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Last Updated: Monday, 27 February 2006, 08:27 GMT
Mobile downloads pick up speed
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Mobile phones at 3GSM
Mobiles are evolving into much more than phones
If you have ever downloaded a ringtone or game to your mobile phone, you know that it can be a slow and frustrating experience.

Similarly the glacial pace of browsing the web on a current generation handset stands in stark contrast to the ever faster speeds most enjoy in the home and office.

Every mobile operator acknowledges that upping the speed of mobile data is hugely important and several technologies are coming that could mean the end of those frustrations.

What mobile operators are aiming for is to get response times from the network below 100 milliseconds. This is the point at which humans stop noticing a delay.

Achieving such response times is tricky on the second generation (2G) networks most people use today.

This is true even when the data handling abilities of these networks are improved using technologies such as the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution (Edge) technology.

GPRS has been in use on many mobile networks for years but Edge as a technology is only seriously starting to be introduced now, in both networks and handsets.

The next generation

Despite the improvements to the second generation networks, all operators agree that newer third-generation (3G) networks will do a far better job of shuffling data around and hitting the critical response times.

It is widely accepted, though, that the basic 3G technology itself will need a boost if it is to match the expected data demands of future customers.

This is partly because the basic data rate available with 3G technology, 384 kilobits per second (Kbps), is not that much higher than can be achieved with Edge technology, which maxes out at just under 300kbps.

Mobile phone at 3GSM
Upgrades to mobile phone technology could take some time
Mark Smith, a spokesman for the GSM Association, said operators were happy about upgrading and recognised the need even though many had spent billions buying licences and building their 3G networks.

The technology likely to provide the bandwidth upgrade goes by the catchy name of High-Speed Downlink Packet Access.

"The HSDPA upgrade is not a switch out of old technology," said Mr Smith. "It's just an upgrade that allows much greater bandwidth."

"It's really no different to how they rolled out GPRS," he said.

Once in place, HSDPA networks offer speeds up to 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) while on the move and future versions much more than that.

Mr Smith said the first HSDPA networks are starting to appear and the first complete HSDPA network was likely to be in the US.

Handsets that can take advantage of HSDPA speeds are also now making an appearance.

Wireless methods

The data handling abilities of 3G phone networks do not stop improving with HSDPA, however.

On the horizon is a technology called 3G-LTE (Long Term Evolution) which could give bandwidths of up to 100Mbps.

Mark Heath, research director at Sound Partners, and author of a report into 3G futures, said such a technology might be needed if mobile TV took off and operators had to ship shows to lots of people at the same time.

Operators are more likely to plump for network hardware upgrades because they can exert control over them, rather than go wholeheartedly for rival technologies such as wi-fi or Wimax.

Angelo Lamme, spokesman for hardware firm Symbol, said that wi-fi was complementary to mobile networks as it was a hotspot technology and was not going to be a serious rival for such systems.

While Wimax could be more of a threat because it offers high bandwidth over large areas, he said a lot of work had yet to be done on roaming standards between Wimax zones or from mobile networks to Wimax zones and back again.

"Wimax has been seriously overhyped," said Mr Lamme.

The future then does seem to lie with the mobile technologies but users face frustration as the upgrades, like those games and ringtones, take time to arrive.




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