W-CDMA Gets a Grilling

You heard the evidence, pondered and debated, but the jury is still out on whether W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) has what it takes to become the de facto 3G standard.

According to the results of Unstrung’s latest poll (see W-CDMA: What Chance Success? ), LM Ericsson’s (Nasdaq: ERICY) recent claims that the technology will contribute to a third of its sales by 2005 could be stretching optimism to the point of delusion (see Ericsson Spirals Downward).

For those of you who missed the W-CDMA module in engineering because you were too busy trying to look up teacher's lab coat, the specification is best known as the air interface for the universal mobile telecommunications standard (UMTS).

Whilst 35 percent of readers expect W-CDMA to rule the airwaves for next-generation wireless technology, nearly as many (32 percent) reckon rival CDMA 1x variants are better up to the task, following early rollout success in South Korea and Japan (see KDDI Makes Waves With 1x ). Such doubts are only strengthened by the timorous 33 percent who are unable to proffer an opinion at this early stage of the market’s development.

Skepticism also remains over the realistic commercial data transmission speeds W-CDMA will deliver: 36 percent of respondents believe the lab promise of 2 Mbit/s could hold true, but 32 percent counter that such a figure is a "total fallacy." Again, the same number can’t make up their minds, putting a downer on the market by harking that they would be happy with "a few hundred kbit/s." [Ed. note: Get off the fence people!]

One area you are agreed upon is the effect financial restraints are having on W-CDMA rollout. A combined 64 percent of respondents argue that the equipment is either too expensive or current economic conditions are holding back developments (33 and 31 percent, respectively). A further 18 percent blame "tight-fisted carriers" intent on keeping their wallets firmly shut. Only 15 percent of readers believe that wireless LAN is a competitive threat to the standard’s success -- in spite of recent reports to the contrary (see WLAN to Squeeze Out 3G).

In fact, the ability to roam over W-CDMA networks -- against recent concerns over the lack of roaming agreements in the wireless LAN market (see Big Dogs Chow on WISPs) -- is cited as the technology’s biggest advantage over competing standards. 48 percent of voters claim this to be the technology’s USP, way ahead of the "ability to offer faster data services" (23 percent).

Continuing the financial theme, 39 percent of respondents believe that an economic upturn is key to the speedy rollout of W-CDMA networks, while the development of cheaper base stations wins 22 percent of the vote. A quarter of them claim that recent network sharing deals are crucial to market success (see EU OKs UK 3G Network Sharing).

There were no real surprises in determining which region will lead the way in W-CDMA rollout. With UMTS having been adopted as the European 3G standard (see Operators Line Up for UMTS), a 61 percent majority chose that continent as the most likely success story. Next up was the Pacific Rim with 20 percent of the votes, following initial rollouts by NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) and J-Phone Co. Ltd..

Only 7 percent of you agree with analysts' belief that the Chinese market is rich for W-CDMA pickings (see Chinese 3G: Open to All?). A further 6 percent opt for the North American market, while a handful of eccentric cranks (5 percent) figure the wireless powerhouse of Burkina Faso will dominate global W-CDMA rollout.

In this mixed bag of results, it is clear that W-CDMA is not expected to be an overnight phenomenon -- the majority of respondents expect the mass-market rollout of W-CDMA networks to take another three to four years (57 percent). Of further concern to the market will be the fact that a higher proportion of readers (28 percent) believe there is a greater chance of the technology failing than the likelihood of widespread commercial buildout in the next two years (15 percent).

Wireless LAN may have been dismissed as a threat to W-CDMA in this poll, but what of its impact on the cellular industry in general? Can local area wireless networking compete with cellular networks, and will they prove to be complementary to each other? Or complimentary to each other? Have your say in the latest Unstrung poll: Wireless Personality Test.

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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