HSPA still a player despite WiMax hoopla

GSM group notes that HSPA is already here, building upon huge group of users

High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) wireless technology is here today in some markets and getting faster, and may end up being more popular than WiMax and other emerging broadband wireless technologies.

That's the view of the GSM Association (GSMA), which represents HSPA carriers globally, including AT&T in the U.S.

The reason HSPA could prove more popular than other alternatives is that it is built upon GSM networks, which reach 2.5 billion users today. These users sometimes carry cheap handsets that cost as little as US$20 apiece because so many are made, said David Pringle, a spokesman for the GSMA in London.

"HSPA has not [yet] got the economy of scale that GSM has, but HSPA is gaining scale, and other new technologies will find it difficult to achieve that scale," Pringle said. "All that means is that HSPA may prove the most popular" compared to WiMax and others.

The GSMA believes that mobile operators and U.S. users of HSPA will benefit from the fact that the technology is used globally, which drives down the cost of handsets, Pringle said. "It's difficult to achieve that scale," he added.

There are 128 HSPA commercially available networks in 61 countries, Pringle said. Those networks are reaching at least 5 million users, he added.

The GSMA represents more than 700 GSM mobile phone operators in 218 countries and territories. GSM provides the underpinnings of HSPA, which many refer to as a 3.5G wireless technology. HSPA is a software upgrade from W-CDMA networks, which were built atop GSM.

AT&T's HSPA network in the U.S., which is called BroadBandConnect, is now reaching more than 3 million customers, Pringle said.

Pringle said the GSMA is not attacking WiMax technology, but he said that HSPA is already available but just "hasn't been hyped." In fact, Pringle noted that "there's not a huge difference in performance" between what WiMax and HSPA will eventually offer.

Sprint Nextel has plans to launch a Xohm WiMax network nationwide next year, saying speeds will be 2Mbit/sec. to 4Mbit/sec., although many other details are still not known. AT&T's HSPA is now rated at between 400Kbit/sec. and 700Kbit/sec., although those speeds are expected to increase, Pringle said.

Across the commercially available HSPA networks globally, 1Mbit/sec. is about the average speed, although an Austrian carrier has nearly doubled that number, Pringle said. And the peak rate, for some, is 7.2Mbit/sec., he added.

Even some industry analysts tend to agree with the GSMA that HSPA and WiMax will be close enough in performance to run many of the same applications, although Gartner last November noted that WiMax will have a "clear advantage" in terms of latency (delay) over both HSPA and coming CDMA 5x EV-DO wireless, which could prove a factor in transmission of voice over IP.

So while performance may or may not be a differentiator, many analysts note that the cost of the various services will matter to carriers and customers the most, but also factors such as how the markets evolve in various regions. One independent analyst, Jeffrey Kagan, put it this way: "There will be a variety of competing wireless broadband technologies and there's really no way to tell which one wins. In fact, it's impossible to say today. Speed will be a factor, but also marketing and pricing."

However, tending to confirm the GSMA's prediction for HSPA's success, U.K.-based Juniper Research in an August report, forecast that HSPA would dominate mobile broadband network deployments over the next five years, and make up 70 percent of the total mobile broadband subscriber base until 2012. In that year, more than 1 billion people will subscribe to a mobile broadband service, out of 3 billion in all, according to the report.

Juniper analyst Howard Wilcox said in a statement that with trials and significant activity in the mobile WiMax market in the last year, WiMax will perhaps reach 9 percent of the market total in 2012. A major advantage that HSPA has is that it is already being deployed and that handsets are already available, he said.

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