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Exclusive — Hands on With T-Mobile’s 21 Mbps HSPA+ Network

Mobile broadband as we know it today is at a bit of a crossroads in the U.S. We have four major carriers that now offer fairly comparable broadband speeds with EVDO Rev. A and HSPA. LTE networks with greater speed are rolling out next year and we’re currently in the midst of a nationwide WiMAX 4G network implementation. What was once a novelty item — the mobile web — is now becoming commonplace, but consumers want more speed. Today, I got a look at “more speed” by using T-Mobile’s 21 Mbps HSPA+ test network in the Philadelphia area.

Let me set up the scenario before sharing my experiences. T-Mobile kindly loaned me a webConnect USB stick that works on their 3G network. The hardware is only capable of downloading data at 7.2 Mbps while uploads theoretically max out at 5.76 Mbps. So essentially, the hardware I used can’t possibly take full advantage of the faster test network. However, you can see the difference between T-Mobile’s standard 3G network and this test 3.5G network. From my home, I used the webConnect stick to hit, a popular bandwidth testing website. In my home office, I saw speeds comparable to EVDO: 1.11 Mbps down and 0.67 Mbps back up.

Using the same hardware in the HSPA+ test network, speeds dramatically increased: 5.58 Mbps down and 1.23 Mbps up. Using the pingtime to measure latency, both tests were comparable: 118ms at home and 115ms in the test network.

I actually expected slightly faster upload times, but I’m not going to be too critical of the test network: it’s not optimized. When T-Mobile rolls out HSPA+, I’d expect the production network to be more efficient than the test network. And while fast uploads are useful, I suspect that there’s far more demand in general for downloads than uploads.

While I was able to test with the provided hardware, I realized that I have another device that’s better equipped to try HSPA+: the loaner Nokia N900 that was delivered over the weekend. This device can handle downloads up to 10Mbps and uploads at 2Mbps. So how did it do? I’ll let the picture tell the story:

Just a simple hardware swap offered a noticeable boost to the download speed of the test network. At 1.5 Mbps faster, the gain alone is quicker than many 3G connections used today. Using the Nokia N900 for a few minutes on this network was like using it over a home Wi-Fi connection — the web came to me on the road as fast as I needed it too.

But consumers don’t really care about speedtests. They want an enjoyable mobile web experience when actually doing things, so that’s what I did. A few highlights of the experience:

  • I downloaded our latest MobileTechRoundup podcast. The 32.1 MB audio file was on my computer in 44 seconds.
  • Watching a high-res Hulu video was like watching it at home over my FiOS connection.
  • Viewing an HD YouTube vid worked with nary a stutter, nor any buffering.
  • I uploaded an 11.6 MB audio file in 78 seconds.

Ultimately, the test network performed very well — most T-Mobile customers should be happy when the HSPA+ network rolls around to their neck of the woods. And that gets me back to the timing and crossroads we’re at — T-Mobile tells me that HSPA+ is anticipating deployment by mid-2010. The carrier is currently in the process of migrating from its 3.6 Mbps HSPA network to 7.2 Mbps. And it’s not just for new hardware — many existing handsets like the G1, MyTouch and TouchPro 2 can take advantage of the in-progress network upgrade. That benefit can go a long way when compared to the WiMAX alternative, which requires new hardware for its network.

Speaking of WiMAX, I have to travel back in time for a minute. I remember attending the WiMAX launch in Baltimore last year and getting a taste of those speeds. The network wasn’t a test network and yet the speeds I witnessed generally weren’t faster than what I saw today. There was the occasional 6 Mbps download, but my repeated testing hovered around 3.5 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps back up. Testing the HSPA+ network today deals a bit of a body blow to WiMAX in my mind — T-Mobile will have it rolled out faster and existing hardware will benefit immediately from it. LTE is bit of a dark horse in all this, although Verizon (s vz) recently claimed we should expect downloads in the 5 to 12 Mbps range with uploads around 2 to 5 Mbps. While that is faster than what I saw today, the service is planned for 25 to 30 locations by the end of 2010. T-Mobile is expecting all of their high-speed coverage areas to see HSPA+ speeds by the middle of 2010. And let’s not overlook AT&T (s t). It is is just now deploying 7.2 Mbps HSPA in six cities and expects to offer it to 25 markets by the end of 2010. Looks like the race for faster mobile broadband is on and in my backyard, T-Mobile’s HSPA+ just took the lead.

15 Responses to “Exclusive — Hands on With T-Mobile’s 21 Mbps HSPA+ Network”

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  2. New, faster wireless is here

    Broadband service can reach 15 Megabits per second

    By Andrew Moore / The Bulletin

    Published: December 15. 2009 4:00AM PST

    Making use of the wireless spectrum it purchased for $8 million in 2008 from the Federal Communications Commission, BendBroadband today launches a new wireless broadband service the company touts as the first and fastest of its kind in the nation and one that makes high-speed Internet available to most all of Central Oregon, regardless of location.

    “The digital divide in Central Oregon is officially closed,” said Frank Miller, the company’s chief technology officer, referring to the general lack of high-speed Internet in rural areas. BendBroadband’s wireless broadband service can reach speeds of up to 15 Megabits per second (Mbps).

    Wireless Internet providers already exist, but the signals — based on unlicensed radio spectrum — are often weak and subject to interference. In addition, the user generally needs to have a modem with a direct line-of-sight to a nearby transmitter. Cellular companies also offer wireless Internet service piggybacked on their voice service, but the signal strength varies by location.

