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Mobile Broadband Service Balancing Act

As this week's launch by Vodafone shows, operators are racing to deploy and launch mobile broadband services, which will lead 3.5G subscribers worldwide to boom from 2.5 million at the end of 2006 to more than 200 million in 2010, according to Informa Telecoms & Media.

HSDPA will account for the majority of 3.5G mobile broadband subscribers worldwide in 2011, followed by HSUPA, EV-DO Revision A (EV-DOrA) and EV-DO Revision B (EV-DOrB). The top two regions for HSDPA subscribers through 2011 will be Western Europe followed by Asia-Pacific, with North America a distant third. Asia-Pacific will account for the majority of EV-DOrA/B subscribers through 2011, followed by North America.

"Vodafone has just launched HSDPA services in the UK but it is far from alone," says Mike Roberts, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media and co-author of the report. "There are already 34 live HSDPA networks worldwide and another 43 in deployment, just six months after the first HSDPA service was launched. Most WCDMA operators have clearly decided that the benefits of upgrading to HSDPA - including download speeds of 1-2Mbps compared to 384Kbps for WCDMA, and much lower latency - are well worth the costs, particularly given the emergence of competing systems such as EV-DOrA/B and Mobile WiMAX."

In fact the success of EV-DO mobile broadband services has driven some competing WCDMA operators to upgrade to HSDPA, which in turn is leading EV-DO operators to upgrade to EV-DOrA. For example Verizon Wireless launched EV-DO in September 2003 and the success of its BroadbandAccess EV-DO service helped drive Cingular Wireless to launch the world's first commercial HSDPA service in December 2005.

Now Verizon is trialing EV-DOrA and rival Sprint Nextel plans to launch EV-DOrA services in 1Q07. Sprint Nextel also plans to leapfrog the competition by launching what it calls a '4G' mobile broadband service by 2008 using its 2.5GHz spectrum and an advanced technology such as Flash-OFDM, EV-DOrC, TD-CDMA, 3G Long-Term Evolution, Mobile WiMAX or WiBro.

However the transition to broadband creates as many challenges as it does opportunities for mobile broadband operators. "These range from major strategic challenges such as how to successfully navigate convergence and competition with fixed broadband providers, to key operational challenges such as when and how to launch mobile broadband services, what end-user segments to target with what devices and at what prices, and how to differentiate services in an increasingly competitive market featuring incumbent fixed and mobile operators as well as new entrants using new technologies operating in new spectrum," Roberts says.

Mobile infrastructure and component suppliers face similar challenges and will have to make major strategic moves to establish strong positions in the emerging mobile broadband and convergence markets. "In the infrastructure market Nokia is merging with Siemens Communications and Alcatel with Lucent, so other mid-tier vendors such as Motorola and Nortel will have to respond soon," according to Roberts.

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