T-Mobile Slovakia and Siemens have switched on the world's first nationwide deployment of Flash-OFDM, a wireless broadband technology that competes with WiMax, Wi-Fi and 3G.

As of yesterday, the service was available in areas of Bratislava and in 19 other Slovakian cities. Subscribers get 1Mbit/s down and 256Kbit/s up. The service is suitable for mobile or fixed installations, accessed through base stations, desktop modems and PC cards, T-Mobile said. The installation uses the 450MHz frequency spectrum.

It is primarily designed to increase broadband penetration in a country where the wired infrastructure is inadequate, T-Mobile Slovakia said. "I am very pleased to see our company in Slovakia be the world's pioneer for this exciting new technology, which has the power to deliver broadband Internet to offices and homes, even in areas that lack other telecommunications infrastructure," said chairman Michael Guenther.

How it works
Flash-OFDM is a proprietary system created by Flarion, which is in the process of becoming a Qualcomm subsidiary. While the proprietary nature of the technology - and perhaps its association with Qualcomm - might ordinarily make operators stay well away, there are several factors in favour of Flash-OFDM, say industry observers.

One is that it's well suited for mobile data, running at high speeds with extremely low latency. It is designed to be added into existing cellular networks and could, for example, complement existing 3G deployments in Europe or elsewhere.

Flash-OFDM is in the process of becoming IEEE standard 802.20. While this process appeared stalled a year ago, the involvement of Qualcomm - which bought Flarion in August - could push the process along.

WiMax is currently only appropriate for fixed installations, with a mobile standard - IEEE 802.16e - not to arrive for months or years. In contrast, trials in Tokyo, the Netherlands and elsewhere have already demonstrated Flash-OFDM's mobile capabilities.

Finally, T-Mobile has a particular interest in the technology, since the T-Mobile Venture Fund is one of Flarion's major investors.

Flash-OFDM has been used in several high-profile trials. Besides Tokyo and the Netherlands, the Finnish government has begun installing a Flash-OFDM network. Nextel ran a wireless broadband trial using Flash-OFDM in the US for several months, but dumped it after being acquired by Sprint.

Ironically, that decision was seen as being motivated by Sprint's desire to switch Nextel's network over to Qualcomm's CDMA technology. Sprint has a close relationship with Qualcomm and was one of the first major customers for CDMA in the 1990s.

Proprietary future
The fact remains that Flash-OFDM is proprietary, and will be controlled by Qualcomm once the acquisition is finalised. However, Qualcomm has a history of successfully promoting proprietary technology against standardised alternatives such as GSM. Its revenues largely come from licensing out its more than 3,000 CDMA patents. Those include patents on WCDMA, the basis for 3G systems in Europe, the US and Japan.

The acquisition of Flarion gives Qualcomm control of patents which, it says, could also apply to WiMax, raising the possibility that Qualcomm could demand royalties for the use of WiMax. Qualcomm says some of its CDMA patents also apply to WiMax.

450MHz spectrum is easier to come by in Eastern Europe than in countries such as France, Germany and the UK, but industry observers say Flash-OFDM could prove a cheap and effective way for Western operators to add mobile broadband to their cellular networks.

Industry observers say there is no clear choice for the future of wireless broadband - indeed, many expect that it will be a matter of welding an increasing number of types of access into handsets and laptop cards.

Among the other competing technologies are HSDPA, a software upgrade to 3G, and its successor HSUPA. T-Mobile last month launched an HSDPA service in Germany, via the Mobile DSL Card 1800 for laptops. When it goes live next spring the service promises a 1.8Mbit/s downlink, up from the current 384Kbit/s.

Limitations to HSDPA include the ongoing latency problem - solved by Flash-OFDM - and the fact that it doesn't increase upstream speeds.