Nobody has been more surprised at how quickly operators and vendors have moved from WCDMA to HSPA than the GSM industry itself.
According to the GSM Association (GSMA), the number of networks now offering commercial HSPA services jumped 44% between May 2007 and March 2008, with 166 networks now available in more than 73 countries around the world. There are now more than 467 HSPA-enabled devices available, including mobile handsets, notebook PCs, data cards, wireless routers and USB modems. As of March 2008, there are now more than 32 million HSPA connections worldwide. Even die-hard Star Trek fans would be compelled to describe this level of activity as positively warp-speed compared with the snail's pace at which these same operators roll-out their first generation 3G networks.
With this level of support for HSPA technology and the momentum now behind deployments worldwide, some are beginning to question how the industry's current love affair with the standard will affect demand for LTE, the technology which sits the next step along the UMTS evolutionary path. HSPA has a sub-evolutionary path of its own - moving towards HSPA+ which can support data rates of up to 28.8 Mbps - and there are signs that many operators intend to squeeze as much performance from their HSPA networks as they can before eventually biting the bullet and committing to LTE.
To some extent, this attitude is unsurprising. The substantial investment made by operators in UMTS means some are looking at LTE with trepidation and see it as narrowing the window in which to make a return on their 3G investment.
Some operators will look to offset the negative impact of this by adopting strategies to enhance their UMTS networks for many years to come, while deploying LTE for specific user groups or applications. HSPA+, therefore, will be deployed in the 2009 timeframe, and, in Europe in particular, will be the basis of the advanced wide area networks. LTE will remain a technology for selected metrozones and enterprises, with the focus on nomadic and advanced multimedia services, rather than generic mobile Internet usage.
Operators looking to get a head start in implementing LTE can begin by deploying advanced 4G-ready multi-technology base stations today. Once a range of LTE devices become commercially available, upgrading their platforms to support these new standards will be a simple and cost-effective upgrade. This is a strategy being adopted by Vodafone in some of its territories. According to Steve Pusey, Group CTO, networks such as the one being deployed by its Spanish operations should simply require a card upgrade to enable LTE.
Nonetheless, despite operator moves to LTE-ready their network, the overall attitude is that HSPA will be able to comfortably meet the growing demand for data capacity in the immediate future. Barring a step change in consumers' mobile data usage (which cannot be completely discounted), the commercialization of LTE is likely to be pushed beyond the 2009/10 timelines that were originally suggested. ARCchart predicts that the technology is unlikely to see the light of day until 2011 and, even then, subscriber numbers are forecast to be only 4.2 million with a large proportion using LTE via data cards on their laptops
Of course, an alternative operator strategy involves taking a calculated risk that LTE will be available in time to enable a rapid roll-out to compete with HSPA+ technologies and Wimax. In that way, the operator can avoid the costs of rolling out HSPA+ and potentially leapfrog to a higher performance technology, giving it a competitive advantage in the market.