Even before Vodafone Group launches its third generation cellphone network in New Zealand the company is busy trialling its successor.
Outgoing Vodafone chief executive Tim Miles, who is heading to London to head up Vodafone's UK operation, says New Zealand was to be one of only two countries in the Vodafone family to trial HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access), the so-called 3.5G technology that will replace WCDMA (Wideband CDMA).
"New Zealand is renowned in the Vodafone group for being the place to set up and test this kind of thing," Miles says.
Incoming chief executive Russell Stanners confirms testing will begin this year.
"We haven't decided what format that testing will take, whether it's a straight technical trial or a commercial trial. These things tend to have a life of their own and we develop them as we learn more about them during our research."
Vodafone is on the back foot regarding its 3G network. Telecom, which has chosen a rival technology, has already launched its service at a price that is less than Vodafone's existing network charge rates. Stanners won't confirm the launch date for Vodafone's 3G network except to say it is well on track.
Vodafone is currently spending up to NZ$400 million on its 3G network which promises to deliver speeds of up to 384kbit/s. However, Telecom's T3G network, which uses the EV-DO (evolution data optimised) standard, is already delivering speeds of up to 2Mbit/s.
HSDPA promises up to 10Mbit/s, although initial offerings are more likely to be around the 3Mbit/s speed range. The best news for Vodafone is upgrading to HSDPA won't require a full network replacement but instead is a far cheaper software upgrade for existing W-CDMA network operators.
Lurking in the background, however, is WiMax, the wireless broadband standard that builds on the WiFi market. WiMax is said to offer speeds of up to 70Mbit/s, but at this stage isn't designed to offer a mobile solution. Telecom's US partner Sprint has already made it clear it expects to use WiMax to succeed EV-DO in the next year or so.
HSDPA is expected to be rolled out in some Asia-Pacific countries later this year and is already being discussed in Europe as the logical successor to W-CDMA.
This isn't the first time Vodafone has used New Zealand as a test bed. In 2000 Vodafone announced it would build the world's first national GPRS-based network in New Zealand and encouraged local developers to build applications for the network standard that would then be sold around the world. However, delays meant New Zealand lagged behind other Vodafone countries in launching the service, and customers were underwhelmed by the speed of connections, which for most was no better than dialup.