Europe Fires Up Faster 3G

In the cradle of European Long Term Evolution (LTE) development, pure-play 3G operator 3 Group will take on its rivals in Sweden and Denmark this year by doubling, and eventually tripling, the speed of its 3G network.

In Sweden and Denmark, 3 Group's network is already advanced in some areas. The operator says it covers more than 60 percent of the populations in those countries with evolved HSPA (HSPA+) with theoretical peak downlink network speeds of up to 21 Mbit/s.

A 3 spokesman explains that the actual peak downlink data rate on the HSPA+ networks is 16 Mbit/s and the average session throughput is between 8 Mbit/s and 10 Mbit/s. The operator has so far signed up 20,000 users to this higher-speed 3G service.

Now, the operator plans to upgrade its networks further to support downlink speeds up to 42 Mbit/s this year and 84 Mbit/s in the future. Those are, of course, theoretical peak rates; average data rates will be much lower. (See 3 Pushes 3G Speed.)

In a new contract with Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), the 3G upgrades will be done in phases in the two countries. The first upgrade to 42 Mbit/s will start early this year and will involve adding an additional carrier to achieve the improvement in the bit rate, according to Hans Beijner, product marketing manager in the radio product area at Ericsson.

And there will be some devices. Modems that support the new network are expected to be available this year, according to a 3 spokesman.

In Sweden, 3 is ramping up its 3G network as its operator rivals are plowing ahead with proto-4G technology rollouts: Telia Company launched a commercial LTE service in Stockholm last month, while Tele2 AB (Nasdaq: TLTO) and Telenor Group (Nasdaq: TELN) have created a joint venture to launch LTE later this year. (See TeliaSonera First to Go Live With LTE, TeliaSonera Prices First LTE Offer, Swedish Operators Join Forces in LTE Race, Sweden Claims LTE First, Huawei Beats Ericsson to Swedish LTE Deal, and NSN Replaces Huawei in Euro LTE Rollout.)

Despite competitors' moves to the next-generation mobile broadband technology, 3 is committed to HSPA and HSPA+ for now, according to the spokesman.

"We have the spectrum needed for full LTE services and the backbone network to support it and can launch on short notice as soon as devices come on the market at reasonable prices," he says in an email to Unstrung. "But at the moment we estimate that HSPA/HSPA+ offers better performance, price and choice for our customers."

In addition to the HSPA+ upgrades on 3's existing networks in Sweden and Denmark, which operate in the 2.1GHz frequency band, Ericsson will also supply 3 with network equipment to launch a new 3G network in the 900MHz band in Sweden. The 3 spokesman says the 900MHz network will be commercially operational in the spring of this year.

As part of the three-year contract, Ericsson is also supplying IP-based optical and microwave backhaul gear and support services to 3.

HSPA+ dawns, devices lag
3 isn't the only European operator to push 3G to the limit and make the most of existing network assets, rather than charge into deploying LTE. Operators that have upgraded to HSPA+ in Europe include Optimus Telecomunicações , Mobilkom Austria AG & Co. KG , Swisscom Mobile AG , Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF), Telecom Italia Mobile SpA (Milan: TIM), Telecomunicações Móveis Nacionais S.A. (TMN) , Vodafone España S.A. , and Vodafone Portugal , according to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) . (See Telefónica Revs Spanish 3G , Vodafone: No Need for LTE 'Til End of 2011, and Hutch 3G Austria Deploys HSPA+.)

Part of the reason HSPA+ deployments are picking up in Europe, as opposed to widespread LTE rollouts, is that most operators don't yet have spectrum for LTE. (See GSMA Wants More LTE Spectrum, Germany's Monster 4G Auction, Europe Faces 4G Spectrum Delays, Europe Waits for 4G Spectrum, and French 4G Spectrum Update.)

But the hitch with HSPA+ -- whether it’s the 21-Mbit/s or 28-Mbit/s variety -- is a lack of devices. The only HSPA+ devices around are USB modems from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , Novatel Wireless Inc. (Nasdaq: NVTL), Option NV (Euronext: OPTI; Nasdaq Europe: OPIN), and Sierra Wireless Inc. (Nasdaq: SWIR; Toronto: SW). And most, if not all of them, are based on Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) chipsets.

But the HSPA+ device outlook is set to change this year, according to Nigel Wright, VP for wireless at Spirent Communications plc , a mobile test specialist.

"We'll see [21 Mbit/s] supported in smartphones during 2010," he says.

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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