Category Archives: HSPA

Sony’s New Embedded 3G ‘NetBook’

I guess it was just a matter of time before Sony introduced its ‘netbook’ offering – though it insists that its new Sony Vaio P is not a netbook. Walter Mossberg reviews it on the Journal:

I love the look and feel and boldness of the design, but can’t recommend this sleek machine for most users because it is very slow and has poor battery life. Oh, and it sells for double or triple the price of other small laptops, commonly called netbooks. 

He advises waiting for the version that supports Windows 7. But, man, it does look great!

sony_vaio_p5The interesting part about this ‘netbook’ is that it has embedded 3G capability – with Qualcomm’s Gobi chipset which supports both HSPA as well as EV-DO connecticity. Thus far, only Verizon Wireless is offering a $200 rebate as part of its Mobile Broadband offering – I expect many European 3G carriers to jump on the bandwagon. 

And for folks who really cannot wait to start surfing on their carrier’s HSPA network, read this to get you through. With Nokia making noises in this area, are “netbooks” the new frontier?

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Telstra Announces HSPA+ Upgrade

Telstra announced that it is upgrading its HSPA network to HSPA+, which the company says will offer peak downlink speeds of 21Mbps by end of 2008. Looks like Telstra pipped the other operators to the post – Qualcomm had announced multiple HSPA+ trials early this year to be conducted with Hutchison 3G, Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Telstra.  

Telstra has always prided on itself being ahead of other carriers and the device ecosystem – it launched its Next G HSDPA network operating in the 850MHz band in record 10 months in 2006. Use of existing GSM bands, such as 850MHz and 900MHz, enables Telstra to expand broadband coverage much more cost-effectively than they can using higher frequencies. Radio signals travel much further at these frequencies than they do at 2100MHz, the other main band currently used for HSPA mobile broadband services, reducing the number of base stations required to cover any given area. 

Not satisified, in 2007, Telstra upgraded its network to support a peak rate of 14.4Mbps (another first) even though no devices were available that could download at those speeds! And now HSPA+. In fact at this year’s Mobile World Congress,  they even committed to 21Mbps before the end of the year and 42Mbps using HSPA+ in 2009. This is all well and good – but some key topics are never fully addressed in these announcements: end user terminals as well as backhaul and core upgrades.

User terminals: I was looking through Telstra’s website and I could not locate any device/user terminal that supported HSDPA at 14.4Mbps. I am not sure what the point of the upgrade is if there are no terminals that can leverage the network’s capabilities. In fact, Telstra seems to be mainly promoting their walled garden services (such as BigPond Mobile and Mobile FOXTEL) on their Next G network. Even for this HSPA+ press release, it is not clear what end device prototypes were used for the interoperability testing – the only piece of available information is that Qualcomm’s MDM8200 is the chipset in Ericsson’s HSPA+ infrastructure solution. 

Backhaul and core upgrades: The press release has a reference to “planned Ethernet backhaul” – no additional information. There was also a pithy press release in June about Telstra activating 3G Direct Tunnel in its core network. In Direct Tunnel, the bearer traffic flows from RNC directly to the GGSN, bypassing the SGSN. Only the signaling traffic is processed by the SGSN. This requires a software upgrade of all the 3 elements – RNC, SGSN and GGSN and the benefits are not entirely clear since it is still quite aways from the flat IP architecture.

Atleast, Telstra’s shiny network boasting the highest coverage (close to 99%) is allowing it to charge premium prices. Telstra’s 1GB plan for mobile broadband costs almost three times as much as Optus’ comparable plan. According to Forrester Research,  Next G mobile broadband service is one of a few that Telstra will not consider discounting – even for its largest customers. Surprisingly, it does not seem to have affected its HSPA market share. Telstra had 3.525 million HSPA subs at the end of 2Q 2008, representing a market share of ~88 percent. With the other operators increasing their coverage and driving prices down aggressively, this space should be interesting to watch.

Update: Sierra Wireless announced it is working with Australia’s Telstra, Qualcomm and Ericsson to deliver the first 21Mbps HSPA+ devices. Sierra said shipments for customer trials are expected to begin in the coming months with a commercial launch to follow. If enough vendors announce support for HSPA+ in the near term, it could spell trouble for WIMAX.

