Friday interview: 3's Graham Baxter on how HSDPA will speed up your music and video life

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Earlier this week, 3 invited a bunch of journalists to one of its London stores to see its new HSDPA mobile broadband service in action. The focus was to show how much faster music and video downloads, and video streaming will be, once it launches later this year in certain parts of the country, before being rolled out elsewhere early next year.

Tech Digest was there, and had a chat with Graham Baxter, 3’s technical solutions director – the chap responsible for 3’s network technology. He understands all those acronyms, in other words, but also has a handle on what HSDPA will mean for mobile content, and how it stands in relation to rival wireless technologies like WiMAX.

“It’s important to stress that HSDPA is an incremental step in 3G
networks,” says Baxter. “It’s an upgrade to our existing network. You
do need new handsets or data cards to make use of it, but they can
co-exist in the same network.”

The first few HSDPA handsets will be on sale before Christmas. 3 hasn’t announced which handset manufacturers it’s working with yet, but there was a very slinky prototype LG mobile being used for the demos, so fingers crossed that will make it onto the shelves.

When 3 launches HSDPA later this year, initially in London and Manchester, the network will be capable of 3.6 megabits per second, compared to the current 3G rate of 384 kilobits per second. Beware though, the first handsets will only be capable of receiving 1.8Mbps, although a few will be capable of the full 3.6Mbps. However, ultimately it could be capable of up to 14.4 Mbps, which 3 will be working towards over the next couple of years. Got all that? Good.

But this is just download speeds – the ‘D’ in HSDPA (well, that’s ‘downlink’, but let’s not split hairs). What about going the other way? It’s increasingly important, given data applications like 3’s See Me TV, where people are uploading their own videos. Faster uplink speeds could mean you’ll be able to upload longer videos, rather than the short clips that are currently possible.

When HSDPA launches, Baxter says the uplink speed will be the same as 3G – 384 Kbps – but that towards the end of next year 3 is planning to launch HSUPA, which will offer 1.5Mbps uplink. Got that? And HSUPA could eventually reach uplink speeds of 5.7Mbps.

The big question about all this bandwidth is what does it mean? 3 showed demos of various content services working with HSDPA, for example downloading songs (see our video clip yesterday) and streaming videos. And it’s true that the speed increase is really impressive – click, and your song is on the handset in 25-30 seconds.

But how will 3 approach this? If we can download music two or three times as fast, will 3 go for that, or up the audio quality – and thus file size – to have downloads that take the same time to arrive, but sound better? The problem is that Baxter can’t really answer these questions – he’s in charge of making sure 3’s content team have the choice to do either, rather than deciding which strategy to take.

“Think about movies or music videos,” he says. “HSDPA gives higher spectral efficiency, so you can get a higher data rate, or more subscribers. So you could have more subscribers downloading a larger volume of videos, or offer higher-quality videos to the same number of subscribers. It really is a case of mix’n’match.”

One thing 3 is planning is full album downloads alongside individual singles once HSDPA is up and running. Baxter also mentions surfing content-heavy internet sites like Flickr and YouTube, although there remains the question of how soon these sites will launch mobile versions that look good on a handset.

Baxter can talk about competitive technologies. Will Wi-Max be a strong competitor, for example? “It’s an interesting debate, but you never hear people talking about the fact that you still need to build a network out for Wi-Max,” he says. “And that takes a long time to roll something out that’s in any way comparable with the 89% population coverage we have already.”

The HSDPA v WiMAX debate could take up a whole interview by itself. What we can say is that 3’s demo succeeded in its main intention – we want an HSDPA handset (especially the LG one), and hell, we want one before Christmas.

Stuart Dredge