HSDPA -- Not So Fast
By Carlo Longino, Thu May 12 01:15:00 GMT 2005

No, not the speed, but rather the rollout. NTT DoCoMo says it will delay its launch of the technology, and analysts say handsets will again hold things back.

Back in March, there was speculation that NTT DoCoMo was having some technical problems and would delay its HSDPA deployment until the second half of 2006. Indeed, today DoCoMo confirmed the delay, but not for technical reasons: it says it hasn't developed any content to make use of the high-speed connections.

Analysts aren't taking that at face value, believing instead that the reason for the delay is a familiar one that also plagued the launches of GPRS and 3G, a lack of handsets. Informa says HSDPA handsets won't ship in volume until mid-2006, despite statements from manufacturers saying they'd be ready by the end of the year, as well as some already showing models off at trade shows.

The Informa analyst report adds that operators will be forced to "to limit their launches to datacard users in the initial stages" -- but that's likely what they would do in any case, judging by most operators' 3G launches, and which haven't been so bad anyway.

There's an essential difference between data cards and handsets running on a high-speed network. For data cards, the network is the application -- all it's got to do is deliver high-speed Internet access. For a widespread consumer handset launch, "fast" isn't enough. "Fast" isn't an application or content. A data card is an easy sell, but "it's fast" won't sell pricey new handsets; "look at all this cool stuff you can do" will (assuming the stuff is actually cool, of course).

DoCoMo's just pushed its subscriber base through a large upgrade cycle, getting them to ditch their 2G i-mode handsets in favor of speedier FOMA devices. Its FOMA launch was plagued by a number of factors, and it wasn't until it could deliver handsets on par with -- if not exceeding -- older models in terms of features and battery life and flat-rate data plans so users could afford to take advantage of new content and services that came in bigger packages that its subscribers really started to take notice.

The incremental step from FOMA to HSDPA probably isn't as big a deal as the earlier 2G-to-3G shift. While the increase in bandwidth is pretty huge, it's not going to be enough for it just to be faster FOMA -- handsets will have to be even better, and there's going to have to be another big shift on the scale of the introduction of flat-rate pricing. DoCoMo's confident it's going to have to be some pretty compelling content and services, and it's a hard assertion with which to argue.