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3GSM One of the few reliable laws in the technology industry - if the demo works, it’s probably been faked.

Every vendor worth the name is demonstrating HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) here this year. The next enhancement to 3G, inevitably known as 3.5G, it promises to make the downlink a whole lot faster – from 384kbps up to 14Mbps and beyond.

Nortel and Orange are demoing HSDPA on live commercial spectrum, with a view to launching it on the market in 2006. NTT DoCoMo is also planning a launch next year.

If you live in the Isle of Man, you might get it a bit quicker, as O2 is planning an extended trial there this year, with a view to a launch in the rest of the UK next year.

As demos go, Orange and Nortel’s was fairly impressive. Using a Sierra Wireless card and a Qualcomm chipset, the system runs at up to 1.4Mbps, averaging over a megabit.

It gives reasonably good video quality. Resolution was acceptable on a five or six inch screen– a tiny bit pixellated and jerky, (a fact the demonstrator blamed on the Real Networks codec), but otherwise, perfectly watchable. If they hadn’t chosen to stream Attack of the Clones.

The fact that the miniature base station was hidden under the desk just an inch from the receiver might have made things run a little smoother. But the demonstrators showed a video of some Orange engineers driving around Paris enjoying even higher speeds.

Siemens demoed HSDPA peaking at over 3Mpbs over a Gigabit Ethernet cable connecting two laptops – only slightly less convincing than the ten-foot yeti which stalked the show floor groping female attendees.

Siemens did it for real on its boat out in the harbour, and Ericsson demoed up to 11Mbps, on a yacht which was sadly fully booked. Motorola, which demoed HSPDA last year, is doing private demos for multiple users this year.

Nonetheless, Nortel is clearly delighted with HSDPA, and is predicting great things for it. “Some countries will go straight to HSDPA,” said Pascal Debon, president of carrier networks at Nortel. “My bet is that China will go straight to HSDPA.”

He outlined further enhancements to the HSDPA standard. HSUPA boosts the uplink speed from 384kbps of plain old 3G to 3.5Mpbs.

Further down the line comes HSODA, where the O stands for OFDM, orthogonal frequency division multiplexing, the same multiplexing scheme used in other super-high-speed radio technologies, like Flarion’s Flash-OFDM and some flavours of ultrawide band.

“We see that has the potential to go to 40 Mbps, which is a three or four year plan,” said Nortel’s Debon.

Demoing in a busy conference hall has its challenges, but getting the technology out on the market is a whole lot harder. The more users in the cell, the more it slows down. Inevitably, the headline data figure is rarely what the user ends up getting.

O2 has been saying that 512Kbps will be a more reasonable figure to aim for.

That’s not necessarily the biggest problem, though. Availability of handsets and data cards is always a question mark with new technologies, and the thorny problem of pricing has yet to be sorted out.

In theory, the big benefit of HSDPA and its offspring won’t just be raw bandwidth (what would you want 40Mbps for?) but cheaper bandwidth. And most people’s beef with 3G data isn’t the speed but the cost.

When software upgrades get hard

But HSDPA could turn out to be more expensive for some than others. Most vendors of the various flavours of base stations claim that their 3G base stations can be upgraded to HSDPA simply with a software change – ie relatively cheaply, without sending out a man in a van.

But this isn’t always the case. HSDPA is a power-hungry technology, and many of the base stations out there aren’t up to the job. The key piece of technology is the power amplifier, which has to be a full power, 45-watt model, to handle the extra data output.

Nortel claims that it saw this one coming, and advised its customers to put the full 45 watt PA in at the start. O2 and Orange are both (in part) Nortel customers.

Other operators, who may require new power amplifiers to do HSDPA, will find it much more expensive.

Whether this will delay further HSDPA announcements, or gets passed on to the customer as extra cost, remains to be seen. It could just be that, with customers slowly coming round to 3G, operators may not want to start pumping up the next big thing when the last one is hardly out of the door. ®

3GSM 2005

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