LTE experience good but coverage still patchy
Operators need to ensure rollout and coverage; apps must make sense
OVER the past few months, I’ve been covering a number of stories on Long-Term Evolution (LTE) or Fourth Generation (4G) mobile technology, including those in Digital News Asia's Deep Dive focus as well as in our last Disrupt session entitled Long Term Earnings?
If LTE is already available, what would a fairly advanced user get out of the service? Also, how exactly would the touted benefits of LTE – faster download speeds and lower latency connections – benefit users like me?
To answer these questions, I realised I had to get on board the LTE or 4G train before chronicling my experience with it. So, a couple of weeks ago, I duly signed up for the service with my operator.
Some things to note about LTE, the first of which is that in order to use this service, you’ll have to get a LTE-equipped phone. Second, do realise that most operators today have patchy LTE coverage and you can’t expect to have the service everywhere you go, as you would with their 3G (third generation) service.
A quick check of the various operators’ LTE coverage maps yielded the usual suspects in terms of where you can get LTE – commercial areas in Bangsar, KL City Centre, Mid Valley as well as affluent residential areas such as SS2, Damansara and Subang.
Third, some operators, such as Maxis, require that you have a subscription to a minimum 1GB plan with them before you can upgrade to LTE.
Regardless what provider you’re on, you’ll need to change your SIM card if you want to have LTE. Most SIM change services are free. Currently, I’m only aware of four operators that offer LTE services in varying packages and locations in the Klang Valley: Maxis, Celcom DiGi and U Mobile.
The first thing you’ll notice about 4G, even before you’ve activated your Speedtest.net app to test your raw download speeds, is that your access to websites seems to be more responsive.
This is likely due to the lower latency experienced by LTE connections, rather than just the faster download capabilities per se.
Why is this so? In general, transmission between a server on the Internet and a client device at home or in the office is achieved using Internet Protocol (IP). In this mode of transmission, data is packetised into blocks and sent to a destination via the Internet.
Latency measures how long a packet takes to travel from the source to the destination. This is influenced by the distance between the source and destination, as well as how many hops the data packets are being routed through over the Internet – the shorter the distance and the fewer the hops, the lower the latency.
Of course, the faster download capability of LTE is also an influencing factor.
You'll also need to take into account the fact that there are now currently much fewer users on LTE than there are on 3G, and this means more radio resources are available to LTE users, making your Internet surfing experience far better than on 3G.
Another experience you’ll enjoy, for now at least, is that pictures and videos will upload much more quickly. Often, we only speak in terms of our download experience, but with the advent of social media and the pervasive video culture that we have today, upload speed also factors into our overall surfing experience.
Using LTE means your uploads get there faster, and hence you’ll be happier and less frustrated with your operator.
Though my experience with LTE has been generally pleasant in terms of speeds and responsiveness so far, coverage is currently limited.
Because of inconsistencies in coverage, your experience will also fluctuate.
I also noticed my battery life being affected for the worse whenever I use the Internet actively. It’s not so noticeable when my smartphone is idle but still camped on an LTE cell, but the battery drains more quickly than it does with 3G when surfing.
Next up is data volume usage. Because LTE is more responsive and achieves faster downloads, I find that I use more data, especially when consuming video. This is something you’ll have to be very careful about, as you’re likely to reach your data quota limit more quickly than when using 3G.
Once you do, your speeds will be throttled down to snail-paced EDGE connections, which will then really spoil your surfing experience.
I also noticed that most indoor areas are not equipped yet to handle LTE; that’s understandable for now.
However, do note the Malaysian operators are using LTE based on the 2,600MHz range, and this would mean that the LTE signals will find it harder to penetrate into buildings when compared with 3G due to the physical properties of the higher operational frequency of LTE.
Some operators are trying to use the lower 1,800MHz frequencies for LTE and this would help but only up to a point. They would still need to provide dedicated LTE cell sites should they want to ensure full LTE coverage in commercial buildings and office blocks.
Also note: DiGi has limited 1800MHz spectrum and will find the partition of its LTE service onto 1800MHz tightly shared with its 3G service. U Mobile currently does not have any 1,800MHz spectrum and its LTE services are entirely on 2,600MHz.
The potentially ugly
Whilst LTE has generally enhanced my surfing experience, the overall customer experience may reach a point of diminishing experience.
Take coverage for instance. As mentioned earlier, LTE coverage is limited and although this is excusable to a point, given that it takes time for operators to ramp up coverage, I hope they will not keep using this as an excuse.
Operators usually plan their cell sites based on where they anticipate customers will be, as the high data and voice traffic represents the best opportunity for them to recover their investment and pay for that site they’ve put up. This usually leads to a concentration on commercial areas.
If this same model is used, LTE rollout is going to be patchy at best, and this means you’re neither fully on LTE or 3G in terms of your experience, which could lead to further frustration.
It also means that LTE may not come to you as soon as you think, even if you have an LTE-enabled smartphone and are willing to pay for it, unless you’re in these planned areas.
Secondly, there is no difference between the pricing models for 3G and LTE – for now. This is likely because operators have realised that it would be foolhardy to charge for something that only gives you better speed experience in limited areas.
However, when coverage eventually ramps up, this flat,‘all you can eat’ data tariff may likely change, which is in itself not a bad thing. Whilst it’s alright to have tiered plans, the key then is to have as many flexible pricing plans for consumers and not confine plans to the maxim that ‘only the rich can use LTE.’
Put simply, operators must be sensitive to different tiered plans for different customer segments, as there is a larger segment of users who will be interested in LTE should they be able to afford it.
Lastly, as I’ve argued before, operators must go beyond just offering raw speeds to users and must work on relevant apps and services to really tap the benefits of LTE. These apps and services must create value for subscribers, or else few would want to sign on.
Disrupt: LTE can boost ARPU, but will take time
DiGi able to roll out LTE despite spectrum limitation: COO
Long Term Evolution: A long game in the making
Mobile data plans need to evolve: Ericsson
A brief history of LTE
For more technology news and the latest updates, follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn or Like us on Facebook.