Cingular launches 3G
Cingular today unveiled its long-awaited 3G service, announcing it will offer commercial UMTS service in 15 markets. Called BroadbandConnect, the initial launch is a business-focused data access-only service but has a limited portfolio of two laptop PC cards. Cingular said consumer services and UMTS handsets would arrive in the first part of 2006, giving customers a competitive alternative to Sprint and Verizon Wireless' Power Vision and Vcast EV-DO services.
Cingular has rolled out UMTS/high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) networks in 10 new markets: Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Houston; Las Vegas; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; San Jose, Calif.; and Washington, D.C. The operator also upgraded the five of the six UMTS networks it acquired with AT&T Wireless to HSDPA since October, adding Dallas, San Diego, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle to its 3G footprint. AT&T Wireless's sixth UMTS market Detroit, however, was missing from the list. Cingular chief operating officer Ralph de la Vega said Detroit's UMTS network is still running but the carrier has not yet upgraded the Nortel Networks gear in those markets to HSDPA.
"We're not ready to turn on the HSDPA button there yet, but it's coming," de le Vega said.
Cingular's deployment is effectively the first commercial HSDPA launch in the world. The only network in commercial operation is run by O2's Manx Telecom on the Isle of Mann, where O2 trials new technologies before launching them commercially in the U.K. HSDPA is a later evolution of UMTS, offering a far more robust downstream capacity with a theoretical downstream speed of 14.4 Mb/s. Those data speeds, however, won't be available immediately as HSDPA technology has several categories or revisions, each of which gradually adds capacity to the network. At its current stage, Cingular's infrastructure--deployed by Siemens, Ericsson and Lucent Technologies--will support a theoretical 3.6 Mb/s, though actually real-world download speeds will be only 10% to 20% of that capacity.
"Clearly this is the first time a wide-scale deployment of this new technology has been undertaken," de la Vega said. "Cingular is proud to lead the way."
The new 3G network now covers 35 million people, and Cingular promised rapid rollouts of new markets in 2006. Cingular has a lot of ground to cover, however, if it wants to catch up to Verizon and Sprint, which have both promised to cover about half of the country's population by the first quarter of 2006. But in Cingular's advantage is its faster network. Its HSDPA gear is touted as capable of delivering average downlink speeds of 400 kb/s to 700 kb/s--about 50% faster than its competitors' CDMA 1X EV-DO networks. Both of its initial data cards will not only be able to take advantage of the enhanced speeds, but they also contain EDGE and GPRS radios allowing customers to default to the 2.5G network if no 3G connection is available.
While both data cards are capable of utilizing HSDPA, the same won't be true for Cingular's first handsets. Cingular Chief Technology Officer Kris Rinne said the operator's initial handsets will be UMTS only, which supports average downlink speeds between 220 kb/s and 320 kb/s. But Cingular will offer HSDPA handsets as soon as they are available, she said.
Cingular is the first major carrier to launch a commercial HSDPA network, and though UMTS handsets are readily available worldwide, most HSDPA handsets are still in development. Rinne, however, said that Cingular has been working closely with chipset vendors and terminal vendors since 2004 to ensure that handsets and data cards would be available for Cingular's launch no matter how ahead of the rest of the GSM community it might be. That collaboration also produced the two dual-mode UMTS/EDGE PC cards, which are not being offered in Europe or Asia. Rinne added that Cingular currently has several HSDPA and UMTS handsets in its labs, several of which will be certified and ready to launch in early 2006.
Another handset problem Cingular faces is the issue of spectrum. While most European GSM operators are launching their UMTS/HSDPA services in dedicated 3G bands at 2.1 GHz, Cingular is using its 1900 MHz PCS spectrum, meaning the majority of UMTS handsets now available simply won't work over Cingular's network.
Cingular will sell the two PC cards for $100 with a two-year contract for a $60 unlimited data plan, matching Verizon Wireless's Broadband Access unlimited data plan. Cingular will also offer cheaper plans with data usage limits, going all the way down to $20 a month for 5 MB.
De le Vega also announced today that Cingular has finished integrating its legacy time division multiple access (TDMA) network with that of AT&T Wireless. As of Dec. 2, the Cingular was operating a single nationwide TDMA network, he said, adding that the GSM integration is also near completion.
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