HSDPA vs. WiMax

By Jeff Goldman

November 11, 2004

One analyst says a future mobile, high-speed service could be the one everyone jumps on -- and it might not be the heavily-hyped 802.16/WiMax.

Considering all the buzz these days about WiMax, you'd think the forthcoming wireless broadband technology would face no competition once it arrives next year.

But a new report from ABI Research, entitled "HSDPA — Mobile Broadband," suggests that one significant challenge is already looming on the horizon.

According to Alan Varghese, ABI's principal analyst of semiconductor research, competitive forces in the mobile phone industry have led to the arrival of HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access) sooner than most people expected. HSDPA is the next step for GSM cell phone technology, following up the 384 Kbps speeds of UMTS with the promise of 3 Mbps on your mobile phone or handheld. For WiMax, HSDPA serves as a form of competition that's not as fast — WiMax promises speeds of up to 70 Mbps — but much more mobile.

Eventually, the two technologies will intersect as HSDPA gets faster and WiMax's mobility improves. In the meantime, though, each will be targeting a slightly different sector.

"In the early stages, HSDPA will still be about mobility and data and voice from a cellular kind of platform — and WiMax will be about broadband data to the enterprise and to underserved areas," Varghese says.

The main purpose of the ABI report, Varghese says, is to remind the industry that there's a significant amount of competition likely between the two technologies in the future. "I was trying to change the language," he says. "People are saying, 'We're all going to be living happily together, and we're going to complement each other,' and I don't think that's the way it's going to play out. There are going to be areas where they will compete, and they will compete strongly."

One key difference between the two technologies, Varghese points out, is the fact that HSDPA won't require any new infrastructure. "You're basically downloading new software," he says. "For WiMax, you need brand new infrastructure — while HSDPA uses cellular infrastructure which already exists today."

HSDPA is likely to arrive in Asia in 2005, in phones, handhelds, and PC cards. It will arrive in Europe and the U.S. soon after, Varghese says.

Similarly, WiMax equipment will arrive in 2005, with a mobile standard to follow the initial fixed wireless standard. Varghese says he's not too optimistic, though, about how easy it will be to introduce a mobile version of WiMax.

"Looking back 15 years, the hardest problem to solve in cellular was mobility — the fact that you need to do handoffs at speed," Varghese says. "The mobility part is not to be underestimated. So I think WiMax will take a little bit longer to encroach on HSDPA's mobility space — but HSDPA will be in WiMax's space pretty fast."

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