Mobile operators’ subdued LTE publicity puts reality before hype; a sign of maturity
LTE still has a way to go; should be viewed as a journey rather than an end in itself
NINE months have passed since the first announcement was made with regard to the availability of Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile technology in Malaysia.
Just to recap: Maxis Communications was the first operator to fire its salvo; then followed up in April claiming another first by saying that it was the only operator then that could support the iPhone 5, iPad mini and iPad 4 with its LTE network.
In June, Celcom announced that its network was LTE ready and that 200 LTE-enabled sites would be built by February 2014.
Not wanting to be left out, DiGi Telecommunications joined the LTE bandwagon a month later, stating that its broadband and tablet subscriber plan will be available in selected Klang Valley locations in its first stage of implementation.
For me, what’s been interesting is that after the first round of announcements, these mobile operators have not blown their trumpets much over the fact that LTE has arrived in Malaysia.
There seem to be no brash marketing campaigns; no in-your-face advertisements, except some who did buy up big billboards around town saying that they had launched 4G services; and best of all, no complicated tariff plans stating how much 4G services would cost and the ensuing confusion they bring when comparing those tariffs with older 3G services.
Rather than overhyping LTE, these players are finally bowing to the fact that LTE gestation is going to take time.
This, I must say, bodes well for the mobile industry, as it seems to have finally learnt what it means to have a measured approach to new technology coming into the market.
The fact is, for LTE to succeed, mobile operators would need to provide contiguous coverage, something that will not happen overnight.
The challenge for mobile operators always is to ensure that base station sites will be placed in strategic areas to serve customers while being able to maintain a high return-on-investment (ROI).
Mobile network operators (MNOs) essentially plan their cell site selection based on what is known as a ‘growth and capacity plan,’ an educated guesstimate that is based on the traffic usage pattern of where they believe their subscribers are using their mobile and smartphones most of the time.
Because of this, MNOs will likely only roll out LTE coverage in areas they believe are likely to pay for themselves. Put simply, if they build a base station in a certain locality, they would expect the traffic generated from that base station to pay for the cost of putting it up.
These planned areas invariably would be based around commercial areas, such as shopping complexes, offices, and publicly accessed areas such as highways, restaurants, parks and other local tourist attractions.
And very often, some of these sites would take time to negotiate the right pricing for rental of rooftops in order that they may fit base station equipment and antennae at the right locations.
So this calm introduction of LTE will set the right expectations insofar as how fast LTE will be rolled out and the time it takes to fully be available in most urban areas around the major Malaysian cities.
Secondly, the longer LTE gestation time is also highly tied to the availability of attractive, desirable LTE handsets, notably smartphones, that people would want to purchase, such as the likes of the Apple iPhones and Samsung’s Galaxy and Note series of phones.
To date, the LTE-capable phones we have in the market primarily support LTE at the 1,800MHz frequency band. However in Malaysia, the eight licensees given the green light to operate LTE networks are on the higher 2,600MHz band.
MNOs which have chosen to launch their networks on the 2,600MHz band have done so using mobile dongles instead of with smartphones.
But the situation is rapidly changing as top-tier handset vendors are now beginning to release handsets, and even tablets, that are LTE-capable at 2,600MHz. Last month, Samsung and Intel launched the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, which supports LTE-2,600MHz.
And recently, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was launched, and it too supports the LTE-2,600MHz band via the N9005 model. With the advent of these top-tier devices, you can bet that the rest of the field will follow.
According to Analysys Mason, mobile devices today are capable of supporting between five and eight different frequencies.
Chris Nicoll, principal analyst at the telco research firm, noted that additionally, networks themselves are becoming multi-spectrum (if they are not already) supporting low- (700, 800, 900MHz), mid- (1.7, 1.8, 1.9GHz) and high- (2.3, 2.5, 2.6GHz) frequencies either as a function of auction results or via spectrum re-farming.
“We believe that LTE is already a multi-spectrum technology and the devices are keeping up with the demand,” he says.
Still, consumers should temper their expectations as new technologies are almost always susceptible to teething problems and will take time to settle down.
There are still issues to sort out, some of which pertain to how reliably you can get LTE service inside a building as the higher 2,600MHz frequency has lower penetration properties compared with the 1,800MHz spectrum, which means weaker in-building coverage for the former.
This weaker coverage of the 2,600MHz band also means that more base stations must be built to cover the same given area a 1,800MHz system would otherwise need to be spent on. Such issues may skew our MNOs' plans to favour the latter over the former and this may affect the reliability and coverage of their respective LTE services.
As we come to the year-end, I would say that there is LTE has indeed arrived, but subscribers would do well to realise that it’s going to take time to fully roll out, and should view this as a journey rather than a destination.
But at least this time, the subscriber, like you and me, are not being duped into thinking that 4G or LTE will bring us closer to mobile nirvana as our MNOs have previously tried to do with 3G.
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