HSDPA touted as fixed-mobile convergence network

Fixed-mobile convergence, whereby users have their chosen voice, video and data services delivered uniformly to multiple devices in the home, office o

Fixed-mobile convergence, whereby users have their chosen voice, video and data services delivered uniformly to multiple devices in the home, office or on the road, is the most fashionable business model currently occupying the minds of the major operators. It is in its infancy of course. Early experiments such as BT’s Fusion service boast only one application, VoIP, and most service providers are far from delivering the triple play bundle to one device – whether cellphone, PC or set-top – let alone all of them. But here, the major players believe, lies the best chance to fight back against falling voice and data ARPU, the threat of new carriers and deregulated markets, and high churn levels.

In most cases, delivering the triple play to several access devices will require supporting several access networks. A few operators will seek to own them all – the US Bell operators or Deutsche Telekom with their fiber, DSL and cellular systems and early moves towards integrating these through an all-IP structure, for instance. Most will not have that luxury, or capex budget, and will instead work through partnerships – cable companies forming MVNO deals to acquire capacity on a mobile network; BT allying with Vodafone for Fusion. But what if an operator could not just deliver triple play services to PCs, televisions, handsets and other devices, but do so over just one infrastructure? The implications for margins, opex requirements and simplicity would be very attractive and give that carrier both an efficient cost base and ownership of all its systems. The only carriers with any hope of delivering a converged service over one network are, of course, those with mobile systems.

This is why WiMAX – not in its current form, but as the technology it could become after a couple of iterations – is so appealing to large operators, and to alternative carriers seeking to shift the traditional battle lines in telecoms. Depending on the spectrum restrictions it will live under in different countries, it could provide sufficient bandwidth, plus an all-IP core and fairly simple structure behind the access network, to support cost effective delivery of advanced services bundles. And unlike any other well supported technology, it naturally spans fixed and mobile access.

This could support the entry of some disruptive new operators seeking, eventually, to offer a converged service with just one investment in infrastructure – Clearwire being the most famous example. Established and GSM operators in countries where 3G has not yet been licensed, and where media and telecoms services are immature, have an even greater chance, as the interest of Brazilian, Indian and other players in WiMAX shows.

However, it will be a couple of years at least before WiMAX is capable of delivering a converged triple play, and its performance in advanced applications is as yet unproven. This could give time for more unlikely mobile technologies to try to catch up and move into the fixed market as well, providing a single platform for convergence. Both CDMA2000 and W-CDMA/HSDPA are headed in this direction, and although the restrictions on their freedom of action from spectrum scarcity are more serious than they are likely to be for WiMAX, there would be a clear attraction for 3G operators. If they could offer converged services without having to build or lease a new network, they could snatch back the high ground in this market from the multi-network carriers, which are currently looking stronger because of their control of access to the home.

Although CDMA has sometimes been used in a fixed-mobile situation, mainly in developing economies, the cellular technologies are not generally considered appropriate for fixed broadband access because of their weakness in indoor penetration and coverage. However, there are technical moves to improve this through use of picocells and other techniques, and Dr Wolfgang Weber, chief technology officer at Swisscom Mobile, is one authority who believes indoor capabilities will match those of fixed technologies by early 2007.

Ericsson is, predictably, the vendor that is most aggressive about positioning HSDPA as an alternative to DSL as well as a mobile technology and so giving its core customer base an effective weapon against losing share, in the converged market, to the wireline carriers, which will typically use Wi-Fi and WiMAX in the absence of 3G licenses. It claims opex is far lower on indoor HSDPA than on DSL, and that WiMAX will lag behind by a year or so. In the next 3GPP release of the standard, incorporation of MIMO and other smart antenna techniques will be specifically geared to boosting data rates and coverage indoors as well as on the move.

We can expect to see significant R&D dollars being invested in allowing HSDPA or CDMA EV-DO Rev A operators to enhance their networks to support fixed-mobile convergence, just as similar efforts will be made for WiMAX, to make it a realistic converged network option for non-3G license holders. Yet the single network model is likely to remain a dream. Many technological advances will go to make wireless as viable as wireline for high data rate, multimedia access, even in the home. But consumer expectations will continue to outstrip the capabilities of the networks and already, the companies that are most interested in turning HSDPA and its successors into the converged network of choice are also talking about supplementing it with parallel wireless systems for particular applications, notably the DVB-H mobile broadcasting network, which Ericsson and others think will be essential to add television to the converged HSDPA picture. There is no one-size-fits-all technology, and an operator that adopts a single platform is likely to find itself competing on price and best effort, not on advanced consumer services.