The wireless high-speed data revolution sparked by Verizon Wireless and its aggressive deployment of CDMA2000 1x EV-DO, or evolution data only, technology has created urgency among U.S. mobile operators to compete on the same level. As Sprint moves quickly to counter Verizon's moves with an expected nationwide EV-DO deployment this month, at least one GSM operator is racing to meet the competitive threat with a better — yet commercially unproven version — of wideband CDMA, or W-CDMA.

Businesses and government users are embracing Verizon's 3G Broadband Access service, which has left Cingular Wireless, now the largest U.S. mobile operator after its merger earlier this year with AT&T Wireless, to pin its hopes on high speed downlink packet access (HSDPA). HSDPA is the next generation of W-CDMA technology that promises downlink rates between 2 Mb/s and 14.4 Mb/s, and Cingular expects to debut the service by the end of this year.

Cingular will be the world's first operator to deploy HSDPA technology because NTT DoCoMo said it would delay the launch of the technology in Japan until the second half of 2006.The company said it had not found services that would prompt user adoption of the technology.

Analysts note Cingular's deployment time schedule is critical, as Verizon is aggressively selling EV-DO technology, and Sprint is expected to commence a nationwide rollout of EV-DO, complete with handsets by the end the year.

“Cingular continues to face competition from Verizon and needs to move forward with its HSDPA rollout,” said a recent research report from Deutsche Bank.

Jim Straight, vice president of Verizon Wireless Data & Internet Services agreed: “We think we've been able to push to market fairly hard. We've seen other carriers jump in reluctantly to try and force technology to market.”

W-CDMA technology generally has experienced a painfully slow start worldwide, and it barely left the starting gate with players such as Japan's KDDI and SK Telecom and KT Freetel in Korea. In addition, Verizon Wireless emerged with EV-DO service offerings that offer substantially faster data rates than today's version of W-CDMA — known as Release 99 — which offers typical downlink rates of 100 kb/s compared with EV-DO's 300 kb/s to 500 kb/s.

Cingular inherited six W-CDMA markets from AT&T Wireless as a result of the merger, but has not pushed the service at all, research firm Current Analysis said in a recent report. Instead, Cingular has waited to deploy HSDPA to give faster speeds and better coverage.

As a result, HSDPA technology is under the microscope. The technology, standardized as Release 5, is a software upgrade to W-CDMA base stations that promises theoretical peak downlink speeds of 14.4 Mb/s, increased capacity, a ten-fold improvement in spectral efficiency and support for both voice and data in the same spectrum, leaving W-CDMA operators clamoring for deployments. Analysts say the technology is hard-pressed to be commercially ready by the end of 2005, but Cingular argues otherwise.

“Right now, everything is on target for the fourth quarter,” assured Kris Rinne, chief technology officer with Cingular.

Cingular's plan is to offer W-CDMA/HSDPA service in 15 to 20 metropolitan markets and expand the network throughout 2006. It's no easy task given the fact that Cingular is multi-tasking integration of AT&T Wireless' networks, an aggressive rollout of EDGE 2.5G technology and the rollout of HSDPA in a very short time.

Deutsche Bank analysts speculate Cingular likely will simplify the feature set for its initial deployment of HSDPA technology, choosing to delay some more advanced W-CDMA/HSDPA features — such as peak data speeds — to a later date.

“[HSDPA] is a complex standard, and there are large combinations of features that could theoretically be supported,” noted the Deutsche Bank report. “Opting for less advanced features in early rollout stages could work in favor of the carrier since it is easy to test the less complex features, giving Cingular more time to certify the basic foundations of the network.”

Infrastructure from Ericsson, Lucent Technologies and Siemens should be ready by November. Earlier this year, Lucent and Cingular completed the first HSDPA data calls on Cingular's trial network in the Atlanta market. The HSDPA-enhanced network delivered sustained over-the-air data rates of more than 3 Mb/s in recent tests, according to the companies. Applications run during these tests included video streaming, downloads of large data files and images and other multimedia services.

The availability of HSDPA-enabled devices is another key component that will help determine the technology's success. To achieve a broader uptake of services, an ample supply of HSDPA devices is necessary. Inadequate handset availability crippled rollouts of W-CDMA Release 99 throughout Europe.

