Dell announced last week that it is planning to launch embedded Vodafone HSDPA access as a build-to-order option for notebook PCs in France, Germany and the UK. This extended wireless capability should be available in the first half of this year. The news comes hot on the heels of other announcements of HSDPA connectivity based on the usual data card form factor that we are used to seeing with 3G and GPRS.
For those unfamiliar with HSDPA, the acronym stands for High-Speed Downlink Packet Access. Essentially, it is an upgrade to existing 3G networks that were originally built out in Europe based on the UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) standard. 3G networks upgraded to HSDPA are anticipated to deliver three to four times the data capacity and three to four times the data access rates of UMTS. HSDPA also significantly reduces network latency, the delay associated with response to network requests, which further boosts the performance of "chatty" applications such as Web browsing over HTTP. Together with better in-building coverage and improved quality of service management, the end result should be a dramatically enhanced user experience, and a network that is able to tolerate high network loads at busy times much more effectively.
HSDPA rollout is set to gain momentum as we go through the second half of the year, though timescales vary between operators and indications are that it will take some time before 3G networks are fully upgraded. From that point onwards, new cell sites commissioned as the physical 3G networks continue to expand will be HSDPA enabled. In terms of HSDPA coverage, we can expect the kind of rollout schedule we have seen before with 3G - specific cities and major conurbations first, with wider coverage following. In reality though, it is likely to be well into 2007 before we see anything other than relatively restricted HSDPA availability.
The obvious question therefore is why anyone would be interested in buying a notebook from Dell with embedded HSDPA as soon as the middle of this year. The answer is to future proof their investment. The modules installed by Dell will support UMTS and GPRS (2.5G) as well as HSDPA. They may therefore be used to connect via the commonly available cellular data standards today, while being ready to take advantage of HSDPA as coverage increases to useful levels, as it undoubtedly will during the lifetime of a new PC bought this year.
In physical terms, the UMTS/HSDPA module will be fitted internally with the antenna integrated into the notebook lid, and will generally co-exist alongside a WiFi module. Some might say that embedding support for two high-speed wireless standards into a notebook is overkill. Doesn't Wi-Fi make HSDPA redundant and vice versa?
Dell is very clear in its view that WiFi and cellular connectivity options are complimentary, and we are inclined to agree with this. Regardless of increasing Wi-Fi availability, coverage can never be as extensive as a cellular network - the technology simply wasn't designed with this in mind. Connecting to public access Wi-Fi networks is still also far from being a hassle free experience, especially if you don't have a subscription and need to purchase access on a session by session basis. In practical terms, therefore, a significant number of notebook users will, indeed already do, find the cellular option very useful.
One way to view mobile wireless connectivity is to think in terms of a step down model. If Wi-Fi is available and can be connected to with relative ease, then that's the first choice. If it is not, then the fastest cellular option is sought, looking for HSDPA, UMTS then GPRS in that order. On some networks, there may also be an EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) option, which if available sits between UMTS and GPRS in order of priority.
Early implementations of connectivity 'dashboards' have had a stab at making the step down approach as easy as possible for the user. It will be nice to see this fully automated on notebooks that come off the manufacturing line with all of the wireless options pre-installed, but we'll have to wait and see how well this is implemented. Ironically, if the operators don't do a good job here and the Wi-Fi/cellular interplay remains relatively clunky, it could work in their favour. Authentication via the SIM card mechanism provides an "open the lid and go" experience with cellular, the convenience of which has already made 3G the default for many existing data card users, who only connect to public access Wi-Fi when they are stationary for long enough to justify the added effort.
The other consideration, however, is cost, and this is again something that needs to be worked on. Right now, we have different billing models for Wi-Fi and cellular (minutes versus megabytes) and the limitations of Wi-Fi offerings from cellular operators, which often restrict the types of hotspot to which the user may connect, means that early subscribers have usually ended up with two separate contracts or have still had to contend with ad hoc purchase of Wi-Fi sessions. Many still also regard cellular access as being too expensive.
How the industry sorts this out is probably not something we should worry too much about. If the cellular players do not get the cost model right, for example, then HSDPA usage will be limited, so it is really up to them how they choose to move forward. Assuming they pitch the cost at a level acceptable to the mainstream, however, once the cellular option is embedded in the same way as Wi-Fi, there is no good reason not to use it. If the operators get it really right, then there is even a chance that we could be seeing cellular connectivity being fitted as standard into business notebooks in the same way as Wi-Fi is today.
The ball is very much in the operators' court on this one.
Meanwhile, delivering cellular connectivity as an integral part of a notebook PC takes care of a significant pre-requisite for broader mainstream adoption.
Dale Vile is Research Director at independent analyst firm Freeform Dynamics Ltd.