Mobile industry looks beyond 3G

3GSM: The buzz around Cannes is that third-generation mobile technology is already being superseded

Third-generation networks and services are still in their infancy but industry experts claim there is already a real need for faster technologies.

Speaking on the Monday, the first day of the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, Neil Ransom, chief technology officer of network equipment manufacturer Alcatel, said that the industry was already heavily investigating the potential of so-called Super 3G, 3.5G and even 4G technologies.

"Mobile companies are only starting to deploy 3G now but we are already seeing the need for faster speeds," he said.

Technologies that could be a possible successor to 3G include High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), sometimes known as Super 3G, which allows mobile data rates of up to 15Mbps.

Dave Williams, chief technology officer of mobile operator O2, said HSDPA is particularly appealing: "[HSDPA] is very cost-effective to roll-out... this is just a software upgrade for us."

O2 claims it will have Europe's first operational HSDPA network running on the Isle of Man from mid-September.

"This will be a full commercial network. It will remove the latency and bandwidth issues you get with standard 3G networks," said Tim Craine, e-business minister for the Isle of Man.

O2 claims its HSDPA enabled network will ultimately support data speeds of up to 14.4Mbps.

Ericsson has been conducting HSDPA trials in Stockholm, Sweden, for more than a year, but this system is only capable of delivery data rates of around 5Mbps. Hakan Eriksson, Ericsson's chief technology officer, said that HSDPA is a key technology for future mobile services as it offers very low latency as well as very high data rates.

"When it comes to delivery quality services, reduced latency is almost important as bit rate," Eriksson said.

Other technologies that will allow faster data rates than 3G technology include the 802.16 wireless protocol also know as WiMax. Currently WiMax only supports fixed deployments -- 802.16d is primarily used for providing broadband access to rural communities -- but a new version, 802.16e, is currently in development which will support mobile broadband networks.

Some in the industry say that 802.16e could become 4G, but Alcatel's Ransom warned that WiMax doesn't perform very well when it comes to creating a single-frequency network, which would make it an unlikely successor to 3G. "People have asked if this is going to compete with 3G and I don't think so. It will be complementary," he said.

Mobile TV and video services are cited by telecoms companies as the "killer application" for 3G networks and beyond. O2's Williams said that current 3G networks are only suited for hosting short video clips, with technologies such as the DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcast - Handheld) standard offering the best hope for providing longer TV and video broadcasts to mobile handsets. O2 is planning a trial of DVB-H-enabled networks in Oxford this summer, involving some 5,000 handsets and 16 channels of free content.

Some industry watchers claim that the increased uptake of fixed broadband technologies such as ADSL could mean that consumers and businesses are less likely to require broadband on the move. But O2's Williams argued that technologies such as ADSL are helping to promote the idea of ubiquitous Internet access, rather than competing with high-speed mobile. "I don't care how much ADSL is out there, it is helping to seed the market and promote the concept of 'I need to have access to the Internet everywhere'," he said.

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