The 4G promise – still unfulfilled

Posted on May 24, 2011

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Blazing data speeds in your palm. But at what cost?

A recent news report got my adrenaline moving. It said the UAE is working towards introducing 4G mobile telephony services by the end of 2011. 4G? I know just enough to know that means fourth generation – but how exactly will it differ from 3G (the version that is currently displayed in the top right corner of my phone)?

The easiest way to find out was to point my phone’s browser to Google, which I did. After 5 to 6 pretty frustrating minutes, I discovered that there is no clear definition of what standards 4G will actually adopt. The best I could discover was that my maximum data rate under 3G is 2Mbps (it certainly seems much slower). If the fourth generation is introduced, however, that could jump to a 100Mbps if I’m on the move and even 1Gbps if I stand still (I assume that means remaining in the same “cell” of the network).

If I had 4G that works according to that definition, I would have concluded my research in 7 seconds instead of 6 minutes. I could have done it at the next traffic light instead of stopping the car at the side of the road to do it.

Now imagine the effect on audio and video downloads, webinars and video conferencing. You could simply give the kids in the back seat a smartphone and let them watch video on that long drive from Dubai to Muscat, instead of constantly hearing the refrain “Are we there yet?”.

You could speak face-to-face (virtually) to your sales head in Hong Kong without being confined to a room with an ultra-broadband connection.

But there’s the rub. The infrastructure needed to transform a network from 3G to 4G is so expensive, that a simultaneous country-wide deployment looks unlikely. In the United States, for example, less than 10% of the country has 4G even after one year of LTE (or long term evolution) deployment.

And that infrastructure cost is going to be recovered from you and me – the users.

In a quasi-duopoly situation like the UAE – which has only two operators, but both with significant shareholding from the government – cost will probably be the highest barrier to adoption of 4G. But then again, both operators know that.

Am I willing to pay about 20% more for a data plan that offers 100Mbps to 1Gbps throughput? I guess the answer would be yes. But with a very emphatic “and no more than that” tagged on at the end.

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Posted in: Telecoms & Tech