Digi throws down the 4G LTE gauntlet: What it really means

  • Ambitious plans that take the fight to rivals, shedding its follower status
  • Challenges include spectrum management, rollout of advanced services
Digi throws down the 4G LTE gauntlet: What it really means

NEWS ANALYSIS LAST week, Digi.Com Bhd started claiming it now has the widest Fourth Generation/ Long-Term Evolution (4G LTE) network in Malaysia, hitting 50% population coverage.

With this, it has exceeded its own target of reaching 45% population coverage by year-end, Furthermore, it said it plans to add another 1,500 4G LTE sites by year-end.
If this comes through, Digi would possibly cement itself as the fastest growing mobile operator in terms of 4G LTE population coverage.
Mobile operators claiming to be the first, the widest, the fastest or the best is not particularly new, especially in Malaysia, where there has been a long history of this sort of practice.
For instance, Maxis Bhd went to town as the first operator to roll out 4G LTE services in the country, in January, 2013. A month later, it boasted of being the only operator in town to offer 4G LTE-capable handsets to the market.
Celcom Axiata Bhd wasn’t to be left behind, but chose to take a different marketing tack, preferring to use high profile celebrity endorsements – from Usain Bolt to Maria Sharapova – to speak about its services.
But the ‘pioneer’ in ‘shout out loud as the first’ marketing campaigns was actually Digi itself, in the early days.
The year was 2003, when Digi upgraded its network to support EDGE (Enhanced Data for Global Evolution) services. Dubbed ‘2.75G,’ EDGE was a precursor to Third Generation (3G) wireless networks.
The technology boasted of a theoretical maximum of 473Kbps (kilobits per second) speeds, with practical working speeds of between 100Kbps and 120Kbps.
Digi throws down the 4G LTE gauntlet: What it really meansWow, you must be thinking, putting on your sarcasm cap, that’s fast!
But laugh as you may at those speeds, EDGE was the fastest technology before 3G came into the picture. Earlier technologies such as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) were even slower, hovering between speeds of 40Kbps and 50Kbps at best.
Digi was the only operator back then to have EDGE because the telco chose to stay out of the 3G bidding process, which resulted in it not having access to precious 3G spectrum which Maxis and Celcom had.
Not having 3G was not necessarily a bad thing for Digi, as it meant that it could concentrate on rolling out EDGE instead of grappling with rolling out 3G, which was a much more complicated and expensive technology to implement.
Eventually, 3G only became mainstream circa 2005, which effectively gave Digi and its EDGE technology roughly a two-year edge (no pun intended) as far as time-to-market was concerned.
As a journalist covering the telco scene back then, I recall quite vividly how the Digi spin machine went to town with the story that it had the fastest network at that time. It even went on to launch progressive services such as ‘live traffic’ information via EDGE, which by today's standards, is pretty primitive.
Journalists were even invited to test drive the network, given test phones for that purpose, and brought to the northern Malaysian island of Penang, to see how wide its EDGE network was then.
I interviewed Digi executives who were intent on pushing its marketing and branding message: That Digi was the first to bring high-speed mobile data to Malaysia.
For the most part, the marketing campaign worked: Digi was seen as an innovator, despite not having a licence to operate a next-generation 3G wireless network at the time.
Fast forward 12 years, and once again Digi is projecting itself as an innovator by laying claim to the widest 4G LTE coverage in the country – at least for now.
But while I can understand the need to engage in marketing spin, ad promotions, press outreach and brand positioning, the question remains: What does this all mean to the user?

What does having the widest 4G LTE coverage mean in practice? What is the impact on one’s experience, and how does it endear users to Digi?

Wait, what does ‘widest’ really mean?

