Fast track to wireless in Asia

Business and leisure travellers are often at the forefront of personal connectivity. Smartphones, tablets and lap tops are only as useful as the wireless networks they connect to, which is why carriers across the globe are rushing to establish the next generation of data networks to meet ever increasing demand for fast internet connections now available on handheld devices and portable technologies.

Two networks have emerged in the last two years, both of which use the same fundamental wireless standard known as OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) that essentially chops up data up into small bundles. WiMAX was the first technology to hit the market with peak wireless data speeds of up to 6 Mbps on the downstream and 1 Mbps for upstream data. However, its more powerful competitor, Long Term Evolution (LTE), though slower to reach the market, can send data at considerably more impressive download speeds of up to 100 Mbps, with upload speeds of 50 Mbps.

There are already a handful of WiMAX-capable devices available and several countries in Asia have set up the necessary infrastructure to take advantage of this developing 4G technology. WiMAX services providers added a worldwide total of 3.5 million new subscribers in 2009, the system allows you to soup up your smartphone with ultra fast wireless data and enjoy benefits such as downloading MP3 files on the move in just a few minutes. Developed by IEEE, the world's largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation, WiMAX's open-standards make the system cheaper and more friendly than its rival LTE for consumers. LTE is being developed by mobile carriers and equipment vendors, so is likely to be more tied to specific terms and conditions, but tech experts predict that because of the faster speeds available, LTE will eventually be used by some 80% of worldwide carriers.

Given Asia's rapid expansion in terms of mobile technologies it's no real surprise that the region is embracing 4G. Both WiMAX and LTE are proving very popular thanks to their speedy performance, reliability, and affordability. In the first quarter of 2010, Asia took the lead in the worldwide 4G market. In fact, according to recent research, the number of Asian customers subscribed to WiMAX solutions stood at 1.7 million, as compared to the 1.4 million in the United States and Canada, the second-largest 4G market. Out of approximately 5.7 million people worldwide who are 4G subscribers, Asia already accounts for a leading 29 per cent, a sure sign that the technology is set to expand in the coming year.

Yet the pattern of wireless provision in Asia has always been far more varied and unpredictable than it is in more regulated regions such as Europe. Delays in the original 3G auction process in Thailand, for example made it one of the last countries in South East Asia to offer the service. India, by contrast, began auctions for an high-speed fourth generation mobile phone spectrum soon after completion of 3G access. In Malaysia, the country's biggest WiMAX operator, Packet 1, recently teamed up with Korea's SKT who paid $100m for a 25% stake in the company. P1 is part of Green Packet PLC, and has signed more than 175,000 subscribers to the service since its launch back in 2008. Indonesia is also a huge market for 4G technologies given its vast population and speedy mobile growth rates, but the country's progress towards 4G has so far been erratic, often held up by regulatory policy decisions. Indosat is currently working with Ericsson to launch a network on Ericsson's HSPA Evolution technology in Indonesia, capable of up to 42 Mbps downloads. Many see this as a stepping-stone to help the country migrate completely to 4G in the near future.

It's clear that service providers in Asia now see the opportunity to offer new systems that are able to provide the kind of connectivity necessary to satisfy the needs of bandwidth-hungry mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad. These already put significant strain on mobile networks, swiftly rolling out 4G technology therefore provides an attractive and profitable solution.

By Jules Kay