The alphabet soup of acronyms Hong Kong mobile phone users have to ingest will be getting thicker with the arrival of high-speed downlink packet access technology, or HSDPA. Over the next two years, the technology - an advanced modulation technique for third-generation (3G) cellular networks - is set to become the new gold standard for the city's highly competitive mobile communications market. All four licensed 3G operators in Hong Kong were expected to push HSDPA to radically improve their services and capitalise on the technology's ability to deliver a slew of corporate and multimedia applications at fast desktop broadband speeds. 'HSDPA is definitely in our plans, as it is a surprisingly simple software upgrade,' said Bruce Hicks, group managing director of Sunday Communications. 'Its speed is a big jump [from W-CDMA].' Like the enhanced data rates for global evolution (Edge) system on second-generation GSM networks, HSDPA uses a new coding algorithm to speed up data transmissions to 14 megabits per second and increase network capacity up to three times. W-CDMA data transfer rates range from 384 kilobits per second to 2Mbps. The increased network capacity would enable 3G mobile operators to better exploit the existing spectrum, which would improve their operating margins. Research firm Gartner said HSDPA had attracted increasing interest over the past 12 months, as W-CDMA operators scrambled to confront the threat from rivals using other 3G technologies. CDMA 2000 1X EV-DO can perform data transmissions of up to 2.4Mbps, while its upgrade, EV-DV, offers a maximum speed of 4.8Mbps. Network infrastructure suppliers have assured W-CDMA operators that a software enhancement to the latest generation of 'node B' base transceiver stations being deployed was all that was required to ramp up the data transmission performance of their networks. With only a minimum additional investment, operators could give their business customers significant extra value in the form of mobility and a high level of data security, which HSDPA can offer when clients download data to their notebook computers or internet-ready handheld devices. Senior industry executives from major players such as Ericsson, Lucent Technologies, Nortel Networks, Alcatel and Siemens were optimistic that HSDPA would catch on fast in Hong Kong, the mainland and other 3G markets in the Asia-Pacific region. 'Anybody who wants to stay in this game ought to know that HSDPA is the next stage of 3G development,' said Nortel Greater China president and chief executive Robert Mao. Cindy Christie, president of Lucent's mobility solutions group, said the company was pushing its HSDPA systems to operators and technology vendors. Lucent's Bell Labs unit has designed a chip, licensed to manufacturers of handsets and other wireless devices, that is powerful enough to handle data rates of up to 24Mbps - nearly 10 times faster than the most advanced mobile networks at present. 'The market for HSDPA looks promising,' said Alan Hadden, president of the Global Mobile Suppliers Association, a trade group representing GSM and W-CDMA technology vendors. 'You'll get HSDPA solutions by the second half of next year.' But local operators, sensitive to the hype that has followed 3G technology and the investments they have committed to W-CDMA networks, were eyeing a reasonable testing period before making a full commercial deployment. SmarTone Communications, scheduled to launch 3G services next month, sees a mid-2006 debut for its HSDPA programme. 'It is not a question of potential,' said Alice Li, SmarTone general manager for corporate communications. 'We need HSDPA to fulfil the demand for data services, especially various kinds of video-based services.' Henry Wong Kam-heng, Sunday's group director of new technologies, said operators would also consider new pricing models for their HSDPA-based 3G services in order to stay competitive. 'When you are getting those high speeds, it would be difficult to continue pricing your traffic by the kilobit,' Mr Wong said. He cited Sunday's decision to offer a fixed rate, unlimited usage deal for subscribers to its general packet radio service (GPRS) network, which competes against rival GPRS, Edge and 3G operators in Hong Kong. A few HSDPA handsets were expected to be released by the second half of next year, while devices for the mass-market were expected to be be available towards the end of 2006. Soon after that, subscribers could expect to see, read and hear the next system upgrade, which is the yet-to-be-finalised standard called high-speed uplink packet access, or HSUPA. Simple to upgrade While W-CDMA delivers download speeds of about 384kbps, an upgrade to HSDPA would enable downloads of up to 14Mbps. Operators call the technology '3.5G'. Little additional capital spending is needed to move to HSDPA. In some cases, all that is required is a software upgrade. Actual costs will vary from operator to operator, depending on whether they have 'HSDPA-capable' base stations. Siemens has been selling only HSDPA-capable base stations since 2002. It will conduct HSDPA demonstrations in January and expects to have commercial products available in the fourth quarter of next year. Japanese and South Korean operators plan to implement the technology next year.