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3G Gets Faster: What To Expect

First, an important correction: In my last column on wireless data uptake, I reported 500,000 EV-DO customers for Verizon--the number that has circulated in various stories. Mobile Pipeline Editor Dave Haskin questioned this number and obtained a clarification from Verizon that the number refers to data subscribers for both 1xRTT service and EV-DO. Most likely then, the majority of the customers are using the earlier 1xRTT service. Now, on to HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access).

Vodafone, one of the world's largest cellular operators, and Nokia just completed testing of HSDPA, a new version of WCDMA (Wideband CDMA), in Italy using Nokia infrastructure. The two companies reported throughput rates of 1.5 Mbps. Various other companies have demonstrated throughput speeds of over 1 Mbps for this technology, and peak speed claims of over 14 Mbps are also common. But what speeds can you realistically expect and what services will be available when?
Also, how does this technology line up with the competition, including EV-DO, Flash OFDM and WiMAX?

First, let's look at what the technology is. HSDPA is an enhancement to WCDMA, a technology that is also referred to as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), the 3G path chosen by most GSM operators around the world. Today, there are already some 75 UMTS networks in operation around the world. In the United States, Cingular (via its purchase of AT&T Wireless) has UMTS available in six cities.
However, the company is planning an aggressive deployment of HSDPA, with 15 to 20 cities planned by the end of 2005 and most major metropolitan areas by the end of 2006. The six cities with current UMTS service will be upgraded to HSDPA as well. Globally, many UMTS operators are planning on the HSDPA upgrade, and operators that have not deployed UMTS yet are likely to go directly to HSDPA.

HSDPA is important for operators because current UMTS technology, which based on 3GPP WCDMA Release 99 specifications, is extremely efficient for voice service, but it is not optimized for data services. The HSDPA upgrade, based on 3GPP Release 5 specifications, keeps the same voice mechanisms but adds highly efficient data capability. It does this through radio mechanisms such as higher order modulation (16QAM in addition to QPSK), improved error correction, dynamic adaptation of modulation and coding based on radio conditions, and a tighter link between mobile and base station. It also adds a packet scheduling approach that favors downlink transmissions to users with the best radio conditions, thus allowing them to receive data at higher throughput rates. Since conditions vary by users over time, this results in what is called user diversity. All these approaches working in combination result in at least a doubling of spectral efficiency, and with later improvements on the roadmap, a further doubling. Bottom line: The network can support many more users at a higher speed.

HSDPA is not the first technology to invent these approaches. You see them in most new wireless technologies, including CDMA2000 EV-DO and WiMAX, as well as in Wi-Fi. As for speeds, that's where things get a bit tricky. The network does indeed support a peak rate of 14 Mbps, but this is what you would get with the full capacity of the cell sector at the highest modulation level and no error correction. In other words, you'll never actually experience this speed, as you'll never experience the peak rate of 2.4 Mbps quoted for EV-DO. Initial devices are likely to have peak rates of 1.8 Mbps or 3.6 Mbps, depending on their designs. Subsequent devices will be faster. As for typical speeds you can expect, it will depend on the number of users active in the network, but average speeds in the 500 kbps to 1 Mbps range should be achievable in relatively lightly loaded networks.
However, speeds may go down a bit if people flock to the technology, as is the case for all the 3G technologies. Of course, with the somewhat slow adoption of cellular data as discussed in my last column, this is a problem that operators would love to have, and one they can manage through additional cell sites and new spectrum allocations. HSDPA latency goals are also aggressive, and in initial networks, latency will likely be in the 100 to 200 msec range.

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