Telecoms

The fastest phones on earth

China trials its superfast 4G network at the Shanghai Expo in a world first

Will 3G soon be ancient history?

With the Shanghai World Expo claiming to break so many records – from the number of toilets (11,000) to the expected number of visitors (70 million) – perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that China Mobile has taken the opportunity to crow about a record of its own.

The telecom operator, also the main sponsor of the Information and Communications Pavilion at the Expo, is the world’s first mobile operator to introduce a 4G wireless communication network. Using a standard called TD-LTE – based on the 4G technology Long Term Evolution (LTE) – China Mobile has set up 17 TD-LTE outdoor stations, as well as indoor coverage in nine pavilions at the Expo, says the Shanghai Daily.

The difference between 4G and 3G technology, put simply, is download speeds that are about seven times faster, and a much greater networkcapacity. For telco operators, that promises an increase in revenue from users downloading high-definition movies and music videos onto their mobile handsets.

“With the completion of the TD-LTE demo network, TD-LTE has entered a new era of development,” says Wang Jianzhou, China Mobile chairman. Analysts reckon that the telecom operator is looking for full deployment in 2011.

China Mobile, the world’s largest wireless operator by subscriber numbers, is particularly keen on the new 4G technology. The reason is that the company has continued to struggle with the homegrown and problem-plagued TD-SCDMA standard that Beijing has forced it to employ. Smaller rivals China Unicom and China Telecom built their 3G networks based on proven global standards.

Resigned to the fact that it will lose out on 3G, China Mobile is now focused on rolling out the new 4G version.“They [China Mobile] are rushing the deployment of 4G because they want to be in a competitive position relative to China Telecom and China Unicom, which are deploying the global 3G standard,” says Richard Lim, a managing director with GSR Ventures.

Although it is called TD-LTE, the fourth generation technology actually has little to do with its predecessor TD-SCDMA. But the telco giant can’t openly admit that it is giving up on the locally-developed 3G standard, so the company now publicises that TD-LTE is derived in some respects from TD-SCDMA. That saves face for those who want to trumpet the Chinese standard as an example of the country’s growing technical prowess.

“The reality is that they are two completely different, incompatible technologies, but it’s a nice way to get away from TD-SCDMA, by claiming it’s an upgrade or an evolution,” Mike Thelander of Signals Research told the Economist.

Analysts believe that the future of TD-LTE is already much brighter than for its predecessor. The standard does feature Chinese engineering input and some proprietary intellectual property. But Vodafone and Verizon Wireless are taking part in efforts to make it work smoothly with the global LTE standard, which was developed in Europe. Vodafone, which owns a small stake in China Mobile, has a vested interest in a single global 4G standard to make roaming easier.

Moreover, if TD-LTE can be rolled into the main LTE standard, handsets will work well on Chinese TD-LTE networks. This is great news for China Mobile, as well as handset makers like Nokia, Motorola and Samsung. The main problem in the roll out of TD-SCMDA was a lack of compatible handsets. Major handset makers were unenthusiastic about designing handsets specifically for the fledging standard.

But no one is happier than telecom-equipment makers. Domestic firms like Huawei and ZTE are already vying for lead roles in building the country’s 4G network. In fact, Huawei is at the forefront of LTE development: last year Norwegian mobile phone operator Telenor, picked the Chinese company to upgrade its network for 4G services (see WiC38).


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