The Isle of Man is a great place for radio. Isolated by water and puffins, it's a nicely contained test bed for new ideas while its solitary mobile phone provider, Manx Telecom, has a monopoly that lets it try out ideas with little risk to its owner, O2. It was the first place in the British Isles to have 3G — and the first place to have 3G turned off. Experiments are like that.
Now, it's promising the first commercial HSDPA service — 3G with added download whiz. It promises lots of thrills: multi-megabit downloads — the headline figure is 14Mbps — for friction-free network access, delivered to your handset and laptop wherever you are. Multimedia experiences, rapid content delivery and effortless corporate services are all on the menu.
Exciting stuff — or it would be if we hadn't heard it all before. 3G itself was going to do all this, albeit with a headline figure of 2Mbps. In fact, 3G was going to be so exciting that it commanded many billions of pounds in licence fees. That was then — now, it's got a reputation for clumsy handsets, unreliability, sky-high data charges and a suite of services that are rarely worth the price of admission. This is changing, if slowly, but there's no sign that HSDPA will help fix any of these problems.
It may even set new and unwelcome records of its own. Manx Telecom's prices range from 60p to £3 per megabyte — so at the maximum theoretical data rate and the top tariff, you could be paying £5.40 a second, £320 a minute, £14m a month. We think that's a world first too, although it's not trumpeted as such in the press release.
Of course, reality is different. Most HSDPA tests show an achievable average throughput of between 400kbps and 800kbps, which with Manx Telecom's heavy user tariff of 60p a megabyte pans out at a much more manageable £3.60 a minute.
But that still means you'll pay as much in five minutes as you do for a month of ADSL and, whether the telcos like it or not, that's the service by which its users will judge the value for money of their mobile data. You can be sure that the coming wireless networks built around UMTS-TDD or the family WiMax will be flat-rate, and the comparison will not be flattering.
HSPDA is a useful and welcome addition to the confusing world of mobile broadband data, and yet another step towards the ideal of ubiquitous instantaneous digital communication. But a crippled business model will leave it like a Manx cliff-face: isolated, guano-strewn and strictly for the birds.