Mon, 07 Mar 2005


WCDMA developed to run mobile Triple Play

Zatni Arbi, Contributor,

Kista Science Park, a suburb outside the magnificent Stockholm, is home to Ericsson's headquarters. Locally, this area is dubbed the Silicon Valley of Sweden.

On the day I was invited to the head office of this Swedish telecommunications giant after spending three days at the 3GSM World Congress 2005 in Cannes, France, there was thick snow everywhere. What an exciting experience it was for a guy like me, who had never touched real snow before!

All visitors to Ericsson's headquarters will have the chance to walk along the Memory Lane and see all the company's products from yesteryear, including some of its extra rugged handsets that were once very popular among cellular phone users.

At the end of the Memory Lane corridor, visitors will arrive at a demo room, which resembles a living room rather than a lab. When they enter this room, they will immediately feel the warmth of a Swedish living room. It is minimally decorated, yet it feels cozy and comfortable.

On the walls of this room hang a number of LCD screens. Among them there is one larger, high resolution screen as well, and it shows some music video. Everything is operated with a remote control.

Visitors will then have the chance to spend their time in this room and experience the company's vision of a digital living. Ronny Bergqvist will become their host, and he is a truly captivating as well as entertaining person.

Now, how often have you been interrupted by phone calls while watching a movie on your TV? Just imagine this: Right when the key witness in the story is about to testify in front of the judge and the jury, your phone rings. How you hate the caller!

In Ronny's living room, such an interruption would not bother you. When the call comes in, you can stop the TV program and get the call. When you have finished talking, you can resume the movie. It is possible to do this, as the TV broadcast comes over the Internet rather than over the air, and therefore you are always in complete control.

Or, if you truly do not want your train of thoughts to be distracted at all, you can simply ignore the highly untimely call.

Your system will automatically switch on the voice mail, and your caller can leave his voice message there. When the movie is over, or when you finally take a break and get up to help yourself to a glass of orange juice from the fridge, you can check your voice mail box and listen to what the caller had to say. Hopefully it was not your next-door neighbor trying to warn you that a UFO was about to land on your rooftop.

Triple Play

The telecom industry has a name for the digital living demonstrated by Ronny: Triple Play. What it means is that a single pipe into our house will provide us with Internet, telephony and television. It means that, in addition to talking and watching TV broadcast, we can also browse the Web, send e- mail, etc., with the same infrastructure.

However, being what we are, we do not stay in our living room all the time. We have to go to work. We have to pick up our children from school. We have to go to the supermarket to buy groceries. We have to move around.

Therefore, the fixed Triple Play is no longer sufficient for us. We want the Triple Play to be available in our mobile devices as well.

A breakthrough was then needed to make the Triple Play mobile as well as to provide enough bandwidth to deliver true high definition TV programs. Such a breakthrough was in fact one of the main thrusts of Ericsson's presence at the 3GSM World Congress 2005 in Cannes, France, from Feb. 14 to Feb. 17.

From 2G to 3G and beyond

But, first, let us retract and briefly look at how the mobile communication technology has evolved over the years. We all know that the cellular mobile communication technology basically falls into two main types, the U.S.-born CDMA and the Europe-originated GSM. On the GSM side, we have seen evolution from GSM to GPRS and EDGE. The last two are usually seen as the 2.5G technologies, as they do not really add significant bandwidth boost to deserve the attribute of 3G.

Then the 3G came along. In the GSM jargon, the name for the third generation technology is WCDMA, or Wideband CDMA. Keep in mind that, despite their very similar names, WCDMA has little to do with CDMA, which was bred by the U.S.-based Qualcomm.

Now, after some years of frustrating delays, suddenly the 3G WCDMA services are picking up pace in a growing number of countries. According to Ericsson, which has been the main supplier of 36 out of 60 already commercially launched WCDMA networks to date, there were 16 million of WCDMA users worldwide at the end of 2004.

While the figure is only one percent of the estimated one and a half billion mobile users worldwide, the pick up rate is encouraging. Today, you can enjoy 3G WCDMA services in Hong Kong, Australia, UK, other Western and Central European countries and even the U.S.

What about Indonesia? Here Ericsson has been running 3G trials with PT Cyber Access Communications (CAC), although no launch date has been announced for the commercial operation.

But even 3G WCDMA would not give us the ideal level of bandwidth required to turn the Fixed Triple Play, which Ronny gracefully lets us immerse ourselves in, into the desired Mobile Triple Play. An enabler is required, and it is what Ericsson calls WCDMA Evolved-or what is more commonly known as High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA).

To put the speed boosts in perspective, a GSM user can get a data rate between 9.6 to 14.4 kbps from his network, a WAP user up to 20 Kbps, a GPRS user from 9 to 171.2 kbps, an EDGE user up to 384 Kbps, a WCDMA user up to 2 Mbps while an HSDPA user can theoretically get up to 14 Mbps peak data rate. Of course, these maximum speeds depend on the operator's network configurations and other variables.

Incidentally, at a live demo during the event in Cannes--which was also the first of such demo in the world-Ericsson was able to achieve 11 Mbps on a live WCDMA system with HSDPA.

HSDPA the enabler

Mobile Triple Play, which means Internet, telephony and entertainment in the home, during transit and at the office, will become a reality with the help of HSDPA. Needless to say, mobile system vendors are getting very busy as the availability of HSDPA from a few 3G operators is expected to start in the second half of this year.

Initially, HSDPA users will most likely consist of high-end notebook users who require very high speed access to the Internet.

According to Mikael Back, Ericsson's VP for WCDMA Radio Networks, by the end of this year notebook users will see HSDPA PC-Card terminals emerging on the market, allowing them to access the Internet at the speed of up to 3.6 Mbps. HSDPA smartphones will follow, and eventually notebook makers will build HSDPA support into their notebook products to complement the already commonplace Wi-Fi module.

Is HSDPA the same as 4G? As the name "WCDMA Evolved" given by Ericsson somewhat indicates, it is more an evolution of WCDMA. In fact, the move from WCDMA to HSDPA is akin to the move from GSM to EDGE.

The rollout will be quick, as it requires only a software upgrade by the operators. As HSDPA is clearly3G technology", people are also calling it "a 3.5G technology". It is foreseen to become commonplace in Europe, North America and Asia next year.

However, there are still a lot of issues that have to be addressed aside from the technology. For example, what is the business model that is most appropriate for Mobile Triple Play?

Subscribers like you and I will be interested in flat rates, while operators, content providers and other participants in the business chain will require a certain degree of profitability.

They need to make sure that they get the optimal average revenue per user (ARPU) that will give them the acceptable rate of Return on Investment (ROI).

Clearly, the mobile technology is moving faster and faster, and as underscored by Ericsson executives during my interviews with them throughout the 3GSM event in Cannes, the telecom industry needs to find the most suitable business arrangement to make the services really attractive to the consumers. The services should be easy for us to use and give us value for our money.