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4G launch nears, but what can we expect?

Mobile News
October 22, 2012

In all the hullabaloo surrounding Ofcom’s 4G spectrum auction, the benefits of ‘superfast’ broadband have tended to be drowned out. Chris Donkin investigates what the new services will actually be like

With all the wrangling over the spectrum auction and the ongoing row between the networks, the subject of the actual benefits of 4G has been somewhat neglected.

4G, or long-term evolution (LTE), has been the buzzword around the industry for a number of years as smartphone penetration has continued to grow and networks have looked to tackle increasing demand for data services from their customers.

The simple description of 4G, and one which has appeared in many a headline since EE’s announcements last month, is that it will be faster than standard 3G for data and will have greater capacity.

An Ofcom report from May last year predicted it would deliver more than 200 per cent of the capacity of existing 3G networks using the same amount of spectrum, reaching speeds close to those of the fastest home broadband available at the time.

4G will ultimately open the door to a huge market of revenue opportunities across business and consumer markets alike. For example, for consumers 4G will create a huge new market in online gaming as well as movie and TV streaming from mobile phones
and tablets.

While these services exist today, due to the speed and capacity limitations of 3G, they are only reliable over a Wi-Fi or fixed-line connection.

According to statistics from EE, while 3G takes an hour to download the average feature film, when 4G is rolled out in 2012 this will take just 10 minutes.

But according to Vodafone, the main benefit will be for businesses and, as a knock-on effect, the wider economy. It claims the speeds offered by 4G will allow “innovative approaches to working”, including opportunities for flexible working across a wider cross-section of industry than at present and increased scope for ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD).

A Vodafone spokesperson said: “The faster speeds and increased capacity that the technology will introduce means it will be even easier for people to carry out tasks on the move that they may traditionally have had to return to the office to do.

“With the arrival of 4G there really is no excuse for tying staff to a desk just because that is where their fixed-line connection has always been when they should be out with their customers, following up leads or carrying out their duties.”

The operator also claims rural businesses and employees of urban-based businesses who live in rural areas, will be able to work from home with the introduction of the new network, emphasising its claim to bring indoor 4G coverage to 98 per cent of the UK population by 2015.

“There is a perception that flexible working is only suitable for certain parts of the economy, such as large organisations or ‘trendy’ consultancies, but that is absolutely not true. In our experience there is hardly any company that cannot benefit from introducing some of the practices of flexible working, and that includes a host of rural businesses.”

EE director of network services and device development Tom Bennett backed this claim, stating the increased reliability of the signal and an increase in upload speeds would be one of the chief benefits to business customers.

He said: “Whereas your 3G signal may cut out on train journeys and places like that, 4G will be much more reliable and uploading things like PowerPoint presentations will be much quicker – that’s the sort of thing which may plod along a bit on 3G, but with 4G it will be almost instant.

“Also from a capacity and network point of view the fact things are uploaded and downloaded faster means people are off the network faster so we can serve more people.”

But Three mobile head of radio access network Anil Daji told Mobile News that operators should focus on promoting the increase in big city capacity rather than
promoting speeds.

With 4G, he said, customers in densely populated areas would be more likely to be able to take advantage of data services, when previously they may have struggled.

He said: “For HD video on smartphones you only need speeds of around 5Mbps, which we already provide on our 3G services. Where people will notice a difference is in busy areas where the network may be close to capacity, then we can serve more customers with the same bandwidth.”

He added that if an area already had a very strong 3G signal and no problems with capacity, the network would have to “carefully consider” the cost-effectiveness of installing the expensive 4G equipment.

Daji said users of mobile broadband would see a vast improvement if downloading large files such a films. However with current tariffs this would prove to be  very expensive – the most generous data allowance currently available is 15GB from Three, which is far too small for regular downloading.

Future building
O2, which ran a trial of 4G in central London earlier this year, claims the technology isn’t about improving current services but building for the future and technologies that aren’t available to the market yet.

A spokesperson for the network said: “It’s about doing things which you never imagined possible, like playing real-time mobile gaming in the middle of Trafalgar Square with someone miles away.”

In his blog on the subject O2 CEO Ronan Dunne estimated the introduction of 4G on a wide-scale basis would increase mobile broadband capacity by 30 times the level currently available, but also admitted the operator was unsure what the 4G future might hold. He added the firm had launched a review of its data prices to incorporate the expected increase in usage.

“We’re actively building a new set of O2 tariffs for our customers, which will be fit for the world of 4G,” Dunne said. “From our trials in central London, we know that 4G will unlock a whole range of new and exciting products and services. In truth, the full potential of 4G is as yet unexplored, but we can be sure it will allow for a whole new world of experiences, and not just making the current one a little bit better.

“I like to loosely apply the analogy of motorway lanes. It’s widely acknowledged that simply adding a new lane to the M25 does little for traffic management. The extra capacity merely results in more cars, driving at the same speed and in the same direction as before.

“The Olympic lanes, however, offered something new and supplementary to the standard commuter journey – a superfast route to the greatest show on earth. The difference is our 4G lanes won’t be reserved for the elite and officials, but accessible for those who want to experience the highest level of digital services. And, similarly, consider the high-speed Olympic Javelin train – a premium service for a whole new level of railway experience.”

Full article in Mobile News issue 525 (October 22, 2012).

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