The need for speed – Faster networks sought for mobile video

The following article from the economist briefly outlines how the iPhone and mobile broadband dongles are a major force driving mobile broadband in the US.  The implications being that mobile operators must deliver faster speeds to support this growing usage of mobile broadband.  The article continues with a comparison between HSPA, MWiMAX and LTE.  An interesting point made by the author is that MWiMAX, which has been supported by many  industry heavy-weigths, will have to be repositioned to serve particular niches (such as developing markets) as it will be unable to compete head-to-head with LTE.

Enjoy the read! TRA

The need for speed

Apr 3rd 2009

Faster networks sought for mobile video

TEENAGERS are often quick to adopt technological trends. As a result, the monthly mobile-phone bill at Mayhem Manor has gone through the roof. But it is neither the chatting nor the texting that is running up the charges. It is the downloading of digital stuff from the internet and the sharing of huge multimedia files with friends.

Two developments seem to be behind the growth in wireless data traffic, notes Mike Roberts of Informa Telecoms and Media, a market research firm. One is the arrival of Apple’s iPhone, especially the latest incarnation, which uses AT&T’s high-speed third-generation network. The other is the surprising popularity of plug-in cellular modems for laptops and the like. It appears that many people prefer to pay for seamless internet access rather than use the free public Wi-Fi services in coffee shops and libraries, which come with the hassle of having to log on.

Such convenience-seeking subscribers have boosted the profits of mobile-phone companies. In America the largest of these, AT&T, has benefited most—thanks largely to its iPhone franchise. Its revenue from transmitting data (excluding texting) is up by 50% on a year ago. According to Informa, non-texting data now account for more than 16% of AT&T Mobility’s total revenue.

Mobile-phone companies have been investing heavily in mobile broadband. Their future appears to depend upon it. Without it, there can be no mobile video—and mobile video is considered to be the “killer app” for the next generation of smart phones.

The third-generation wireless protocol used by AT&T is loosely called high-speed packet access or HSPA. It can achieve an average download speed of around two megabits a second, which makes watching a video on a mobile phone a far more pleasant experience than it was in 2007 when the iPhone was launched. The protocol has become the dominant one for third-generation mobile broadband. It has now been embraced by more than 200 mobile-phone companies in 80 countries.

But it is still not really fast enough to watch mobile video in comfort. Another network protocol, called WiMAX, which is a sort of faster and longer-range version of Wi-Fi, has until recently been touted as a possible successor. Implemented correctly, mobile WiMAX can deliver download speeds of four megabits a second. In America, the technology’s two main backers, Sprint and Clearwire, have now merged their network plans and each launched a WiMAX service, one in Baltimore and the other in Portland. They plan to offer their services in a further ten cities by the end of the year.

Because it is built on internet principles, WiMAX works seamlessly with all the other services people take for granted—web surfing, instant messaging, e-mailing, video streaming, music downloading and, of course, making free phone calls using voice over internet protocol. With its higher speed, simpler architecture, cheaper equipment and smarter handling of data, mobile WiMAX was supposed to render the phone companies’ current networks obsolete overnight.

It hasn’t. In fact, it transpires that enhancing the existing HSPA system can easily deliver average download speeds of four megabits a second, just by adding multiple antennas to both the broadcasting and receiving sides of the network. This has the unfortunate effect of removing the pressure on mobile-phone companies to develop a true fourth-generation protocol called long-term evolution or LTE.

LTE represents a further development of the existing protocol, albeit one with full internet-like features. It also uses similar techniques to WiMAX for maintaining signal strength and resisting interference.

But there the similarities end. For one thing, LTE promises peak download speeds of over 320 megabits a second, so averages of 100 megabits a second ought to be routine. Another advantage that LTE has over WiMAX is that because it has been designed as an upgrade for existing networks, it represents less of a risk for the mobile-phone carriers than the more alien WiMAX technology.

Verizon, America’s second-largest mobile carrier, recently said it would start deploying LTE later this year—a full year ahead of schedule. However other carriers have suggested that they may postpone introducing it for another year or two. They cite the recession and the ability to enhance their existing networks at modest cost.

So where does that leave mobile WiMAX and its band of loyal supporters, which include Google, Intel and two cable television providers, Comcast and Time Warner, as well as Sprint and Clearwire? Obviously, some rapid repositioning will have to be done. Its best bet is to avoid head-on competition with HSPA and LTE, and focus instead on niche and developing markets.

Whatever the outcome, mobile WiMAX will have served a valuable purpose in forcing moribund mobile-phone companies into developing better, faster and cheaper technology. Even if it does not win the prize, it will have helped create the victor.

About this entry