3G @ the speed of sound

9 Feb 2006

Last week when Vodafone announced plans to establish a Centre of Excellence for Personalisation and Storage in Dublin that will employ 25 people, few in Ireland were aware this was the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle that has created frenzied speculation in Europe’s financial press as to where the centre would be located.

It is the sixth such centre to be established in Europe — with similar centres in Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain and Portugal — and will be based at the company’s Irish headquarters in Leopardstown following a competitive tendering process across Vodafone’s global operations.

The units have been established to develop products and services in response to future customer needs and the five other centres cover communications, entertainment, information, commerce and business on the move.

“This is good news for local technology companies and gives them a chance to develop new products in collaboration with Vodafone that will give them an instant calling card around the world,” a spokesperson explained.

The exciting news presages another important development for Vodafone’s plans for the Irish market. In an exclusive interview, Vodafone Ireland CEO Teresa Elder (pictured) confirmed that the company will be aiming to roll out HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access) in Ireland this year, a move that could quadruple existing 3G data speeds from their present 384Kbps rate to around 1.2Mbps.

In recent months Elder has publicly advocated mobile as a solution to Ireland’s broadband woes but acknowledges that much work needs to be done on the pricing of mobile data in order to make it attractive to Irish consumers. “I spent a lot of my life in the US rolling out broadband and the image of Ireland is as a hi-tech, highly educated place. But then you look at the broadband penetration situation and it just doesn’t add up.”

She cited growing evidence that Irish businesses and consumers are open to using 3G. “Uptake of our Mobile Connect Cards is strong and we have begun to offer more attractive data bundles. We are also seeing new trends emerge, however. Customers who have 3G phones are plugging their phones into their laptops with USB cables and using their mobile phones as a modem. We observed this trend and have started packaging disks and USB cables with new phones so if users wish they can use 3G as a broadband service.”

In recent weeks Nortel demonstrated 3.6Mbps using a HSDPA data card. The connections were made from a laptop in a moving vehicle and supported activities including applications that might be used by mobile workers, MP3 downloads, high-definition video on demand and live TV.

However, Elder was more conservative about the promise of HSDPA. “Nortel’s 3.6Mbps data rate was achieved in a test environment so I’m not promising that speed. But we do think it will be around 1.2Mbps download and that is a broadband speed in anybody’s book right now.

“One of the big differences that HSDPA promises is that it is not about putting a cable into your house but being able to take your laptop anywhere. You could bring it to the park on a nice day. It is mobility in addition to the speed. Compared with broadband such as DSL, it’s not just like with like. It adds all the advantages of mobile on top.

Elder said that at present Vodafone is spending €3m a week on its infrastructure in Ireland. “We are going to be investing in a significant upgrade to our existing 3G network to handle HSDPA, which will take the network to the next level. Our total investment in our Irish network infrastructure is €1bn over seven years and we’re halfway through that spend right now,” Elder said.

If Elder’s plans come to fruition, the promise of broadband anywhere in Ireland or indeed Europe from your device of choice could be a reality within a year.

By John Kennedy