Digi throws down the 4G LTE gauntlet: What it really means

The first thing to note is that the claims Digi has made so far are just that: Claims.
According to some industry experts I spoke to, there isn’t a universal standard for determining what an operator may deem to be acceptable coverage for 4G LTE in terms of radio frequency (RF) signal level.
Just to be clear: No one is accusing Digi of not being truthful about its “widest 4G LTE” claims.
But at the same time, it is important to note that because there isn’t a universal standard that defines what is acceptable coverage for 4G LTE, it can be argued that the standard used by Digi is very subjective.
For now, Digi’s rivals have not made any claims to counter its spin, and have preferred to stay on the sidelines as far as claiming the widest 4G LTE coverage is concerned.
But it is conceivable that by using a different set of parameters that define what the RF coverage for LTE is, these rivals can claim to have wider 4G LTE coverage than Digi.
Secondly, boasting that it has the widest 4G LTE coverage may be good for press headlines but isn’t necessarily good for the user.
To truly be useful, an operator’s coverage of a particular wireless technology (in this case 4G LTE) must be not only wide but also contiguous – that is, continuously overlapping from one cell to another.
If not, a user’s handset that latches on to a cell site where there is marginal 4G LTE would drop off and select 3G when there isn’t 4G LTE coverage. When this happens, a user’s overall surfing, data download or call experience will likely suffer, something I experience as a Digi user.
To be fair to Digi, this challenge isn’t avoidable as any telco, including Maxis and Celcom, building out its 4G LTE network must contend with this transitory phase until it gets to a point where its 4G LTE network becomes contiguous, like what we have with 3G today.
Still, it is nonetheless a problem for Digi to contend with, now that it has made 4G LTE front and centre of its marketing campaign. 
Thirdly, not many people know the 4G LTE that Digi operates on is largely based on the 2600MHz frequency spectrum, which is great to carry high-speed data but not optimal for coverage.
Generally speaking, the higher the frequency, the smaller an area the wireless signal is able to cover. It also means that RF penetration deep into buildings is weak.
Digi throws down the 4G LTE gauntlet: What it really meansPractically, this means that Digi’s 4G LTE for now will be fairly limited indoors, and if a user is deep inside a building that has marginal 4G LTE coverage, data connections will be poor and voice may also suffer.
Again, I have experienced this quite a fair bit when I switch on Digi’s 4G LTE, which is why I prefer to select my handset to stay on 3G – although I must admit, that for the most part, its 4G LTE coverage has indeed improved since it began its rollout in the middle of last year.

In fact, Digi's 4G LTE roll out is currently the fastest, most aggresive amongst the three operators, according to my industry sources. 
However, this challenge can only be solved if and when Digi has more indoor cells to support 4G LTE, which again may take time for it to roll out.
Also, this is where I feel Digi’s competitors may have an added advantage, as both Maxis and Celcom have the licence to operate in the highly coveted 900MHz band, besides operating in the 1800MHz band.
Digi, unfortunately, only has the licence to operate in 1800MHz and only a measly 4MHz access to 900MHz, a challenge that I’ve written about before.
Currently, all three operators’ 3G networks are starting to face congestion, but because Maxis and Celcom have access to 900MHz frequency, they have begun strategically shifting a lot of their 3G sites to operate on the 900MHz band, thereby alleviating some of the congestion, according to people familiar with the matter.
By doing this, Maxis and Celcom can then (and have) re-purposed their 1800MHz bands for 4G LTE, which aids their indoor coverage, something Digi can’t easily do as it does not have much 900MHz to play with.
This further complicates the issues already faced by Digi in that its 4G LTE coverage, while ‘widest’ for now, would still be challenged by the potentially poor indoor penetration of 2600MHz LTE.
Final words
Digi throws down the 4G LTE gauntlet: What it really meansDespite these challenges, I applaud Digi’s fairly new chief executive officer Albern Murty (pic) for taking a very bold and proactive company strategy.
At the media briefing last week, he said that “... it’s important to embark on this campaign. We need to tell everyone that we are as good as, if not better than, everyone else.

“...while speed is important, what we want is to focus on delivering a good experience to our customers – that’s why we aim for our 4G LTE customers to be able to get a speed of 5Mbps at least 80% of the time.”

He also acknowledged the fact that Digi is better known for its marketing, especially with its ‘Yellow Man’ and marketing theme song ‘I will follow you,’ but not by the tagline ‘Digi has the widest coverage.’
By setting the bar higher, Albern is trying to get Digi to shed its ‘third wheel’ tag and establish itself as a leader rather than a follower.
But there is still a lot of work for Digi to do, beyond just shouting about ‘widest coverage.’ Having good 4G coverage is only one side of the coin – what an operator does with that coverage is key to its long-term survival.
For now, Digi is in a good place, having reported solid financials,  having launched some innovative services such as Music Freedom, as well as recently forging alliances with Google Malaysia and iflix, the video-streaming startup.
But I feel that it still needs to introduce more innovative services to customers, as the deals above are merely ‘value adds’ to users, and do not separate Digi from the rest of the competition.
Personally, I look forward to next-generation services such as VoLTE (voice over LTE) callsWiFi calling, unlimited over-the-top streaming services, and better segmented data plans catering to different subscriber needs.
When Digi first launched its 4G LTE services in mid-2014, Albern argued that there wasn’t an immediate need for such advanced services.
Well, 4G LTE is no longer new and since Digi has signalled its clear intention take on its bigger competitors, the pressure just grew for the telco to deliver on such advanced services.
And that means not just on the coverage front but also on the services and quality front – and to deliver these services the soonest possible to its subscribers.

Can it rise to the challenge?
Related Stories:
Opportunities and challenges that await Digi’s new CEO
Telco Deep Dive: Spectrum refarming in limbo?
Long Term Evolution: A long game in the making
Telco Deep Dive: Operators just scratching the surface with 4G

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