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Entry of White-Label Mobile Broadband Service

I guess it was just a matter of time before white-label mobile broadband service offerings entered the mobile data lexicon. Spanish PC manufacturer AIRIS has recently concluded a promotion offering a mobile broadband laptop bundle with no specific operator branding. The white-label offer shows how mobile broadband is rapidly becoming a commodity in Spain and in most of Europe. AIRIS ran the promotion (see picture) with Spanish national daily newspaper El Mundo, offering a free ultra-portable laptop and modem to anyone who collected vouchers from the newspaper and signed up for either a 12-month contract with Telefonica or a 24-month contract with Orange Spain. Although the terms of the contract are not any more favourable than those offered directly by mobile operators, the lack of operator branding shows that operators are not the only players pushing bundled mobile broadband offers in Spain. 

The reason for such white-label mobile broadband offers in Spain becomes apparent when you consider that close to 30% of Spanish households have neither PCs nor fixed broadband – a ready target for mobile operators, PC vendors and who knows what in the future. This number is actually higher in Portugal (60%), Greece (40%), Italy (40%) as well as France (30%). Expect such white-label services to be launched in these countries very soon.

The flood of new MVNOs in Spain (most of them through Orange) has been the primary reason why non-mobile operators such as fixed Internet service providers are launching mobile broadband services. In addition to AIRIS, Spanish broadband operators Jazztel and Ono have also recently launched mobile broadband packages. Jazztel is offering both a prepaid tariff costing €0.20 per megabyte and a contract offering 250MB for €7.95 a month. The company offers its mobile Internet service as an extension to the mobile voice service it launched in June through its MVNO agreement with Orange.

Cable operator Ono is also promoting “free” mobile broadband up to 5MB a day under the brand BAMG (Banda Ancha Movil Gratis) for users who buy a dual- or triple-play bundle of TV, phone and fixed Internet. KPN-backed Simyo (offered through Orange again), for example, is undercutting the three network operators by offering up to 5GB of data transfer over HSPA for €24.99 a month, with no fixed contract length. While the data packages of Jazztel and Ono are fairly limited, KPN-Simyo has aggressively priced its mobile broadband offering – traditionally Telefonica and Vodafone have not been too willing to bring down the mobile broadband pricing premium (which is close to 45% above that of fixed broadband), Orange which has probably a lot less to lose has thrown the gauntlet through its MVNO partner.

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3G Embedded Netbooks – Killer Product?

The relative success of Asus Eee PC has created a new product category – netbooks, also called Mobile Internet Devices (MID) or Ultra-Low Cost PCs (ULPCs). Never to shy away from new product hype, ABI research has promptly come out with a forecast calling for over 200 million of these little fellas by 2013. A quick note – this is the same size as today’s worldwide laptop market! The report probably assumes (like Michael Dell does) that mobile operators will play a significant role in pushing these babies out, bundled along with their 3G data plans – with subsidies to boot. This model is no different from the one where the operator subsidises expensive phones to sell a voice plan. 

 Given that netbooks are all about always-on connectivity, 3G in addition to WiFi is a must for this product category. This leads to the question – does it have to be built-in? I feel that the answer is yes. I am aware of the arguments against embedding 3G functionality in laptops. However, if you recall, PCMCIA cards were the initial enablers for WiFi connectivity – I still have one of those lying around somewhere. But convenience coupled with declines in module costs drove OEMs to deliver laptops with integrated WiFi functionality. The same trend is likely to be repeated with integrated 3G as well. To begin with, USB dongles hanging out of netbooks will look pretty awkward – in addition, embedded antennas down the side of a screen will deliver a better signal that translates into higher speeds. Instant 3G connectivity when the netbook is turned on, similar to WiFi, will also be a key selling point. Finally, mobile operators may end up driving this product category and the OEMs will have little choice other than partnering with the operators.  Recent events seem to bear this out. Vodafone announced that it will start selling Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 ultra-mobile device with built-in mobile broadband, exclusively through Vodafone stores and online, and directly from Dell, in key European markets. More mobile operators are launching netbooks with integrated 3G modem functionality in partnership with OEMs.  T-Mobile Germany announced that it will be selling the Asus Eee PC 901 Go with integrated mobile broadband. The announcement also states that the 3G connection will be up and running when the netbook is switched on similar to WiFi. Acer, the world’s third largest PC vendor, is reportedly in talks with several 3G (third-mobile operators such as Chunghwa Telecom and Taiwan Mobile in Taiwan, as well as T-Mobile International, Vodafone Group and Orange in Europe to supply netbooks with built-in 3G.

