Nairobi residents will soon be able to enjoy faster downloads of music, video and email to their cell phones. Safaricom last week said it would roll out 3.5G services, the world's most advanced commercial wireless technology. The offering, bundled with a regular third-generation (3G) service, will be available for a 12-month trial period in parts of the city.

  The firm said it was introducing HSDPA - high speed downlink packet access or 3.5G - that would offer speeds of 1.8 megabits per second, five times faster than the first 3G networks. It is also offering a 3G UMTS - universal mobile telecommunication service - in a pilot to determine its economic viability.

"We first have to build a business case," said Michael Joseph, Safaricom's Chief Executive. "(When) we can see the justification of that business, we can apply for a permit. However, I don't believe at this point that we are going to have a national roll out. It will be to only selected areas where we think the business can be justified."

Safaricom initially plans to market the service as a data pipe (where users provide their own content) and it would then probably move to providing some content. Joseph said that the technology would be cheaper than VSAT, which many corporates operating in rural areas currently use. Installation of VSAT applications costs about $2,500 (Sh180,000) and monthly running costs of about $300 (Sh21,600), he added. For the new service, the firm has built seven base stations around its headquarters.

The UMTS/HSDPA equipment has been supplied by Siemens Communications. Minister for Information and Communications, Mutahi Kagwe said the new technology would revolutionise Internet service provision. Only South Africa has the services so far, but Tanzania and Nigeria are also gearing up to launch them.

  So far, Safaricom says it has spent Sh60 billion on its current 2.75G network but that it would cost even more to install infrastructure for the new technology. It has invested Sh12.4 billion to establish new base stations to accommodate the technology.

The East African Standard