PEOPLE IN TOUCH WHEREVER, WHENEVER
Debates about which technologies will emerge as the foundation of future voice and data services are not stopping local players from taking a gamble to stay ahead of their rivals.
As technicians grapple with the intricacies and acronyms of WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access), both technologies are being rolled out.
The three cellular networks have already installed third-generation (3G) networks in urban areas to offer high-speed video and data downloads over the phone. Now they are adding software upgrades to HSDPA, creating what Vodacom CEO Pieter Uys dubs "3G on steroids".
Meanwhile, Telkom and other players are testing WiMax, a competing technology that provides wireless coverage to homes and spans distances of up to 50km.
MTN switched on HSDPA last week, offering "10-times faster speeds" and making it far more competitive in the data arena, says CEO Phuthuma Nhleko.
MTN has spent R300m on 3G and will spend another R600m in the coming year. But Nhleko admits the uptake of data services is still "not where we'd like to have it." Data earned 8,2% of MTN SA's R15,5bn revenue for the nine months to December, but 95% of that is still derived from basic text messages.
That may change after MTN scored a coup with an exclusive deal to broadcast the 2006 World Cup to cellphones in SA. Users will be able to receive video clips of every goal and download videos or still pictures of the heart-stopping moments.
Vodacom will switch to HSDPA on April 2, saying it is as zippy as Telkom's high-speed ADSL service, with the benefit of mobility. It is not confined to a tiny cellphone screen, as data cards will give laptop computers the same high-speed access and make it feasible to download movies or large e-mail attachments.
Last year Vodacom's data cards were a flop, with patchy coverage and frequently dropped connections. Hopefully, the HSDPA coverage will end those problems, so that it lives up to what Uys promises. "You can stay connected for as long as you like, because you only pay for the amount of data you send and receive," he says.
"To a large degree, HSDPA is 3G done properly," says Rupert Baines of the Wireless Ecademy, an online resource for the wireless industry. "Previous versions were very good at voice, but we finally have a technology that is very good for high-speed, reliable, cost-efficient data services."
Although WiMax is a different technology, the two are complementary, Baines says, and can be combined to improve the services for operators and users.
Operators could install HSDPA antennae in an office or public hotspots for cheap, fast, high-quality data, then use WiMax as a longer distance link to the telecommunications backbone.
But the technologies are also direct rivals, Baines says, and some equipment makers and operators see WiMax as a way to leapfrog 3G by being better, faster and cheaper.
Communications company Samsung is a fan of both. "It really is difficult to predict the mobile landscape, because it changes at such great speed," says Paul Ghent, the company's director of European Telecoms Operations.
He expects HSDPA to become the dominant technology for mobile operators, with WiMax used by fixed-line players to give customers internet access away from their desktop computer.
Samsung vice-president Hung Song recently met communications department officials in SA, and says they have grasped how useful WiMax can be. "Johannesburg has good voice communications, but there is a challenge for data services, and in rural areas, there's a need for basic communications services," says Song.
Next month, an exhibition on wireless broadband will be held in Midrand, where technology developers will present their competing cases. But the question is whether consumers will use the services. "There is no limit to how much bandwidth we will be able to connect our handsets to in the future - the question remains whether growth in the mobile sector can finance the investments needed for this new technology," says the global research house Strand Consult.