Malaysia’s 4G pissing war and why it doesn’t matter

  • Maxis and Digi continue trading barbs as to who has the best 4G network
  • They should just concentrate on getting the basics right

Malaysia’s 4G pissing war and why it doesn’t matterA MONTH ago, Digital News Asia (DNA) looked into what it really meant when Digi.com Bhd began claiming that it had the widest Fourth Generation/ Long-Term Evolution (4G LTE) network in Malaysia, with its 50% population coverage.
 
One of the things we noted then was that there was nothing to stop Digi’s rivals Maxis Bhd and Celcom Axiata Bhd from firing back.
 
Well, on Nov 10, Maxis did fire back at Digi, claiming to have 55% 4G population coverage. And it didn’t stop there. In a bid to debunk Digi, it published metrics which it declared would clearly define it as the 4G LTE leader in Malaysia.
 
Maxis boldly declared that it is important that when any telco claims the No 1 spot for 4G LTE, “it is backed up with tangible, measurable and truthful results, which is why we have decided to reveal our 4G definitions and performance stats.”
 
Maxis also challenged the public and the media to test its claims, and invited Digi and Celcom to do the same.
 
As part of this challenge, it said it would invite its rivals to a forum on Nov 23 to discuss the adoption of common technical standards for 4G LTE.
 
As far as we know, the forum did not take place.
 
Meanwhile, Digi had planned to hold a press event on Nov 12 to talk about how it is “building a best-in-class communications network that aims to help customers fully enjoy the benefits of being connected to quality, always-on, high-speed Internet for any wallet size and Internet appetite.”
 
But on the 11th hour on Nov 11, Digi hastily postponed the press briefing to Nov 16, citing “unforeseen circumstances.”
 
Malaysia’s 4G pissing war and why it doesn’t matterNo-one at Digi was willing to say why the event was postponed, but it wouldn’t be a stretch of anyone’s imagination to venture that its public relations and marketing machinery needed to regroup and recalibrate its messaging in the wake of Maxis’ challenge.

 

And regroup it did. At the Nov 16 event, Digi chief marketing officer Christian Thrane (pic) went on the offensive, dismissing the Maxis callout as a “social media gimmick.”
 
“I think what we do now is very, very open. It’s another thing that we are more transparent about, in terms of our coverage, signal strength and the way we build,” he said.
 
Thrane also said he did not know anything about the proposed Nov 23 forum. Instead, he retorted, “For us it’s about our subscribers. You may call that a challenge, but I don’t think it’s a challenge and we will continue to focus on our subscribers.”
 
Digi then upped the ante by claiming that it has 60% 4G LTE population coverage, only about a month after it had said it covered 50% of the population.
 
The 10-point increase was thanks to Digi covering an additional 52 major cities and secondary towns nationwide with 4G LTE services, according to its chief network officer Kesavan Sivabalan.
 
Kesavan also revealed some of Digi’s network metrics to the press, probably because Maxis had already broken that disclosure barrier.
 
These included a minimum signal strength quality of -110dBm; 99.9% accessibility of its 4G LTE services; two times faster webpage loading; two times less latency; three times more stable connections; 80% more than 5Mbps speed consistency; and 10 times faster LTE relative speed.
 
The plot thickens

Malaysia’s 4G pissing war and why it doesn’t matter

 
After Digi responded to Maxis’ challenge, the latter upped the rhetoric.
 
On Nov 24, Maxis chief executive officer (CEO) Morten Lundal (pic above) drove home the point by saying that he felt that “there are a lot of claims flying around and that the media should be knowledgeable. … It is easy to make claims, but they need to be substantiated. What does quality 4G mean?”
 
Maxis officials went on to emphasise that the company designs its network to deliver a signal strength of -98dBm, and that this “is a hard criterion because it gives a fantastic experience outdoors and a good consistent experience when indoors.”
 
Specifically, Maxis promised 4G LTE users a minimum experience of 10Mbps (megabits per second) if they are indoors in a 4G area, with this rising to 20Mbps outdoors.
 
This focus on quality user experience is why, despite claiming 71% coverage of populated areas, Maxis is only shouting about the 62% coverage where it has -98dBm, because it believes this signal strength offers customers a high quality 4G experience, both indoors and outdoors.
 
Lundal and his team also had the last say – for now, at least – about coverage as Maxis claims to have tipped Digi by two percentage points, with 62% population coverage versus Digi’s 60%.
 
