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Where's my 3.5G handset?

Dearth of devices hampers growth of next-gen technology

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The number of 3.5G mobile broadband subscribers globally will soar from around 2.5m to more than 300m in 2011 despite a shortage in compelling devices, according to a new study.

Mobile operators are looking to supercharge mobile data access speeds with technology that puts 3G on steroids, offering download speeds of anything up between 1-2Mbps.

These so-called 3.5G services use a variety of technologies, including High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) enhancements to the W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) 3G technology and Evolution-Data Optimised (EV-DO), an extension to the CDMA family of standards.

Handset availability problems that affected the market development of 3G will be repeated in the case of the 3.5G market, according to a report by market analysts Informa Telecoms and Media. It expects a dearth of suitable handsets and devices to be a problem until at least the end of next year.

"A lack of compelling devices and content led to delayed launches and slow take-up of W-CDMA and EV-DO services, and early HSDPA and EV-DO Revision A services are expected to suffer from the very same problems," said Malik Saadi, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms and co-author of its Future Mobile Broadband Strategic Report.

Most HSDPA services are launching with only PC cards and notebooks, although a number of early handsets are also arriving. The CDMA camp is even further behind in developing kit. "As of June no major vendor has unveiled plans for EV-DO Rev. A handsets, although data cards are on the way," Saadi said.

A lack of compelling handsets will slow mass-market take up of 3.5G mobile broadband services in 2006-07, but handsets will start to mature in 2008, according to Informa. It reckons 3.5G handset sales and subscriptions will take off in 2008-09. By 2011, 85 per cent of 3.5G devices sold will be handsets, and the remaining 15 per cent will be notebooks and PC cards.

Mobile WiMAX will compete with HSPA and EV-DO Rev A/B in mobile broadband markets but will be hampered to an even greater extent than those technologies from the slow arrival of compelling notebooks and handsets.

"Mobile WiMAX will play a relatively minor role in the mobile broadband market through 2011, largely because Mobile WiMAX notebooks and tablets will not arrive in volume until 2008-09, and compelling Mobile WiMAX handsets won't arrive until 2010," said Mike Roberts, principal analyst at Informa and the second co-author of the Future Mobile Broadband report.

"By comparison, HSDPA notebooks and handsets are already shipping, which means that the HSDPA device market is one to two years ahead of the Mobile WiMAX device market," he added.

While WiMax might be slow off the starting blocks in the mobile market, the technology will do much better in the fixed, nomadic and portable broadband segments over the next five years. Many WiMAX subscribers will be using fixed indoor modems rather than mobile devices, Informa predicts. ®

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