Even as Vodafone New Zealand talks up its new 3G service, now dubbed 3G Broadband, questions are being asked about whether the technology Vodafone uses can support one of broadband's killer applictions: voice over IP (VoIP).
Vodafone is rolling out a new software upgrade to increase the download speeds on its network. HSDPA (high speed download packet access) should give customers around 1Mbit/s connection speed, far less than the promised 3Mbit/s earlier indicated. Vodafone New Zealand has been trialling the software and is one of the Vodafone Group's first country units to announce a national deployment.
But Lucent TEchnologies is saying VoIP over mobile phones won't take off until the end of 2007 or even later.
The problem with providing VoIP service over mobile handsets today is the uplink, which is too slow to support quality voice calls, according to Lucent Chief Marketing Officer John Giere.
To increase uplink speeds, operators will need to upgrade their networks with HSUPA (High Speed Uplink Packet Access) technology, he says.
"HSUPA will give operators the bidirectional capability they need to run real VoIP," Giere says.
However, the Lucent executive doesn't expect the high-speed technology, which is currently being standardised, to become commercially available until the latter part of 2007 or early 2008.
How that timing fits into VoIP-over-mobile plans of Skype Technologies and the Hutchison 3 Group (Hutchison 3G) is unclear.
At the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona last month, the two companies announced a partnership to provide the world's first commercial VoIP service for mobile phones. The companies aim to begin offering service in select markets as early as this year, according to Christian Salbaing, managing director of European telecommunications at Hutchison 3G.
Though Hutchison operates an IP-based network, it has not rolled out HUSPA.
In addition to HSUPA, operators planning mobile VoIP services will need to "flatten" their networks by reducing the number of components and using IP wherever possible, according to Giere. "The number of network components you have also contributes to network latency, which is a big issue with VoIP," he says.
Most GSM operators today have legacy circuit-switched networks, which tend to slow the flow of IP traffic because of their numerous network components and conversion processes, according to Giere.
In response to the need to reduce network components, Lucent has introduced a new base station system that collapses a series of network architecture layers into one component, according to Giere.
Lucent is also collaborating with Samsung Electronics in a project aimed at developing SIP (Session Initiated Protocol) client software, which is essential for offering VoIP for mobile handsets, he says.
Until now, mobile operators have largely dodged the great VoIP debate, trying to squeeze every possible cent of their largely amortized circuit-switched networks before investing in yet another new technology.
But should they be interested in VoIP? "Absolutely," says Giere. "Efficiency is one reason; operators can significantly increase their bandwidth utilisation with VoIP. Applications are another; an IP environment is all about creating a rich set of applications."
Another reason, especially for those operators that are net payers of international roaming services, is the ability to use VoIP to undercut high intra-carrier network usage fees.
Vodafone New Zealand has not announced pricing, speeds, availability or launch date for its HSDPA offering beyond saying it will be available late this year. Vodafone has indicated that it will review its pricing model so as to better compete with fixed line broadband offerings, like Telecom's JetStream service which runs over DSL. Telecom will upgrade its JetStream solution to ADSL2+ in June and should be able to offer speeds of up to 12Mbit/s.