HSDPA opens up the Web

15 Aug 2006

Despite the fact that many operators only started their 3G services last year, many have already upgraded their capabilities to HSDPA, allowing enhanced mobile data access of up to 1.8 Mbps. That is quite an accomplishment given the fact that the industry took at least two years to upgrade from GSM to HSCSD and GPRS.

Already, operators in over 15 countries have launched HSDPA, including so-called emerging markets such as Lithuania, Bulgaria, Bahrain and Croatia. The speed of technical adoption aside, the coming - or rather, arrival - of HSDPA should now bring about a new era of Internet access.

In Hong Kong, SmarTone-Vodafone is the first operator to launch HSDPA, offering a PCMCIA card for notebook computers for around HK$800 ($102) and two service packages, including one that features unlimited usage for about HK$75 a month.

That means users in Hong Kong with one of these HSDPA cards can get access to the Internet literally anywhere, since mobile network coverage is nearly ubiquitous in the city. And at 1.8 Mbps, the kinds of things you can do won't be limited to Web surfing and email.

What that means is, unless you are a hardcore online gamer or watch movies online constantly, you can now subscribe to HSDPA and get rid of the fixed-line connection at home.

Chances are not many people will get rid of their fixed connection and replace it with a purely mobile solution. On the other hand, HSDPA represents a convenient way to add a second broadband connection for the home or office (or home office).

Predictable pricing
The value proposition of HSDPA will certainly be attractive to most business users since it allows them to get regular Internet access anywhere they go, with the option of paying a fixed monthly fee. That means they can get access to their email server from their PC instead of relying on their Blackberry for email, and pay a flat monthly rate instead of the usual pay per-packet charges for GPRS.

With HSDPA users get a solution that solves all the previous issues of the mobile Internet - namely slow speed, uncertain pricing and limited capabilities (you still can't read all the attachments with a BlackBerry).

Of course, HSDPA still has some issues of its own. For example, it is still used with notebook computers rather than mobile phones. You probably won't be booting up your notebook during a 15-minute bus ride and connecting to the Internet, and all of HSDPA's advantages are evident only when the connection is active. That will change with vendors like Taiwan's HTC set to launch PDAs running Windows Mobile with HSDPA support, which solves the long boot-up time problem and enables users to access the regular line.

Seen from this perspective, HSDPA seems like a major breakthrough for mobile operators since it puts them on an equal footing with fixed broadband providers and allows them to get a share of the ISP market. But the reality might be slightly less advantageous for mobile operators.

When users connect to the Internet via GPRS or 3G, they are paying for each packet, and with many offerings, they are restricted to the mobile portal of the operator. With HSDPA, they now get a chance to pay a flat rate per month and have direct access the Internet. The mobile operator not only loses the advantage of being able to charge based on usage, but also the ability to limit user access to its own portal.

At the end of the day, HSDPA relegates the mobile operator to the role of an ISP, which has much less control of users and less hold on profits.

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