton said.

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