Analysts split over HSDPA vs WiMax

Although the next generation of 3G will probably make it to the mass market before mobile WiMax, disagreement lingers over which technology will win in the long term
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Faster third-generation mobile services will really take off as a consumer service in 2008, according to Ovum analyst Julien Grivolas.

According to forecasts released by Ovum on Thursday, there will be 16.5 million High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) users in Western Europe by the end of 2008, with 50 million by the end of the decade.

"Until [the end of 2008], HSDPA will remain a data card market for enterprises," said Grivolas on Thursday, adding: "In the initial stages, operators will focus their launches on business use through laptops via data cards."

HSDPA will allow mobile operators to offer much faster connection speeds than standard 3G. Grivolas said the main reason for the high predicted uptake was that HSDPA reuses the spectrum already used for Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), the base technology for 3G as it currently exists. For the operators, rolling out HSDPA requires little more than a software upgrade.

Grivolas also suggested that HSDPA’s fast development would have "a considerable impact on the success of alternative broadband wireless technologies such as mobile WiMax".

"In areas where HSDPA becomes widely available, like Western Europe, and where well-suited spectrum for 802.16e [mobile WiMax] is rare, the window of opportunity for mobile WiMax will be quite limited," he said.

However, Grivolas’ analysis has already come under criticism for its comparison of HSDPA and WiMax.

Disruptive Analysis’s Dean Bubley told ZDNet UK that, although HSDPA would certainly be "a lot more prevalent by 2008 in handsets", it was not necessarily going to be used much more than 3G is currently.

He said both WiMax and HSDPA suffered from a similar problem to 3G — they all have "lousy" indoor coverage.

"In both cases you may need to use Wi-Fi to connect indoors," Bubley said on Thursday, adding: "It makes an interesting case for which one manages to invest money in indoor coverage solutions first or best".

Bubley also said that WiMax handsets are not likely to be introduced prior to 2010, until which time the technology would be most useful for laptops, PDAs and mobile TV.

Despite the likelihood that it would fall behind, though, he claimed WiMax had a great advantage in that it doesn’t require an upgrade of backhaul (also known as last mile connectivity) to take advantage of the high speeds it can offer.

"By 2008 most of the European operators will not have upgraded their backhaul network, which means that the theoretical bandwidth from HSDPA will not be able to be exploited… whereas WiMax will have this from day one," Bubley said. He added that mobile WiMax also offered "the opportunity for other service providers who aren’t as closed minded about services to enter the market".

"Many cellular operators have a Walled Garden mindset, whereas possibly mobile WiMax plays better to the 21st century view of the world, where connectivity and services should be decoupled," he said.

Mobile WiMax, which operates under a standard that was only recently ratified, is being heavily backed by major players such as Motorola, Nokia and Intel.

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