Faster is better, right? With the launch of LTE in South Africa, we’re hearing about truly unbelievable speeds… 60Mbps… 100Mbps… Faster even than many of the corporate networks in the offices you work in.
But what do these speeds mean? Will an average customer ever see them? Is the launch of LTE going to live up to the hype?
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Think back to 2004 and 2005, when 3G coverage was rolled out across South Africa by the two giants. Ad campaigns with rockets and fire burst peppered mass media. Mobile broadband was here.
Except it wasn’t. Coverage was spotty. Speeds were all-over-the-place. And mobile data was prohibitively expensive.
We’re watching the same movie all over again.
Except this time, at least mobile data is far cheaper.
For customers, LTE means download speeds of up to 60Mbps (on Vodacom and MTN), with some implementations like 8.ta’s capable of peak speeds of 90Mbps. But it’s critical to note that these are peak speeds. With these far higher than 3G peak speeds, and because of the technology used, users connecting on LTE will have a faster average experience.
Normal users are going to experience average speeds of somewhere between 6Mbps and 12Mbps. Not quite 60Mbps, but this is a massive jump up from current average 3G speeds (where you’ll experience anywhere from 1Mbps-3Mbps).
That hasn’t stopped the hype from building. In fact, the sudden hysteria over LTE in the past few weeks – largely thanks to the new iPhone 5 supporting LTE – has been incredible.
Locally, we’ve seen all four operators suddenly announce plans to launch LTE despite the ideal spectrum for the super-fast mobile broadband not yet being allocated by government (and Icasa).
This means that, for now, Vodacom and MTN are using less than optimal frequencies for LTE by reusing spectrum they’re currently using for existing voice and data (a process called refarming).
There’s been chaos in places like the UK, where a single operator has exclusivity on LTE until early next year when spectrum is auctioned.
Plus, confusion reigns over whether we’re to call the technology LTE or 4G (or even 3.9G!). Overseas, most operators have surrendered to their marketing departments and are calling it 4G, regardless of which specific technology they’ve launched on which frequency.
Vodacom made it clear at the launch on Wednesday that its launching LTE (and not 4G), even though there’s 4G-branding plastered all over its USB dongles. Customers, though, are already using the terms interchangeably (and as journalists covering the sector, many of us have decided to do this to avoid confusing consumers). In time, we’ll all be calling this 4G, full stop.
Vodacom was always going to win the LTE arms race. After all, it was the first mobile operator in South Africa to trial LTE more than two years ago. And, it won the 3G/7.2/14.4/21.6/42Mbps races too.
It’s telling to see the different approaches by the operators. MTN says it will launch LTE when it believes the customer-experience matches its standards. Cell C’s planning a launch before the end of the year, but is busy with a broader network rollout (which its currently crowing about on a rather bizarre ad campaign). And 8.ta is trialling its LTE network until April (largely because its network is new and it hadn’t tested LTE previously).
So for now, despite Vodacom being first, coverage is embarrassingly poor (exactly the same situation when 3G launched). The live network is limited to 70 base stations in Johannesburg and Midrand, with coverage absent in obvious places like the Sandton CBD. Vodacom promises the network will grow quickly with 500 sites live in three cities by December.
MTN will also launch in three cities to start (Joburg, Pretoria and Durban). Cape Town remains tricky for all operators, given the topography (there’s a mountain), a still developing fibre backbone and relatively slow environmental approval in that city.
The limited rollout means the experience is likely going to be frustrating to start (especially if you’re on the fringes of LTE coverage). In fact, many people vent that they still struggle to get decent 3G signal in their offices and homes.
And there’s a very limited number of devices that support LTE too. Vodacom lists only a handful of phones, (an up-coming version of) the Samsung Galaxy S III, Nokia Lumia 820 and 920 (and there’s the soon-to-be-launched iPhone 5).
And despite the hype around LTE and the iPhone 5, the support for HSPA+ (up to 42Mbps) on the new Apple device will have a far greater impact on download and browsing speeds for the vast majority of users. All four networks have HSPA+ networks in major cities, and data speeds will be much, much faster than on the iPhone 4/4S.
Give it time. In three years, 4G/LTE will be as common-place as 3G is today. By then, voice calls will be running over LTE. Data prices will have cratered and will be unrecognisable to what we’re used to today.
But, as a reader pointed out on Wednesday: “What is the point of faster internet if the pricing of bandwith stays the same? It really doesn’t matter if I have a download speed of 1000Mbs if I can still only afford 2gb per month.”
Until we see much, much bigger (and far cheaper) data bundles – like 20GB, 50GB, 100GB – LTE isn’t going to mean much at all.