HSDPA is the wireless technology that few people can spell and even fewer understand. But behind the unwieldy acronym – it stands for high-speed downlink packet access – lurks a golden opportunity for operators to upgrade today’s networks to better support high-speed data services.

“The incremental costs of upgrading to HSDPA are quite manageable, but the potential gains are huge,” says Thomas Quirke, director of marketing for Motorola’s radio access business.

The equipment industry sees rich pickings in HSDPA. Recent months have seen a flurry of contracts signed in Israel, Austria, the Czech Republic and the US – Cingular is an HSDPA fan. Even the Isle of Man is getting HSDPA, as the British island is traditionally used by UK operator O2 as a launch pad for high-speed services.

Like it or not, HSDPA will be coming your way soon, with mid-2006 as the most common launch date. But what benefits does this new technology offer?

In a nutshell, HSDPA is the next “speed bump” in the evolution of GSM mobile phone technology. It is faster than today’s 3G networks – first commercial services next year should offer real-world speeds of 500 to 700 megabits a second, says Robin Lindahl, vice-president for radio networks at Nokia.

That is around three times faster than today’s 3G networks, and HSDPA can evolve to support much higher speeds, up to 7.2 megabits a second and beyond. The other big benefit of HSDPA is its lower latency – a technical term meaning delay.

According to Mr Lindahl, the benefit of lower latency is most apparent when surfing the web. It makes the delay between clicking on a URL and seeing the page start to download less noticeable than it is on today’s 3G networks.

Because of the higher speed and lower latency, HSDPA users will get a web surfing experience similar to that with their fixed broadband connection at work or home. This is potentially a big selling point for mobile operators.

“With HSDPA, mobile operators can really start to compete with ADSL services,” says Mr Lindahl.

Nevertheless, analysts are sceptical that HSDPA can challenge fixed broadband. “While some operators may be considering HSDPA to offer broadband to the home, the performance and costs just don’t add up for such a radical step,” says Alastair Brydon, author of a recent HSDPA report for Analysys Research. He sees the big opportunity for HSDPA in bandwidth-intensive but relatively profitable services, such as mobile video clips and premium-priced mobile web browsing and intranet access.

While you can also do these activities on today’s 3G networks, “HSDPA provides the necessary cost and performance improvements to fuel take-up and usage,” says Mr Brydon.

Vodafone UK plans to launch HSDPA commercially in mid-2006 and according to Paul Wybrow, chief technology officer, “it will be positioned as a broadband service but one initially targeted at the enterprise market”.

That is because the first devices to support HSDPA will be data cards aimed at peripatetic business people needing to download powerpoints to their laptops. Like Vodafone’s existing 3G data cards, the HSDPA cards are designed to co-exist with Wi-Fi, which seems a tacit admission that HSDPA will never be sufficiently cheap that it can replace Wi-Fi.

HSDPA-compatible handsets are proving more problematic. Manufacturers are struggling to squeeze the extra circuitry into handsets without drastically increasing power consumption, weight or price.

“They have had to go back to the drawing board in terms of system design,” says Alan Varghese, principal analyst with ABI Research. Nevertheless, he expects the first HSDPA handsets by the end of 2006.

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