April 3, 2006 12:00 PM PDT
The skinny on CTIA Wireless 2006
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Next-generation cellular technologies, such as new versions of CDMA (code division multiple access) or UMTS-HSDPA (Universal Mobile Telephone System-High Speed Downlink Packet Access) could also provide higher data rates. Last week, Nortel Networks and Qualcomm announced they had achieved downloads of 7.2mbps based on the UMTS-HSDPA standard. The companies will show off the high-speed capability during a demonstration at CTIA.
Sprint Nextel, which owns a lot of the 2.5GHz spectrum ideal for WiMax and OFDM, is already studying these technologies. It's expected to make a decision by the middle of 2006 on which one to use.
"Everyone is waiting to see how the Sprint Nextel situation will play out," said Philip Solis, a senior analyst at ABI Research. "That will tell us a lot about where these technologies are going."
Sprint Nextel also said Thursday that it plans to upgrade its Sprint Power Vision network, which uses EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized), to increase upload speeds. The upgraded service will become available in the first quarter of 2007. The carrier, along with its partners, Nortel Networks, Novatel Wireless, and Sierra Wireless, will take advantage of CTIA to demonstrate Sprint Nextel's new PC cards, which provide the cellular service.
Equipment suppliers will also be debating and demonstrating emerging wireless technologies that are used for broadcasting TV to handsets. The two main ones that will be seen at the show are digital video broadcasting-handheld (DVB-H) and MediaFlo.
These technologies create overlay networks designed to broadcast multiple channels of digital audio and live or prerecorded video programming to handheld devices without using up cellular-network capacity. Both are expected to be commercially available to consumers in 2006. Crown Castle subsidiary Modeo will offer the DVB-H service. And Qualcomm's MediaFlo division will offer its service in select markets. Verizon Wireless has already signed on as a MediaFlo customer.
The MVNO movement
In addition to the technology and networking debates, industry experts will also be looking at mobile virtual network operators (MVNO), which lease network capacity from mobile operators to offer their own service. Big brands such as ESPN and Disney have used their name recognition to launch a service tailored to a specific market segment. ESPN, launched during the Superbowl this year, focuses on hard-core sports fans, while Disney Mobile, which will debut at CTIA this week, will be aimed at moms and families.
Other MVNO's don't leverage an existing brand, but they focus on a specific demographic. EarthLink and Korean giant SK Telecom have formed a joint venture they call Helio, which targets high-tech hipsters. Headed by EarthLink founder Sky Dayton, the company, formed in 2005, is trying to bring the culture of phone use in South Korea--where networks are more advanced and subscribers spend far more time and money on multimedia and entertainment features--to the United States. The service is expected to launch sometime later this year, but Helio executives will be on hand at CTIA to pump up the company's new service.
These new mobile operators don't own cellular towers or the network itself. But they will compete with services offered by traditional wireless operators. Though they may only comprise about 5 percent of the market today, their market share is expected to grow and could reach as much as 20 percent over the next few years, according to some estimates.
"We're at a very interesting time in the industry," said Solis. "Things could change a lot in the next five years, as technologies and markets mature."
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