4G will rock – but the trick will be managing consumers’ expectations

30 Nov 2012

Vodafone Ireland became the first mobile operator in the country yesterday to showcase what 4G will look like and demos of the LTE-based technology in Dublin showed speeds of between 70Mbps up to 120Mbps. While 4G will certainly be a game-changer, mobile operators will need to be calculative about how they communicate its virtues.

In recent weeks, ComReg awarded 4G spectrum licences to four mobile operators – Hutchison 3G, Eircom (Meteor/eMobile), Telefónica Ireland (O2) and Vodafone.

The licences were awarded following a lucrative auction process that netted an instant €481.7m in upfront fees with a further €372.9m to paid in instalments up to July 2030.

Meteor, Telefónica and Vodafone were awarded lots in the 800MHz frequency band while Hutchison 3G Ireland, Meteor, Telefónica and Vodafone were all awarded lots in both the 900MHz and 1800MHz frequency bands.

Vodafone, which paid €160.8m up front with €119.7m following up to 2030, acquired by far the largest portion of the spectrum available.

So what is 4G?

On the day the 4G licences were awarded, the most common question I was asked was, what is this 4G stuff? Well, it’s the next step up from 3G, obviously, but is based on Long Term Evolution (LTE) standards and basically it means faster broadband speeds by employing the aforementioned radio frequencies. Some of these frequencies were made available after the digital TV switchover and the switching out of old 2G networks, in particular the 800MHz and 900MHz bands.

The spectrum auction covered 70pc of the population of Ireland so effectively 4G will only be available realistically in large towns and cities.

What this might look like in terms of use is imagine having the Wi-Fi speeds you enjoy at home or in your office everywhere you go, only potentially better.

In Vodafone’s case, acquiring all the spectrum bands means it can bolster its 4G offering potentially beyond the 70pc of population coverage. Where it won’t offer 4G it will nevertheless provide a spread of 3G (speeds of up to 21Mbps max) services.

“Wherever there is voice, there will be data,” said outgoing Vodafone Ireland CEO Jeroen Hoencamp last night.

Hoencamp said deployment of Vodafone’s 4G network has begun in earnest in partnership with its equipment partner Ericsson. The first county in Ireland to benefit from a concentration of 4G will be Kilkenny and the first users of the service will begin enjoying more than four times faster broadband download speeds in early 2013, and certainly well before Easter.

A key attribute of 4G that no one is talking about is upload speeds which, in an era of increased two-way communication and collaboration over social and video networks, is 10 times faster than current upload speeds via mobile and will certainly help bring the battle against the cable broadband business.

Hoencamp made the following claims about how 4G will perform on mobile devices when 4G will be available to consumers from next year:

  • You can upload a large 50MB video file like a news clip in about 30 seconds instead of three minutes.
  • You can record an interview on your smartphone, eg, a 6MB audio and transfer it instantly – currently it takes about 15 seconds.
  • Transfer a large 400MB FTP file back to your office in about three minutes when currently it takes about a half an hour.
  • Uploading – a 50MB video to YouTube will take about 35 seconds in comparison to nearly three minutes on 3G – upload speeds of up to 50Mbps are possible.

First look at 4G


Broadband speeds measured on a 4G device at a bar in South William Street in Dublin last night

I first got to try 4G LTE earlier this year at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona courtesy of Telefónica and was I very impressed with the speed of the network. Granted, I was one of maybe a handful of people who had access to the service on a tablet device at the time but I was able to walk around the Fira in Barcelona enjoying speeds of around 50Mbps.

When I checked out the Vodafone 4G network last night (broadcast from a mast perched above the Westbury Hotel in Dublin’s city centre to a bar below on South William Street), the first device I looked at was clocking speeds of 72Mbps on SpeedTest.net.

Vodafone demonstrated real-time HD video transmission via 4G, but this was a little lost on the media present in the room.

The next device I looked at, a Samsung Galaxy Note, was clocking speeds of 82Mbps wirelessly and some of the executives present said speeds of as high as 120Mbps were experienced early on.

Impressive speeds when you consider the average DSL broadband consumer in Ireland would be lucky to experience consistent speeds of anything higher than 4Mbps even though they are paying for ‘up to’ speeds of 7Mbps or 8Mbps or higher.

It will be interesting to see what the operators will do with the spectrum. Vodafone clearly intends to focus on a policy of ensuring broadband coverage in as many places as possible.

At the time of receiving its licence, Hutchison 3G (Three) claimed it could offer speeds of up to 180Mbps. A brave claim which suggests it intends to deploy its 900Mhz and 1800MHz allocation in a concentrated way in urban areas, using speed as a differentiator.

Communicating 4G

You can already sense the excitement among salespeople, marketing types and PR people within the telecoms companies about 4G because finally they have something to push.

It’s reminiscent of how the software industry went gaga when the term ‘cloud computing’ became a convenient way to sell high-end networked computing services that were really just an obvious evolution of technology and not something shiny and new. “Cloud: welcome to the biggest marketing event in the history of computing,” as Digital Planet’s Brian Larkin wittily put it at the Cloud Summit in Dublin last week.

This is where telecoms operators will need to be careful.

They will need to resist the temptation to hype up the technology, especially during the rollout phase. Consumers, if the service doesn’t match their expectations, will talk and word-of-mouth will make or break 4G in the initial phases.

In particular, operators would be wise to avoid repeating the myriad of mistakes that dogged 3G. When 3G services debuted several years ago, coverage and performance was an issue; an issue not helped by the marketing claims of operators as the reality was often different.

Where 3G works well, it works very well, but outside of the right coverage areas and it is next to useless. Since 4G is licensed to cover 70pc of the population – as in where the population lives, eg, big towns and cities, managing expectations will be critical.

Mobile operators would be wise to take note of the mapping exercise due to be completed by the Department of Communications around broadband speeds and planned availability and reliably inform users of what speeds will be available in what areas of the country.

Another thing mobile operators would be wise to do is take note of the initial launch of 4G services by EE in the UK.

Potential issues that may dog the initial rollout of 4G services

As we’ve seen from the launch of 4G in 10 UK cities by Everything Everywhere (a combination of Orange and T-Mobile), the launch revealed some salutary lessons.

First of all, there’s the speed expectations. While users are likely to see fluctuations of between 6Mbps up to 45Mbps, EE is limiting the service to a dependable and typical speed of 12Mbps.

That means operators will need to be able to guarantee consumers in Ireland a minimum or typical speed level.

The next hurdle is price plans and download limits. EE has encountered criticism for putting a 500MB data cap on its basic package which costs €44 for a two-year contract, rising up to an 8GB data cap on the highest-priced package of €69 a month on a two-year contract.

Surely, if you were capable of achieving speeds of up to 120Mbps and you’re going to be downloading videos, apps and games on the fly, you will burn through 500MB in no time?

So these are the issues that lie ahead. Operators would be wise to anticipate these issues and come up with a formula that has value for money and reliability at its heart.

Then we can talk speeds.

Below: A Vodafone video where it talks about its forthcoming 4G services in Ireland


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years