When contacted by DNA, the last of the ‘Big Three’ operators, Celcom Axiata, said it would stay out of the fray and that it will not “participate in the battle” between Digi and Maxis.
 
Celcom Axiata did however issue a general press statement saying that it “always strives towards delivering the best Internet experience whilst placing customer experience as our highest priority.”
 
“For the benefit of our consumers, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), as the regulator, monitors and publishes quality of service and performance in all service infrastructure including 4G LTE,” said Celcom Axiata CEO Shazalli Ramly.
 
“Also, our position in all other independent network measurements … is very clear. Celcom will continue to lead in network infrastructure throughout the whole country, including Sabah and Sarawak.
 
“Our aim to remain the No 1 network quality provider will continuously be improved,” he said.
 
The root of the matter
 
Beyond all the marketing salvos, what’s behind these claims? And more importantly, what does this mean to us subscribers?
 
Let’s face it: Some of the metrics above are just far too technical for the average person to comprehend, let alone appreciate.
 
Take the difference between -98dBm and -110dBm for example. What does this even mean?
 
dBm is an abbreviation for the power ratio in decibels (dB) used in radio, with respect to one milliwatt of power, as a measure of absolute power. Because it’s a negative value, the smaller the number, the stronger the signal.
 
But we normal users can’t be expected to know this. And knowing the definition does not mean we would appreciate it, either.
 
For instance, what does -98dBm mean in terms of signal bars, which is the only thing the average user cares about?
 
Digi tried clarifying its dBm claims, saying that, “By (-110dBm), we mean customers will be able to experience a minimum signal strength at the edge of our 4G LTE coverage, that is, before they are handed over to the next cell tower or switched over to 3G.”
 
Slightly better, but still quantum physics to most people. What subscribers want is the assurance of consistent signal strength, perhaps 3-4 bars, with which they can make their calls, get their SMSes, and have a sustained data connection.
 
That’s what the typical subscriber really cares about.
 
Also, whenever an operator publishes any kind of metric and builds some messaging around this, this can often come back to bite it.
 
Case in point: As Maxis went to town with its metrics and after DNA published its claims of having 55% 4G LTE population coverage, it received a host of negative comments suggesting that its claims were disingenuous at best, and untrue at worst.
 
Here’s a sampling of comments by DNA readers, in raw form:
 

  • Spent so much yet the complains maintains the same, makes your question if they actually did spent to improve or it went elsewhere?
  • Always say the best. But never really commit to what they promise. Not cheap and not fast also. Stop lying la.
  • Come up with more affordable plans for the Malaysian instead of declaring fastest!
  • Trust me, its not gonna happen. Yeah maybe the coverage will be wider, but the line is still slow. So whats the whole point of this? Just to disappoint more people?

A cursory look at popular consumer tech website LowYat.Net shows similarly unflattering comments, some of which called for cheaper tariffs and better plans, instead of boasts about wider coverage and/ or faster speeds.
 
Granted, we cannot vouch for the veracity of these claims. However, there was one comment on DNA’s Facebook page, by reader and former contributor Jagdish Singh, whom I can vouch for:
 
“I switched a supplementary line from Celcom to Maxis to test … and Maxis isn't as good as they claim. I switched back to Celcom within a month. In fact, I'm also thinking of cancelling my company lines and home broadband with them,” he said.
 
Whatever you think of such comments, the point is that when you, as a mobile network operator, claim to provide the best coverage and quality, but the people who use your service do not perceive it to be the best, you’re effectively toast.
 
Baring the jugular
 

Malaysia’s 4G pissing war and why it doesn’t matter

 
While Digi and Maxis may be commended for revealing their numbers, doing so opens them up to attacks if the customer perception does not live up to the hype.
 
This dovetails nicely into my second point: In my humble opinion, this ‘metrics revealing’ exercise is essentially a futile one, and nothing more than a ‘pissing contest’ between the two operators.
 
What any subscriber must realise about any wireless network is that it is susceptible to many factors that an operator cannot fully control, and thus cannot fully design to mitigate against.
 
I remember when I first moved into the place I currently live in. The houses behind me were single-storey buildings. A few years later, some of my neighbours decided to renovate and add another storey, thus blocking the mobile signals reaching my house.
 
