3 supercharges its network with HSDPA

The mobile operator is gearing up to its launch of HSDPA data services, which will offer download speeds of five to 10 times what is possible over 3G networks

Mobile operator 3 demonstrated its HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) network on Tuesday in advance of its planned UK-wide rollout, managing download speeds of 1.5Mbps at its central-London store.

At launch, 3 will only offer HSDPA datacards, said Graeme Baxter, 3's technical solutions director, as handsets are not likely to be commercially available immediately. At the demo, 3 showed working prototypes of the Motorola Razr phone and the LG U830. Both will, in theory, be able to download data at up to 1.8Mbps over an HSDPA network.

HSDPA will be followed by a high-speed uplink service, called HSUPA in 2007, said 3.

The company is planning to roll out the upgrade to its existing 3G network this autumn, beginning in London and Manchester, then spreading to other metropolitan areas and achieving full UK coverage by the end of March 2007. The rollout is expected to be much faster than that for 3G networks, as most base stations will only require a firmware upgrade. Very old base stations may need a "minor" hardware upgrade, but this will only be necessary in very few cases, said 3.

Any upgrades on the backhaul network — the connection from the base stations to the Internet — will be demand-driven, said Baxter. "We won't over-invest but we will try to invest ahead of demand." That demand will depend largely on cost. 3 has not yet set pricing for its HSDPA network. Data rates could be priced lower than for 3G networks, because HSDPA uses the same infrastructure more efficiently to provide higher data rates to more customers, but operators are currently hedging their bets.

It is also still unclear how data-roaming charges will apply; in the demo, a 4.6MB file was downloaded in 26 seconds. On some international tariffs, that would rack up over £100 in data charges. 3's official line is that it pushed for wholesale data and voice regulation by the EC, despite the fact that the GSM Association has opposed such moves. "We are seeing other operators not giving us competitive rates," said a 3 spokesman. "That is a hindrance to the market."

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