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Converging on fourth generation in mobile phone arena

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High-speed handsets: Mobile phones will soon attain 4G broadband speeds.
High-speed handsets: Mobile phones will soon attain 4G broadband speeds.

The twin mobile streams of GSM and CDMA may merge in their 4th generations to take on WiMAX

Rudyard Kipling wrote…‘West is West, and East is East, ne’er the twain shall meet’ — and how wrong he was! That die-hard Victorian imperialist has been proved resoundingly wrong — and he was just talking of the cultural divide.

Today, even mathematical certainties like parallel lines can be made to meet and merge — if technology and customer pressure want it so.

Global service

Look at what is happening in the mobile phone arena — which serves two billion people worldwide, over a quarter billion in India alone. The business is carved up between two competing and seemingly irreconcilable standards: Global Service for Mobile Communication (GSM) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). India is a playing ground for both technologies — but will the maidan become a Kurukshetra, leaving a victor and a vanquished ?

Chances are — no. And we can say this with near certainty this year, based on some interesting recent developments in the mobile broadband arena, where India might just end up as an inadvertent gainer and catalyst.

Sometimes one is called upon to run before one has learned to crawl.

That is what is happening in the cellular space. As a nation we are still to get our collective act together in what is being called 3G or third generation services: the coming together of voice, data and video on mobile hand-held cellular telephony devices at broadband speed — that usually means 1 mega bits per second or faster, but typically around 7-10 MBPS. But time, tide and technology wait for no man (or nation)! At the Mobile World Congress in February, a handful of telecom players showcased services at zippy speeds that made 3G look like a lazy laggard: the technology for want of any brighter ideas, is being called Long Term Evolution or LTE.

The name — to indicate the next iteration beyond 3G and 3.5G — seemed a safe acronym two years ago… when they expected the asking data rates of between 50 and 100 MBPS to occur not earlier than 2010.

Ahead of schedule

But to the surprise of very few, LTE has landed a good two years ahead of schedule. In Barcelona, Samsung unveiled a handset, the Soul, implementing what was arguably the fastest broadband access speeds on a mobile phone that one could actually buy: with 7.2 MBPS High Speed Downlink Packet Access or HSDPA connection. Still in the realms of trials though, was an even faster solution at LTE speeds: 60 MBPS in downlink and 40 MBPS in the uplink.

The demo

The demo used an LTE handset from LG, a base station from Nortel and a video streaming application from Alcatel-Lucent that downloaded a full length 700 MB movie in 90 seconds. Ericsson had its own LTE demo at Barcelona — and Nokia-Siemens even had a commercial LTE product on display: a base station. No wonder one publication ran a headline: ‘LTE on the brain at Mobile Congress!’

In Delhi last week at the Convergence India show echoes of LTE could be discerned, though demonstrations were not to be had.

Alcatel-Lucent’s Vice President for Europe ( Marketing) Phil Tilley, helped me understand the neat solution that LTE might provide especially in countries like India which had the ability precisely because they were late starters — to leapfrog intermediary stages and join the leading edge of such technologies.

Optimised data

Beyond today’s 3G GSM networks, the next advance would be HSPA( High Speed Packet Access) with typical downlink speeds of 14 MBPS and uplinks of 5-6 MBPS. CDMA operators, would need to implement EVDO: Evolution Data Optimised (or Data Only) to provide comparable speeds.

The neat part is that both competing technologies can graduate to LTE without needing to ditch their existing network hardware. In other words the LTE standard (a theoretical 100 MBPS in downlink and 50 MBPS in uplink) is the natural evolutionary path for both streams. They may call it by different names — but the twain can and shall meet.Given this roadmap, some players are already busy smoothing the pains of eventual convergence. Vanu Inc, founded by Vanu Bose, son of Amar Bose, the famous inventor–entrepreneur has created ‘soft radios’ which allow both GSM and CDMA providers to share much of their infrastructure.

At their stand in Delhi, I saw a small table sized chassis called Multi-RAN, powered by the Vanu radio and seamlessly handling 3 GSM and 1 CDMA network.

The infrastructure is being field tested by Vanu with India’s largest network services provider, GTL Ltd. At the stand of Israel-based network provider RAD, I saw further evidence of back-end hardware that worked equally well with any of the competing cellular technologies.

Given that CDMA providers like Reliance are now also bidding for GSM licences, it seems safe to say that such technologies will make it easier for both GSM and CDMA players to reduce costs today so that they can upgrade both technologies to LTE tomorrow.

The upstart in this pretty picture of togetherness is WiMAX the ‘other’ broadband mobile technology that already offers downlink speeds of over 20 MBPS and uplinks of around 5 MBPS. It has its own roadmap to match LTE, megabit per megabit per second.

Legacy cellular operators might find it more rational to upgrade their networks from 3G to the 4G regime of LTE, but no one is foolish enough to predict which way customer preference lies. So everyone from Alcatel to Ericsson to the dozens of handset makers and back haul providers are hedging their bets by putting a bit of technology money on both options. Some like Nokia are using LTE to bookend their more futuristic hand set ideas — nanotechnology-driven ‘flexible’ phones like the ‘Morph’ that one can wear around the wrist like a woman’s bracelet. The wearer of such a device will not be bothered about what fuels her broadband dreams — as long as IT works to enhance her lifestyle.

ANAND PARTHASARATHY


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