3G signals on handsets, real or deception? – II
This is the second part of the article on whether the data reception signs such as E, H, H+ and 3G which show on smartphones really reflect the actual customer experience, in terms of browsing, streaming, download and upload speeds; as well as what the service providers’ coverage is in the location one finds himself at any point in time.
Minimum 3G Speeds
Maximus asks another very important question; what is the minimum 3G speed by global standards? One would expect that since 3G promises great customer experience, that experience should be measured, and that measurement should at least have estimated upper and lower limits. But telcos often display the possible highest speed one could get on a 3G device, all things being equal, but stay clear of what could be the lowest speed.
If customers could be assured of what the lowest 3G speed was, and that speed is better than the best speed on the 2G range in real life, the anxiety would be reduced. But the telcos are unable to assure customers of that. At least two telcos are advertising 3.75G in Ghana, and the four others advertise between 3G and 3.5G. Each has sold devices promising practically impossible maximum speeds. But none is bold enough to talk about minimum speeds.
Indeed, the truth is, beyond what 3G technology promises, in terms of speeds, the robustness of the telco’s own network plays a major role in what the final end user’s experience would be. 3G HSPA+, for instance, can go all the way up to 43Mbps but if the network of the telco on which the 3G technology runs, is not robust enough to ensure wide and reliable coverage, enough bandwidth capacity, seamless handover between cell sites and other things, that network can hardly maximize the potential of the 3G technology. This is how one telecom executive puts it; “you have not seen even half of the real potential of your smartphone because the existing telcos have not been able to deliver on the full potential of the 3G technology to you.”
The fact is, the whole concept of 3G vary from continent to continent. What is 3G in USA for instance, maybe 2.5G in Europe, and what is now termed 3.75G in Africa may actually be basic 3G elsewhere. Firstly, the spectrum band on which 3G technology is built, vary from continent to continent and even from country to country. And the kind of 3G technology built on those varied spectrum bands also vary so the end user or the last mile experiences also vary.
In Ghana, the 3G UMTS technologies for the five GSM operators are built on 2100MHz spectrum bands, which is in line with what pertains in most parts of Europe, while that of the sole CDMA player, Expresso is built on an 850MHz spectrum as pertains in the USA. And the robustness of the technologies depends entirely on the respective telco. And as mentioned earlier in this article, the actual customer experience on 3G is also affected by many other factors beyond the control of any individual telco.
Indeed the five GSM players in Ghana run 2G GSM, 2G GPRS and 2.75G EDGE on 900-1800MHz spectrum, while the 3G UMTS with some upgrades such as HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access) are on the 2100MHz band as stated above. But Expresso has since its inception been running 2G CDMA on the 850MHz spectrum band; and when Ghana went 3G, Expresso did not need an upgrade because that band met US standards for 3G (CDMA200 1X and EVDO Rev A), which they run now on same spectrum band.
It is also important to note that affordability is not always the best. Telcos do promos which require customers to dial a particular short code and opt for packages that offer lower data and or voice tariffs. Industry experts say the short code is usually the entry point into a pool of numbers which are packed into a small space [in lay man’s language] than where those paying the default rates are placed. In effect those who opt for the lower promo tariffs are segmented into a congested space where data and voice experience is of a lesser quality than what those paying the default rates enjoy. No particular telecom promo would be pointed out but insiders at some of the 3G telcos confirmed this is the case. Obviously, that also affects the actual end user experience, in spite of what the reception signal on the handset may say.
Again, during peak hours for voice communication on a particular day, the telcos are said to move some of the data capacity to augment that of voice so it can accommodate the voice communication load during that period. This, according to experts, also affect data experience, particularly during periods of the day the telcos experience huge voice communication. And very often the capacity is borrowed from what is available to customers on low tariff package.
4G LTE is here
But currently, the three 4G LTE (Long-term Evolution) operators, Blu Telecoms, Surfline Ghana and Goldkey Telecoms are gearing up to launch. Surfline has completed a test run and is set to go commercial this week. Blu is still texting its network and devices in selected locations in the national capital. Unfortunately, none of the three is going to offer voice services anytime soon, as per their licensing requirements. By the way it important to point out that the 4G spectrum band in Ghana is 2500MHz-2690MHz, which is higher than that of several countries across the world. But the efficiency of the 4G networks in Ghana would also depend on the robustness of the networks of the service providers.
Their Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) licenses say they each need to cover 60% of all district capitals in the country with cell sites and data service under five years of starting operations. They were licensed in June 2013 and they each had 18 months to start operations, which ends in November this year. Any one of the 4G LTE operators, which is able to meet its coverage target any time within the given period would be free to offer voice services. That would mean Ghanaians would have real 4G reception on their handsets, provided the handset is 4G compliant. This would not be the deceptive 3.75G being interpreted by a handset as 4G.
When that time comes, would the 3.75G signals of the current GSM operators still be reading 4G, even though they do not have 4G service – what would be the regulatory position on that? And would the 3G range of signals (i.e. H, H+ and 3G) still be just signals which do not correspond to actual customer experience as it is today, or the experience would be competitive? Would the 4G service providers also have similar challenges with the many other factors that affect the service quality of the 3G operators?
An official of one of the 4G LTE operators argued that 4G is purely VOIP (voice over internet protocol) so if the operators start voice services in the future, they will not face the challenges the GSM guys face with having to move capacity around and shortchange certain customers whenever there is heavy voice or data consumption.
It is also important to note that Ghana is looking forward to harvesting 700MHz of high frequency spectrum as ‘digital dividend’ from the transition from analogue TV technology to the digital terrestrial television (DTT). When that happens later this year, the harvested spectrum would be available for 4G LTE service, according to experts. And that would help to boost the service quality of traditional 3G operators, who face extinction if the 4G guys get very aggressive. Already, the tests being run by the 4G LTE players are getting very great reviews from customers.
4G LTE is here, and things can only get better in terms of cost and quality of data experience for the Ghanaian consumer in the near future. But until then, Maximus, Godwin, Jerry, Bob, Frank, Rasell, you and the millions of Ghanaian smartphone users may have to live with the E, H, H+, 3G and 4G reception signals which are not really what they “pretend” to be.
And it is important to note that in theory, 4G and 4G LTE look good, but to the extent that technology keeps evolving and the technology world has already started talking about 5G, consumers should be weary of the PR narrative and promises from the 4G players. The 4G/4G LTE technology promises to solve all of the consumer experience challenges on 3G, just like 3G promised to solve all of the challenges with 2G. But 4G may also come with its own lingering frustrations, which would then warrant 5G or something higher and better.
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