Early days of new networks could be bumpy as 4G edges closer

10 Sep 2013

Brian McBride, managing director of Data Edge

Any day now, the first mobile operators in Ireland will launch their initial fourth-generation (4G) mobile services in key cities, accompanied by glitzy marketing campaigns telling consumers their lives will never be the same again.

They will promise 70pc of Ireland’s population Wi-Fi-like speeds from 40Mbps up to 160Mbps, not to mention better call quality.

Europe is behind Asia and North America in its deployment of 4G services and according to the European Commission, 75pc of Europeans still can’t access 4G connections in their hometowns and virtually no rural area as of yet has 4G. Only Germany, Estonia and Sweden have advanced rollout of 4G.

Ireland’s communications regulator ComReg reaped an €850m windfall for the exchequer in November after granting 4G licences to O2, Three, Eircom and Vodafone.

Despite awarding its licences in February, the UK is just ahead of Ireland in its 4G rollout to consumers. Operator Everything Everywhere (EE, formerly Orange) has been active since last year in covering 11 major UK cities. Last week, both Vodafone and O2 launched their 4G services, with Vodafone going live in London and O2 launching in London, Leeds and Bradford.

Data Edge deals

Bray, Co Wicklow-based firm Data Edge has been playing an instrumental role in the rollout of the new networks and has won €500,000 worth of deals with O2, Three, Eircom and Vodafone to synchronise the networks so calls and data connections don’t drop as consumers roam between network cells.

Data Edge provides the networks with grandmaster clocks that are key to ensuring each network cell across the country is synchronised and operating to an identical time.

The seven-person company has built up a lucrative business, providing a myriad of industries with sensitive testing and instrumentation systems to ensure the technology works but also that lives are protected. For example, earlier this year, Data Edge won a €2.5m deal with the Irish Aviation Authority to provide voice and video-based air traffic-monitoring systems and followed this up with a €200,000 deal to provide network test systems to E-net, the group responsible for running the State’s 94 Metropolitan Area Networks.

According to Brian McBride, managing director of Data Edge, there will be a lot of challenges in ensuring 4G works well, even after the networks are deployed.

“The old GSM (global system for mobile communications) systems transmitted the timing information between cells but because 4G is based on IP (internet protocol) that information is not transmitted between cells. So the challenge was to make sure that every single cell deployed in the country is synchronised with precision and running at the identical time.”

What 4G is to bring

Among the things consumers can look forward to with 4G are faster download speeds, though operators must be cautious about trumpeting consistently high speeds.

4G, like Wi-Fi, will be always-on and has the potential to be even faster, said McBride. A single cell can support 160Mbps download speeds in theory, yet the more people use that cell, the slower the speeds.

“Voice quality is certainly going to be higher on 4G devices. On 3G, bandwidth for voice was very limited. With voice over LTE (VLTE) the amount of bandwidth for voice calls will be higher,” said McBride.

One of the impacts of 4G may be a reduction in dependence on free public Wi-Fi and McBride said this may only be temporary.

“In the UK, EE is claiming there is a movement away from Wi-Fi because consumers are enjoying higher speeds,” said McBride. “In reality, once 4G starts to get busy and more people are crowding the cells the experience may not be so good and I suspect people will go back to falling back on Wi-Fi for better data speeds in public places.”

Growing pains

McBride said there will be teething problems with the new networks. A huge problem that no one talks about is interference, he said.

“The way a 4G signal is coded, it is vulnerable to other signals encroaching on it. We’ve seen this in other countries and it has been a big problem in places where you may have illegal transmitters,” said McBride.

“3G was good at protecting from interference but the experience so far in other countries has not been so good.”

In the US, where mobile operators have used high frequencies of around 2.6GHz, wireless signals from microphones used in karaoke have disrupted 4G signals.

Another challenge is what is known in the industry as ‘passive intermodulation’, said McBride. “Passive intermodulation is disruption resulting from incorrectly tightened fibre or corroded copper cables connected to cell networks.” The result can be a poor experience for the user; i.e. slower data upload speeds, poor quality calls or occasional dropped calls.

“Networks can avoid this by building 4G right. The problem in all countries where 4G is being deployed is they are putting the systems into existing base stations or old cell sites without checking the quality of the cable connected to the sites,” said McBride.

A final problem could be the software for voice calls – every country deploys a different version of the 4G software.

“What typically happens is if you are roaming from a different country the software might not recognise your phone – the call will default to 3G and in many cases will result in 15-second delays to connect or missed calls,” said McBride. “Only when 4G goes live will these issues be recognised.”

A version of this article was published in the Sunday Times on 8 September

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