For years, I complained to my mobile operator’s customer services people that I couldn’t get good coverage in my house, but unfortunately, there was nothing they could do about it … or so they said.
 
Finally about a year ago, my provider erected a new cell tower nearby – something that it apparently could not do earlier because there were no suitable tower locations available – thereby boosting my signal and giving me better coverage.
 
This is only one of the dozens of possible scenarios which a mobile operator cannot control.
 
I can unequivocally say that I’m a happier customer today then I was two years ago, but this applies to me only, thanks to the new tower.
 
It does not apply to others who are not as fortunate, such as one of my colleagues who lives in a highly populated, albeit hilly, and dense area in Kuala Lumpur.
 
She cannot get a decent 3G, let alone 4G, signal. Her smartphone often displays EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) connectivity only, and even then, she has to stand in front of her house just to make calls. When she is inside her house, calls often cannot reach her.
 
To rub salt into the wound, she sometimes receives SMSes late.
 
“The biggest inconvenience is still the reception. I’m not sure if these problems are because I live in a hilly area. Still, I live in a very densely populated suburban area, so this shouldn't happen,” she says.
 
And just only last weekend, both my colleague and I attended a wedding in Penang, where my smartphone registered only EDGE coverage – even in the middle of the city.
 
So my argument is: If a mobile operator can’t fully mitigate against something it can’t control, how can it claim to be able to give its subscribers the best quality and coverage?
 
This also applies to the issue of speed metrics or how many seconds it takes for social media feeds to load, et al.
 
Again, I would humbly say that there are different scenarios that can influence the real-world manifestation of such metrics, and they don’t always involve factors that can be controlled entirely by the mobile operator.
 
Therefore, I submit that claims of 55%, 60% or 62% population coverage; or consistent 5Mbps or 20Mbps connections; aren’t worth a squat to subscribers. Their experience will be determined by various factors that affect speed and coverage.
 
This is just the nature of the beast, as wireless systems are subject to all kinds of environmental and man-made conditions, such as concrete and foliage clutter, many of which cannot be controlled or mitigated against by the operator.
 
Whither MCMC?
 
Some nine months after Maxis first brought 4G LTE to Malaysia, I noted that mobile operators were not blowing their trumpets over their LTE rollouts. In fact, they were relatively subdued with their advertising campaigns.
 
My argument then was that the muted campaigns were good for the industry, unlike the case with their 3G rollouts when operators went to town with promises of speed and mobility but failed miserably at actually delivering.
 
I ventured then that perhaps operators had learnt from their mistakes of putting hype before reality.
 
But as I reflect on the events these past three weeks, I can’t help but feel that Malaysian operators have forgotten those lessons and have gone back to how they marketed 3G, with so much rhetoric and tit-for-tat in the air.
 
Some factors are beyond their control, as I have noted above, but others are, and they are not just about speed and coverage.
 
Ultimately, it has everything to do with the overall, end-to-end customer experience: Spam SMSes, inept customer service operators, complicated billing, complex tariff plans, promised features that don’t work properly, expensive roaming calls … the list of what operators can control and should also be looking into goes on, and on.
 
As I’ve argued before – and I repeat it here for emphasis – getting a service right isn’t just about boasting of a bunch of metrics.
 
It’s about living up to those metrics – metrics that you can be sure of meeting. It’s about getting the end-to-end customer service right. It’s about getting customer provision and activation, service enquiries and complaints (including billing disputes and even service termination) right.
 
Everything should be about customers and their experience.
 
Now, it can be argued that the time is ripe to discuss 4G coverage and quality issues, given the network expansions and smartphone penetration rates in the country. But operators should do so in ways that benefit their customers.
 
Finally, just to be unequivocally clear: I’m not against metrics or common industry standards for all operators to adhere to. Nor am I against glowing ad campaigns.
 
I’m just not in favour of any mobile operator doing all this, while neglecting the basic service which subscribers are paying them for.
 
And as the marketing battle continues, this is one area I’d like industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to step into, and to take to task the mobile operators.
 
Come in and regulate, MCMC. Cut through the mobile operator marketing hype, and make sure telecommunications services in the country do what they’re supposed to: Serve the public.
 
Related Stories:

Digi throws down the 4G LTE gauntlet: What it really means
 
Digi trains its 4G LTE guns on Maxis

 
Maxis CEO ratchets up 4G rhetoric
 
A brief history of LTE
 

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