Global 3G data roaming comes closer

IP Wireless' new chipset could allow business users to have high-speed wireless access to the Internet around the world - if operators upgrade their 3G networks

Imagine being able to use a global mobile data service that gives connection speeds faster than are possible with 3G services today and that works if you are in the UK, Japan or Australia.

This vision inched closer to reality on Wednesday with the news that hardware vendor IP Wireless had begun shipping "dual band" PC Card modems that would use radio spectrum that has been awarded to 3G operators in Europe, Australasia and the Far East.

IP Wireless says these modems have the capability to provide broadband connectivity and will allow users to roam seamlessly around a network.

"To truly be mobile, a technology needs to provide a subscriber with access not only anytime and anywhere in their home market, but also enable global roaming. This development allows operators and licensing partners to truly leverage being part of a global standard," said Chris Gilbert, chief executive officer of IP Wireless.

"I look forward to the day when I never have to think about how to get my laptop connected, even while travelling."

IP Wireless' PC Card modems use technology called Time Division Duplex (TDD). This runs within the 3G, or Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), specification.

In Britain, as in many other countries, the operators who won 3G licences were allocated two portions of 'paired bandwidth' called FDD (Frequency Division Duplex), to be used for voice calls and data services (such as Vodafone's 3G Mobile Connect offering). Most of them also received an extra piece of spectrum, the TDD, which could be used to provide extra network capacity once operators had filled up their FDD allocation.

IP Wireless says that TDD can be more than a simple buffer. Their service uses it as the backbone of a separate high-speed data service that it claims will be faster than is currently possible using FDD.

SonaeCom of Portugal recently announced a trial of IP Wireless' product. While it's understood that many other operators in Europe, Australia and Japan are secretly evaluating the product, there's been little publicly disclosed interest. Instead, IP Wireless' kit is in operation in several fixed broadband services worldwide, where its mobility aspect isn't utilised. For example, the wireless broadband service being rolled out in Britain by UK Broadband uses IP Wireless' technology.

Wednesday's announcement may help to get more mobile operators on board. While over 120 3G operators own a chunk of TDD spectrum, they don't all control precisely the same bandwidth. In Europe, New Zealand and Australia, TDD exists in the 1900MHz band, but in Japan it is at 2010MHz.

From now on, all IP Wireless' modems will operate at both 1900MHz and 2010MHz, which the company says will allow someone who subscribes to a UMTS TDD-based wireless broadband service in London to fly to Japan, for example, and still get connectivity -- subject to network deployment and roaming deals.

Jon Hambidge, senior director of marketing for IP Wireless, says his company's offering is comparable to WiMax -- except it's already available.

"We're delivering the potential of WiMax, today," Hambidge said.

Hambidge thinks that mobile networks using UMTS TDD could be rolled out as early as next year. WiMax isn't expected to be commercially viable until 2007.

IP Wireless is currently working on a further upgrade that would let its kit operate at 2.5GHz, which would mean they would also be used on third-generation networks in America.