“It is critical to have handsets,” said Rowland Shaw, director of strategic planning for Ericsson North America, one of Cingular's infrastructure vendors. “We are pushing the envelope. … One of the first things we'll see coming out this year will be PC cards that plug into laptops. Early next year, we expect to see a variety of HSDPA terminals.”

But analysts believe HSDPA handsets won't be ready until the second half of 2006. Qualcomm is the furthest along in the development of handset chipsets, announcing earlier this year sampling of the MSM6275, which supports peak rates of 1.8 Mb/s. Yet analysts note there is a typical 18-month lead time between sampling and working handsets. The next round of handsets is expected to support peak rates of 3.6 Mb/s. Qualcomm is expected to ship samples of the MSM6280, which will support peak data rates of 7.2 Mb/s, in the second half of this year

Cingular's handset providers, including Nokia, Motorola, LG and Samsung have committed to a delivering HSDPA-enabled devices in the fourth quarter, but it appears now that all of the handsets will be based initially on W-CDMA Release 99, according to industry sources. As a result, data rates will be in the 200 kb/s range instead of the 400 kb/s to 700 kb/s offered by HSDPA. That's not a problem, according to John Jackson, handset analyst with the Yankee Group.

“Carriers won't be as injured by a lack of handsets as what we saw with Release 99,” Jackson said. “There is plenty of speed with UMTS. It's really all about service implementation.”

But there is a public-relations need for high speed, whether real or perceived. Verizon Wireless is expected to have EV-DO coverage in about 50 of its top markets by the end of 2005 and is seeding the market with EV-DO-enabled devices. It's anticipated that 50% of its handset models will support EV-DO technology by the end of the year.

And the heated race will only continue as enhancements to both EV-DO and HSDPA accelerate the downlink and uplink speeds, allowing carriers to penetrate deeper into the broadband market. EV-DO Revision A, which will become available in 2006, promises a higher-speed reverse link, improved latency and better capacity with the ability to support voice-over-IP services.

“You'll see us as aggressive with Release A as what we've done with technology today,” said Verizon's Straight. “Expect much activity in 2006.”

Meanwhile, HSUPA (high speed uplink packet access) significantly increases uplink speeds of HSDPA and is expected to be a 2007 phenomenon. According to Rinne, Cingular already has stipulated HSUPA in its infrastructure agreements.

HSDPA PC DATA CARDS:

// MOTOROLA: D1100 PC CARD GSM/GPRS/UMTS/HSDPA; AVAILABLE FROM Q4 2005

// NOVATEL WIRELESS:

PC card devices backward compatible with 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE — available 2H 2005 :

++ MERLIN U730: 850/1900 MHZ UMTS/HSDPA (NORTH AMERICA)

++ MERLIN U740: 2100 MHZ UMTS/HSDPA (ASIA, AFRICA, EUROPE, MIDDLE EAST)

PCI Express Mini Card modems for laptops and wireless broadband devices, backward compatible with 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE — in development phase, availability pending:

++ EXPEDITE EU730: 850/1900 MHZ UMTS/HSDPA (NORTH AMERICA)

++ EXPEDITE EU740: 2100 MHZ UMTS/HSDPA (ASIA, AFRICA, EUROPE, MIDDLE EAST)

// OPTION: HSDPA DATA CARD IS EXPECTED FOR COMMERCIAL AVAILABILITY LATER IN 2005

// SIEMENS: QUAD-BAND FOR GSM/GPRS/EDGE; EXPECTED AVAILABILITY FOR COMMERCIAL USE IN 2H 2005;

++ DC10 UMTS 2100 FOR EUROPE/ASIA

++ DC16 UMTS 850/1900 MHZ FOR U.S.

// SIERRA WIRELESS: SCHEDULED FOR DELIVERY IN 2H 2005

++ AIRCARD 850: 850/900/1800/1900/2100 EDGE/UMTS-HSDPA (EUROPE)

++ AIRCARD 860: 850/900/1800/1900 EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA (NORTH AMERICA)

Source: 3G Americas