LTE: Over-hyped and over here

LTE: Over-hyped and over here
Dominic Smith looks at the forthcoming launch of 4G / LTE services in the UK and wonders whether the right expectation is being set with the consumers.

Last week’s LTE announcement by Everything Everywhere kicked off of another wave of hype in the UK media around mobile broadband services. The mainstream press immediately jumped on the news of EE’s ‘4G’ services being available in 16 cities by the end of the year as heralding the beginning of a new era in high-speed mobile communications. But hang on a minute, haven’t we been here before?

The launch of 3G over a decade ago is infamous as a result of the auction process that netted the UK government billions and the marketing that made everyone think they would be video calling and downloading movies to their phone at the push of a button. Even now with all the upgrades and overlays to the networks, a consistent level of service is something of a miracle for most 3G users. Can the general public expect any better with the rollout of 4G?

Of course the UK is somewhat behind the curve with LTE; Teliasonera announced the world’s first LTE network two years ago and there are now more than 50 networks around the world, so there’s plenty of industry experience to be learned from. There’s no doubt that LTE will provide faster data speeds than are available today; on paper EE’s 4G service will be ‘five times faster than 3G’, subject to the usual caveats of ‘where you are and how many other people are using 4G too’.

However where things have changed considerably over the past ten years is that of the widespread availability of WiFi. Most smartphone and tablet users are used to the luxury of free* WiFi in their homes or at the nearest coffee shop, with typical WiFi data speeds of up to 8Mbps. If the LTE service doesn’t match or exceed typical WiFi speeds then customers are going to be seriously disappointed.

Bear in mind that user expectation for WiFi is quite different from mobile data as users will typically not be on the move. However for mobile data services, people expect them to work consistently whilst travelling around and this is going to be a big challenge with the usual complications of cell handovers and geographic interference. An LTE user sitting in a coffee shop may well also get 8Mbps, but then why would you pay a premium to do that on the mobile network when it comes for free with the coffee?

EE hasn’t announced its LTE tariffs just yet, but it’s pretty clear from the launch announcement that this is being positioned as a premium service, and market research shows that LTE services are currently charged at around a 40% uplift over 3G offerings. No doubt EE will pick up a wave of early adopters, keen to impress their mates with the latest ‘4G’ technology. There will also be a surge of interest in EE as a result of the launch of the new iPhone 5, which is also LTE compatible. But I can’t help thinking that the majority of users will take a more pragmatic view and wait for lower-priced packages and flexible bundles before taking the LTE plunge.
* By free of course I mean that users are often not paying for WiFi directly, rather indirectly through the cost of their drink in the coffee shop or they pay for a fixed broadband service separately.

Starbucks Sign Image via Wikimedia Commons