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3 flicks the switch to 3.6Mbps HSDPA

3's NetConnect HSDPA ExpressCardupdate Hutchison's 3 is set to join the HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) 3G club, and will implement the turbo-charged HSDPA 3.6Mbps across its entire network.
Written by David Flynn, Contributor

update Hutchison's 3 is set to join the HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) 3G club, and will implement the turbo-charged HSDPA 3.6Mbps across its entire network.

This doubles the potential throughput of the more common HSDPA 1.8Mbps protocol, which provides the backbone of Vodafone's "business class" 3G broadband service launched last month.

James Toepfer, Business Solutions Specialist with 3 Mobile, told ZDNet Australia that the high-speed service would span "the entire footprint of 3's broadband zone by the end of March 2007".

This would bring most of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra under its wireless wing.

However, Toepfer declined to specify a date for when the rollout would begin or which cities would be first on the list.

While the theoretical maximum speed is 3.6Mbps, customers can expect "typical download speeds ranging from 600kbps to 1.5Mbps", Toepfer said. "The actual speed achieved will vary depending on a number of factors such as the capabilities of the device used, the customer's location and network usage at the time."

The telco's mobile network is shared with Telstra, and in absence of a 3G signal the connection will fall back onto Telstra's GPRS-enhanced GSM network. Users roaming onto GSM will see data speed nosedive to around 60Kbps and face additional usage charges levied by Telstra, although 3's new plans include a modest GPRS allocation of up to 6MB.

3 is also upgrading its NetConnect wireless broadband card, which provides access to the 3G data network. The new HSDPA-compatible card uses the ExpressCard slot found in most modern Windows laptops and all of Apple's MacBook Pro notebooks, and is the first mobile broadband ExpressCard launched on the Australian market. The card also ships a PC Card adaptor cradle so that it can be used in notebooks with the older port design.

The new NetConnect card carries a AU$399 tag but not all users will pay sticker price -- 3's aggressive plans discount the card down to AU$20, AU$10 and even zero depending on the plan chosen and the length of contract (up to 24 months).

3's revised entry-level AU$29 plan allows 200MB of data per month (both downloads and uploads are counted), with AU$49 for 1GB and AU$69 for 2GB.

3 NetConnect pricing

NetConnect pricing: Click to enlarge.

By way of comparison, Vodafone's AU$30 data bundle allows only 100MB, with AU$50 for 300MB and AU$100 for 1GB. Telstra's nearest equivalent plans for its Next G BigPond Wireless Broadband service (the Super G Fast plan, with speeds of 550-1500Kbps) charge AU$80 for 400MB, AU$110 for 1GB and AU$200 for 3GB.

3's excess usage rates, at 10cents/MB, are also a third of those levied by Telstra and Vodafone.

Toepfer claims that 3 will market its souped-up service equally to enterprise and fleet customers as to small businesses and mobile professionals, "but we believe the new pricing will open up the consumer market for mobile broadband".

Robin Simpson, Research Director for Mobile & Wireless with Gartner Australasia, agrees that 3's pricing is undoubtedly attractive to the consumer market. However, he believes the HSDPA upgrade as providing "a real opportunity" for the carrier to win commercial customers' users who are intent on doing business better and winning more business along the way.

"The real revolution in mobile business will happen with business process innovation, when companies come up with a new way of doing business based on being out in the field with access to all the information they need," Simpson predicted.

"It's taking existing LAN-based applications which they've got already and taking them out into the field to reduce cycle times or provide more immediate customer service."

In its 2005 user survey of the Australian mobile enterprise market, Gartner found that deployment of mobile sales force automation, field service applications, logistics and distribution would all more than double from their current usage by 2010.

Much of this is likely to be on the back of high-speed services such as HSDPA.

"You can't really do Web-based applications and client-server very successfully with GPRS," Simpson explained, "But when you've got up to 1Mbps, all of a sudden you find that the stuff you can use at the office or over DSL at home is stuff that works reasonably well on those kinds of speeds."

While 3 is the third mobile carrier to introduce HSDPA, it will be the first to shift its entire 3G network to HSDPA 3.6. Telstra bypassed a 3G upgrade in order to implement the high-speed protocol on its new 850MHz Next G network.

Optus is currently conducting trials of HSDPA using 14 base stations in Canberra and western Sydney, but with the focus on fixed services rather than mobility.

"Testing will involve products designed to provide fixed wireless access to the internet, e-mail and corporate intranets using HSDPA as the backhaul service, providing wireless broadband services to areas that do not have access to traditional fixed-line broadband today," Optus spokesperson Melissa Favero told ZDNet Australia.

"Following a successful trial, Optus will consider commercial roll out plans."

While Vodafone's enhanced 3G broadband network is built predominately around HSDPA 1.8, Vodafone spokesman Greg Spears revealed that some parts of Sydney and Melbourne, including the airports of both cities, are already served by HSDPA 3.6 base stations.

"They obviously have a lot of business traffic and are very intensive in their data usage, so we launched in both airports with 3.6," Spears explained.

Customers can't connect at full throttle because Vodafone's HSDPA VMC mobile data card is limited to 1.8Mbps. However, given the right conditions such as minimal traffic, Spears says "the card will go right through to that 1.8Mbps ceiling".

While Vodafone doesn't have a timetable for upgrading its entire network to HSDPA 3.6, Spears said that some high traffic areas can expect to be upgraded based on demand.

"We have rooms full of boffins monitoring the network. If we notice an area with consistently high demand, such as an area with a solid cafe culture using wireless broadband or a lot of business traffic doing mobile working, then we can upgrade that to 3.6."

Read the first review of 3's new HSDPA NetConnect card on CNET.com.au, along with reviews of Telstra's Next G BigPond Wireless and Vodafone HSDPA 3G services.

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