4G is like lightning – it’s an eye opener and seriously enhances the mobile data experience. Trefor Davies, CTO of Timico, writes about O2’s exciting 4G trials in London and explores how the technology is going to change the mobile game, as well as offering a great solution for internet connectivity in social housing.
Mobile data is already an important feature in business communication. As an ISP we see demand for it in the areas of machine-to-machine communications, rapid site deployment, backup solutions for disaster recovery and of course straightforward internet browsing and email access from mobile devices.
Over the last year or two, the focus in the UK on fixed-line broadband has been on ‘fibre to the cabinet’, or in marketing jargon ‘fibre broadband’. With downlink speeds of ‘up to’ 40Mbps, the technology is revolutionising how people use their broadband connections. Add in the growth of high-quality streaming video and gaming services and it is easy to see how the additional bandwidth will be consumed.
Until very recently the mobile world, in the UK at least, has remained firmly in the domain of 3G – a technology that now seems relatively ancient compared with fibre broadband. HSDPA makes the experience more bearable but it is still many mega-bits apart from its fixed-line counterpart.
All change – the O2 Long Term Evolution (LTE) trials
The mobile companies are poised to change all this with LTE, otherwise known as 4G. Trials are being conducted in a small number of locations in the UK and as Timico was the first O2 service provider partner to be invited to its London trials, I’d like to share my experiences to support social housing professionals.
This service is like lightning. It’s fast, speedy, call it what you will, but it’s a life changer and it has been one of those projects that it has been a pleasure to be involved in.
With only 25 masts around central London coverage is nowhere near what you would describe as ubiquitous but this is only a trial. When in a coverage area the speeds are great.
I started in McDonalds at King’s Cross with an easily installed, brand new dongle which performed an automatic firmware upgrade using its own 4G connection.
At McDonalds I was getting over 13Mbps down and 540Kbps up which in my mind was a bit disappointing though I’m not sure it should have been. I have experimented with O2’s 4G at their offices in Slough and seen much faster up and down speeds. However, this was faster than I get from the ADSL2+ connection at home, so I couldn’t grumble.
I knew I could do better. Roaming around town on the top deck of a number 25 bus, near Wardour Street I got 15.5Mbps down and amazingly 25Mbps up, and the ping times for all these measurements were impressive too.
In torrential rain I walked around, dipping into various places, checking out speeds and moving generally towards known good hotspots.
I finally took shelter in the Devonshire Arms on Duke Street, just off Oxford Street. Sitting in the window sipping tea, I hit the jackpot with 40Mbps down and 23Mbps up. I did various tests including varying the browser (Chrome was much better than Internet Explorer) and I also did video calls with both Timico’s own VoIP service and with Skype.
The highest speed I have seen recorded is 97Mbps in the O2 Arena itself. The 2,600MHz LTE itself will go up to 150Mbps but the dongle technology doesn’t currently support this. We also have to remember this was a test rather than a production rollout, so it isn’t going to be perfect, but even considering this, the experience has been great.
A few observations from the trial
The raw speed I saw with O2’s 4G was terrific when in good coverage areas. The amount of data you can download in a very small amount of time is going to change the game. For example, I used around 50Mb in around one minute while upgrading the dongle’s firmware. If you now consider that until recently a typical ‘fair use’ policy for an unlimited data package was 500Mb then you can see that the model will have to change. The backhaul capacity that mobile operators will have to build in to their networks will need to see growth measured in orders of magnitude.
Spectrum allocation for the 4G rollout is going to be very important. For example, the bandwidth you can get at 2,600 MHz is much higher than at 800 MHz. However the in-building penetration at the higher speed is not as good so the overall network design represents an interesting challenge for engineers. This makes the forthcoming Ofcom spectrum auction in December important.
As a side note, it will be interesting to see how much the operators are prepared to pay for spectrum – they all think they overpaid for 3G, but the demand was not initially there. It is different now and people are getting used to paying for the bandwidth they use.
From an end-user’s perspective, the ability to have genuinely fast internet access on their laptop, tablet or smartphone is going to change their experience. While wi-fi is becoming more common in pubs, coffee shops and other public places, the need to authenticate is still a nuisance. Also not having to wait while a screen loads up on your mobile phone needs to become a human right!
It is certainly going to drive more business into the mobile environment. Timico, for example, gives an iPad to all of its salespeople so that they can demonstrate Timico applications at a customer’s premises.
The gaming experience is going to be great. Who knows what mobility combined with high-speed internet will do for that industry, freed from the shackles of the sitting room or the bedroom. Will city-wide action games become orienteering for the 21st century?
The use of mobile technology for backup purposes will also extend into many more areas of businesses. Typically 3G is used where only low bandwidth is required or where any bandwidth is better than no bandwidth. 4G becomes a viable solution for offices and even company headquarters.
Of course with many more people on a production 4G network, the average speeds available may well come down but LTE really is a game changer.
4G for social housing
4G could be amazing for the provision of internet access to social housing projects. The technology is used as a matter of course as a broadband replacement solution in other countries. For example Vodafone in Germany delivers 4G broadband to rural areas, with the average speeds and usages broadly similar to that of ADSL networks.
4G is a serious alternative to fibre broadband. There is no cabling to consider and provisioning a new service could be as simple as walking into a shop and signing up. 4G could be delivered through a 4G SIM in any number of different devices – laptop or computer dongle, mi-fi hotspot or mobile phone (which could also be set up as a wi-fi hotspot for the rest of the property).
It is also very likely that social housing providers will be able to tailor services to residents by working with providers on bespoke packages, helping to control costs and offering greater choice to customers.
4G is likely to hit the streets in a big way in 2013. Anyone interested in understanding how they might use the technology as a solution to their connectivity needs should get in touch.
Trefor Davies is chief technology officer of Timico.