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LTE – Loooong Term Evolution?

LTE (the GSMA-adopted roadmap to 4G for GSM/UMTS carriers) has been getting a lot of attention of late. Verizon Wireless plans to begin network deployment in 2009 (using their newly acquired 700MHz spectrum) with full network deployment in 2010 and beyond. AT&T has also announced LTE rollout plans in 2012. Vodafone is also making the obligatory statements about rollout plans in 2011-2012 time frame – its ex-CEO, Arun Sarin has made snarky comments about Verizon needing LTE more than Vodafone owing to the inability of EV-DO to scale up to near-4G speeds like HSPA.

With the possible exception of Verizon, how real are these LTE rollout plans especially given the current financial turmoil? My bet is that 3G operators will look to squeeze the last ounce of return by upgrading their 3G/HSPA networks to HSPA+ (also called Evolved-HSPA or Advanced HSPA) long before they consider LTE. In fact, Japan’s Softbank Mobile has already chosen HSPA+ over LTE because of cost and backward compatibility. The reasons are as follows:

  • No marked difference in spectral efficiency – LTE proponents talk about 144Mbps Downlink (DL) and 50+Mbps Uplink (UL) speeds. But realization of these speeds require available spectrum in excess of 20 Mhz. Now probably is not a good time to be buying spectrum. As the chart shows (courtesy: Qualcomm), spectral efficiency of HSPA+ (when MIMO is included) is close to that of LTE when you consider 5Mhz spectrum.

  • Significant less Investment in Infrastructure – It is much easier and less expensive to upgrade HSPA to HSPA+ given that LTE is based on OFDM – a completely new modulation scheme while HSPA+ is still based on W-CDMA. LTE needs a completely new set of radio access and core infrastructure components – not only are the radio access algorithms different, the signaling and control protocols from the access to the core are also significantly different.
  • Backward compatibility – It is simpler for a HSPA+ subscriber to gracefully handover to a HSPA network – the connectivity between RNC and the core (SGSN and GGSN) remains as before. Significant complexity exists for handover to be implemented between 4G/LTE and HSPA+ networks.
  • Handset and terminal availability – Availability of LTE handsets may be less of an issue – clearly, the initial application for both HSPA+ as well as LTE is in mobile broadband (with USB dongles). It is reasonable to expect that HSPA+ dongles will be cheaper than those supporting LTE – given that a new semiconductor ecosystem needs to emerge that supports LTE.

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Puzzled by Cox!

I have to admit that I am slightly puzzled by Cox’s decision to go the CDMA route for their wireless network in the 700MHz band. Apparently Huawei beat out both Alcatel-Lucent and Nortel to win the business. Cox spent more than US$304 million on 22 licenses during the 700MHz-spectrum auction that wrapped up in March. It is also part of the SpectrumCo consortium, which also includes cable operators Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks and holds nearly US$2.4 billion worth of AWS spectrum.

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Can Mobile Operators Sell Laptops?

At the recent Citigroup Technology Conference, Dell’s CEO, Michael Dell indicated that the strategy for selling the company’s ‘netbooks’ would be via the wireless network operators – the former would be subsidized to consumers along with 3G service. Actually, this model is not new – Carphone Warehouse in UK has been giving away free laptops in exchange for a 3G subscription for many months now.

CARPHONE WAREHOUSE - FREE LAPTOP OFFERS

CARPHONE WAREHOUSE - FREE LAPTOP OFFERS

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