WCDMA as a technology has hardly set the Middle East mobile telecoms scene on fire. An upgrade to high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) technology may be just what is required to catalyse the wide-scale investment in WCDMA given the positive reaction the uprade has had from a number of operators.

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By  Tawanda Chihota Published  September 1, 2005

|~||~||~|The number of operators in the region that have announced plans to incorporate HSDPA in their 3G network plans is growing fast, many of them attracted by the prospects of offering a further capacity boost that would service bandwidth-hungry corporate subscribers. While WCDMA technology and the investment in such has received a rather cool reaction in the Middle East, the upgrade of the technology through the deployment of HSDPA appears to be generating the necessary level of interest to start seeing growth in the take-up rate of WCDMA. Kuwait operator Wataniya Telecom has lauded the advantages of HSDPA, with the operator's general manager and CEO Harri Koponen stating that the operator would incorporate the technology as soon as possible, probably during the course of next year. "The gap in the time of delivery of 3G and 4G (HSDPA) is so small, it makes sense to go straight to 4G," says Koponen. "HSDPA will remove all manner of capacity bottlenecks and will allow the delivery of broadband-type services that will be utilised by heavy users," he adds. For the operators that have held back on extensive, commercial rollouts of 3G infrastructure, the commercialisation of HSDPA is acting as the additional factor they require to justify investing in WCDMA at this point in time. At the beginning of July, Qatari state telco Qtel announced its investment in a WCDMA network, and integral to that announcement was mention of the fact that Qtel is set to upgrade the network to HSDPA in the second half of 2006. One of Qtel's significant infrastructure suppliers on the WCDMA project, Siemens, says it is ready to start shipping HSDPA to the region today given that its latest WCDMA base station equipment comes with the upgrade already present. It is up to the individual operator when it decides to start utilising that capability, Siemens claims. The Middle East’s two 3G pioneers, MTC and Etisalat, have also placed their faith in the technology, which is unsurprising given the tepid response each operator's 3G offering still continues to receive after 18 months of operation. Etisalat has plans to trial HSDPA later this year and is looking to deploy the technology commercially soon thereafter. "We are evaluating the next wave of wireless technologies like HSDPA and we aim to experiment with it sometime later this year and introduce it soon after that," says Mohammed Omran, CEO of Etisalat. ||**|||~|Koponen200.jpg|~|Koponen believes HSDPA is integral to Wataniya's value added services proposition.|~|Probably the most obvious question to ask is what exactly the upgrade to HSDPA incorporates and what additional benefits beyond 3G does it offer the network operator, which can in turn be passed on to end-users. As the name suggests, HSDPA offers an increase in downlink data speeds and as a result reduces the cost/megabyte of transmission to less than half that of WCDMA. HSDPA forms part of Release 5 of the 3GPP-defined evolution to WCDMA and shortens the time of transmission of data between the network and terminals, in turn reducing the variance in downlink-transmission delay. "HSDPA is an improvement of the WCDMA standards and this improvement results in an increase in system capacity and improvement in the end-user service quality," says Khaled Rifai, Lucent Technologies' director of business development MEA region. "Some of the consumer-based services [that HSDPA would enable] might include high-speed downloads of film trailers, and video clips; mobile access to e-mail (including large attachments); and the ability to locate nearby services such as ATMs, restaurants or movie theatres," Rifai adds. The enterprise segment is also seen as a significant beneficiary of the efficiencies offered by HSDPA, which is able to support access to corporate networks and all the business applications corporate users normally utilise in the office, given that data speeds are comparable to those that one would find in a LAN-based office setting. While the deployment of HSDPA does come across as a compelling proposition, the simplicity of its deployment is being challenged on a more regular basis as trials move closer to commercialisation. The conventional wisdom is that the upgrade to HSDPA is a straightforward software update, though some analysts have begun to question this. "The transition to HSDPA will require more than just software at the base station," says Alan Varghese, principal analyst of semiconductor research at ABI Research. "Some infrastructure will require hardware additions such as channel cards, traffic processing units and backplane modifications to handle the increased capacity and throughput of HSDPA," he adds. The client side of HSDPA also involves more than just software upgrades. Hardware in the form of advanced baseband chipsets will be required to handle the high data throughput while consuming little power; diversity receive circuitry may be required to handle the 16-QAM of HSDPA; and increased handset memory will also be needed. Lucent's Rifai comments that the impact of deploying HSDPA over a WCDMA network is mainly a network coverage/capacity issue as opposed to being an HSDPA technology mandate. "HSDPA will likely be deployed initially in hot spot configurations, where there is a need for these high—speed data capabilities," Rifai says. "In such deployments, additional base stations might be required to cater for the increased capacity requirements - beyond that, HSDPA only requires a software update to Lucent's WCDMA platform,” he adds. In a similar fashion as enhanced data rate for a GSM environment (EDGE) technology was pitched as an easy software upgrade from GSM/GPRS but ended up requiring a couple of years for testing, interoperability and roaming issues to be overcome, the same can be expected for HSDPA. Despite this threat, operator interest remains high. So far, operators including Japan's NTT