    BendBroadband’s new service is based on a cutting-edge wireless data protocol called High Speed Packet Access Plus (HSPA+). It is not currently available commercially anywhere else in the country, though a few Internet providers in Canada have introduced it, said Sascha Segan, a managing editor with PC Mag Mobile.

    He added that T-Mobile has launched a trial HSPA+ program in Philadelphia. “It’s good technology, but as someone who has been studying cell phones for years, it’s really all about how good the build-out is,” he said.

    Miller said BendBroadband partnered with Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson to put 17 transmitters on towers it either built or leased space on that are positioned around Central Oregon. The result is a service signal that is available from La Pine to Madras, and Sisters to Prineville, and nearly all points in between.

    Because the service uses advanced wireless spectrum licensed by the FCC, the service’s signal is strong and reliable, said Miller, who sketched out a few scenarios:
    Imagine driving through Central Oregon along U.S. Highway 97 with your children in the backseat, streaming movies from the Internet to their laptop. Or sitting with that laptop by the shore of Elk Lake, exchanging e-mails with a co-worker.

    In a series of tests conducted for The Bulletin, Miller and Eric Anderson, BendBroadband’s director of wireless engineering, were able to reach download speeds of 12 Mbps in the parking lot of the Alfalfa store.

    The service is also mobile. While Miller drove to Powell Butte, Anderson recorded a download speed of 15 Mbps on his laptop.
    That kind of speed can have broad implications for the roughly 20,000 homes the company estimates are outside the company’s existing service footprint, as well as public safety agencies and companies that could benefit from a faster, stronger Internet connection, Miller said.

    “This is a very big deal for rural users,” said Miller. “This is real, it’s affordable, and it’s a first.”

    A public relations consultant, Marie Melsheimer, of Alfalfa, relies on the Internet to communicate with her clients and exchange documents.

    But because she lives in a rural area, she has to use a satellite service to access the Internet. It’s often slow and spotty, sometimes subject to interference from inclement weather, she said. If she downloads too much material, her service is shut-off for 24 hours.

    “I can’t tell you how much I’ve suffered in the last 10 years,” she said. “It was really our only option out here other than dial-up.”
    Melsheimer is a poster child for the so-called digital divide. As the Internet has grown tremendously in the last decade, the nation’s rural areas have lagged behind. It’s generally prohibitive for Internet providers to spend millions stringing new lines to areas with few homes to support the service and justify the cost.

    Melsheimer was excited to learn about BendBroadband’s new service and said she plans to look into it.

    Another rural user excited about BendBroadband’s new technology is Tim Underwood, who works from home and has been using the service for the past month as part of a beta program. Underwood said it’s more reliable than his previous service with another provider, and as a result doesn’t have to worry about what kind of files he’s sending or when he’s sending them.

    “I can work without thinking about it, and it just works,” said Underwood.

    The wireless broadband modem costs $99 and two service plans are offered. The basic plan costs $49.99 a month (or $39.99 bundled with other services) and has a 20 GB usage allowance. The upgraded plan costs $64.99 a month (or $59.99 bundled with other services) and has a 50 GB usage allowance.

    Downloads over the allowances are charged $1.50 per GB.
    The service is not just limited to customers outside of the company’s existing wireline footprint. In addition, for $19.99 extra per month, existing BendBroadband cable Internet customers can purchase a USB dongle to access the service. The dongle, roughly the size of a stick of USB memory, costs roughly $49, according to Anderson.

    Andrew Moore can be reached at 541-617-7820 or [email protected].

  3. I currently can wath Huly on Tmob using a G1. No sweat, seamlessly. Netflix needs a dedicate use of the phone.

    2.01Mbps download 0.330Mbps upload in Cypress, Texas.

    Travelled to 17 states this year, and had problems in two spots. Geismar LA and Northeastern Texas. Everywhere else I had descent coverage. Even Grand Forks, ND and the UP.

    I was affected for 4 hours with the blackout that happened in Nov. But for the price and service, not going back to Verizon or AT&T. TMob works for me.

  4. Allan Jones

    A dilemma for UMTS-based 3G providers must be whether to continue rolling out HSPA improvements, or whether to pitch in to LTE as soon as possible. As I understand it, the upgrade path from HSDPA to HSUPA to HSPA+ requires mostly just software upgrades in the network.

    In the UK, so much money has been sunk into spectrum and infrastructure that I think operators will have to wring as much as they can out of their investment. It’s encouraging therefore to see your figures for HSPA+. I’m a bit sceptical, though, about whether those speeds will be maintained once there’s a significant number of users with HSPA+ enabled devices.

    • Yup, in my discussions with T-Mobile, their upgrade from HSPA to HSPA+ is easily accomplished with software updates to the cell sites. But of course, that’s only half of the equation as you need enough backhaul bandwidth from the tower on back. And you’re absolutely correct that the speeds will vary based on users and demand, but that’s applicable to all wireless broadband technologies.

      • Any idea on the range of the Philly test area? I’m a T-Mobile customer in Bucks County and would love to get a Nexus One phone, but it wouldn’t be worth it unless HSPA+ was available in my area.

  5. Yes, but will HSPA+ bits/service be more expensive than WiMAX?

    WiMAX may not be the fastest ride in the neighborhood, but it is likely to be the most affordable in gear hook up and service costs.

    And given T-Mobile’s *ahem* checkered service record over the past year, ya SURE you are going to get all that speed all the time?

    • Good questions, but that’s a personal choice in terms of expected service and budget. Personally, I’d rather pay more for a better, stable network. For me, that’s Verizon in terms of my data — it does cost more than other options, but it has offered me the best service where I need it.