DoCoMo and Cingular Wireless of the US have announced their intention to launch large scale HSDPA, as has O2 in the UK. China Netcom and eAccess in Japan are also engaged in HSDPA trials with commercialisation of the technology expected to occur before the end this year. ||**|||~|khaled-Rifai200a.jpg|~|Rifai believes HSDPA will initially be deployed in hot spot configurations. |~|Last month, Vodafone Italy joined the growing list of HSDPA trialists, announcing that together with Nokia, it had successfully made the first data connection with HSDPA using fully commercial WCDMA network equipment. The call obtained user data speeds of 1.5 Mbps, utilising a UMTS terrestrial radio access network provided by the Finnish vendor as well as HSDPA-capable end-user equipment. "It is hard to predict at this stage when HSDPA will become a mainstream service in the Middle East and Africa," says Rifai. "Some market specialists contend that large scale HSDPA adoption requires the availability of applications and services that are bandwidth-hungry. Others argue that today's bandwidth limitations are slowing down the pace of innovation on the application side, that is, the appetite for attractive applications will come with higher bandwidths available," he suggests. The successful uptake of HSDPA will also depend heavily on the support of the handset vendor community. HSDPA-compatible terminals are set to become available in the same timeframe as network deployments although it will likely be on a smaller scale initially. Since HSDPA will be primarily targeted at high—speed data/internet access applications, PCMCIA cards are likely to be amongst the first HSDPA devises to be made available. Sierra Wireless, the Canadian wireless datacard specialist that is making inroads into the Middle East market, expects to launch two HSDPA-enabled datacards, the Aircard 850 and the Aircard 860, commercially in 2H05. The company announced collaborations with Nortel and Nokia in February to test its datacards on the vendors' networks. "We think the timing of our entry into the Middle East is right as we have received much interest from the operators we have been talking to," says Derek Evans, vice president and managing director of Sierra Wireless for Europe, Middle East and Africa. "We have started by introducing the (GSM/GPRS) AirCard 775, the AirCard 555 and the AirCard 580 wireless wide-area network cards into the Middle East market, but are looking to support the operators with products that suit them best as time goes on," he added. South Korean electronics giant LG has been pushing to become one of the most comprehensive suppliers of WCDMA terminals and equipment and is currently developing a HSDPA handset based on the Qualcomm MSM 6275 chipset. Earlier this year, the company announced it had completed a live test call using Nortel infrastructure and a LG handset, and has forecast that its HSDPA handset will be ready for commercial launch late this year. "This event (LG's HSDPA trial with Nortel) has demonstrated that it is a verifiable and commercially viable technology and a true successor to 3G technology," says Mun Hwa Park, president and CEO of LG's Mobile Communications Company. "I believe that between 2H05 and 2H06, the US, Korea and some countries in Europe will start using HSDPA. There will physically be 3.5G available in these markets," he adds. Equipment vendor support of HSDPA continues to be strong. Lucent, for instance, was one of the first vendors to push the upgrade, first demonstrating its solution in March 2003. In November 2004 the vendor was awarded the first commercial HSDPA contract by Cingular Wireless, together with Siemens and Ericsson. The vendor was also awarded a contract by O2 subsidiary Manx Telecom in December last year to provide HSDPA infrastructure for the world's first live HSDPA network on the Isle of Man. ||**|||~|Evans,-Derek200b.jpg|~|Evans says Sierra Wireless will have HSDPA PCMCIA cards available later this year.|~|Ericsson is believed to have been awarded 45% of Cingular Wireless's US$4.6 billion HSDPA upgrade contract awarded in December last year, the remainder of which was awarded to Lucent and Siemens. Ericsson has also been contracted, together with Nortel, to upgrade Mobilkom's WCDMA network in Austria. Last month, Nokia announced that T-Mobile had signed an agreement for the supplier to deliver its HSDPA solution to T-Mobile in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. Under the agreement, Nokia will supply T-Mobile with its HSDPA solution as well as capacity expansions to T-Mobile's radio networks in the three countries. In addition, installation, commissioning and network optimisation services are included in the deal. "Deploying the HSDPA solution will enable us to offer true mobile broadband access and new services to our customers," says Joachim Horn, technical director, T-Mobile Germany and head of the international planning and engineering leadership team. "We will start the roll out of HSDPA in Germany in 2006 and then extend it to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom." Nokia, alongside Lucent, was one of the first vendors to demonstrate its HSDPA in March 2003. Nokia claims its WCDMA equipment has been HSDPA-ready for some time and is conducting further trials with Alcatel and Nortel for Orange. "There will be early deployments of HSDPA in 2006 and beyond, and new technologies are proving to be a growth driver in emerging regions," says Motorola's president of the network business, Adrian Nemceck. In January, the US vendor said it had completed initial trials of HSDPA technology with five major European operators, achieving speeds of 2.9Mbps in a trial environment. Looking even further ahead, the development of a high-speed uplink extension of WCDMA is also on the cards. High-speed uplink data access (HSUPA) was standardized as part of 3GPP Release 6 architecture. HSUPA provides for enhancements on the uplink channel, which will allow subscribers to send significantly more data/information than what can be achieved with WCDMA or HSDPA. However, given that most operators are still planning their Release 5 deployments, it is very unlikely that we will see any significant HSUPA in the near future. ||**||

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