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The Industry

Cellular is Not the Rural Broadband Solution

I’m often asked why we can’t let cellular 4G bandwidth take care of the bandwidth needs for rural America. When you look at the ads on TV by Verizon and AT&T you would assume that the cellular data network is robust and is being built everywhere. But there are a lot of practical reasons why cellular data is not the answer for rural broadband:

Rural areas are not being upgraded. The carriers don’t make the same kinds of investments in rural markets that they do in urban markets. To see a similar situation in a related industry, consider how the large cable companies are upgrading cable modems in the metropolitan areas years before they upgrade rural areas. It seems that urban cellular technology is being upgraded every few years while rural cell sites might get upgraded once a decade.

Rural networks are not built where people live. Even where the cellular networks have been upgraded, rural cellular towers have been historically built to take care of car traffic, referred to in the industry as roaming traffic. Think about where you always see cellular towers and they are either on the top of tall hills or else along a highway not close to many homes and businesses. This matters because like all wireless traffic, the data speeds drop drastically with distance from the tower. Where a 3G customer in a City might get 30 Mbps download speed because they are likely less than a mile from a transmitter, a customer who is 4 miles from a tower might now get 5 Mbps. And in a rural area 4 miles is not very far.  

The carriers have severe data plans and caps. Even when customers happen to live close to a rural transmitter and can get good data speeds, the data plans for the large carriers are capped at very skimpy levels. One HD movie uses around 1.5 gigabits, meaning that a cap of 2 to 4 gigabits is a poor substitute for landline broadband. There are still a few unlimited data plans around but they are hard to get and dwindling in availability. And it’s been widely reported that once a customer reaches a certain level of usage on an unlimited plan that the speeds are choked to go very slow for the rest of the month.

Voice gets a big priority on the network. Cellular networks were built to deliver vice calls to cell phones and voice calls still get a priority on the network. A cell phone tower is limited to a finite amount of bandwidth. And so, once a few customers are downloading something big at the same time, the performance for the rest of the cell site gets noticeably worse. 3G networks are intended to deliver short bursts of fast data, such as when a cell phone user downloads an app. But there is not enough bandwidth at a cell phone tower to support hundreds of ‘normal’ data customers who are watching streaming video and using bandwidth like we use in our homes and businesses.

The plans are really expensive. Cellular data plans are not cheap. For example, Verizon will sell you a data plan for an iPad at $30 per month and a 4 gigabit total usage cap. Additional gigabits cost $10 to $15 each. To get the same plan for an iPhone is $70 per month since the plan requires voice and text messaging. Cellular data is the most expensive bandwidth in a country that already has some of the most expensive bandwidth in the world. 

There are no real 4G deployments yet. While the carriers are all touting 4G wireless, what they are delivering is 3G wireless. By definition the 4G wireless specification allows for gigabit data download speeds. What we now have, in engineering terms can best be described as 3.5 G and real 4G is still sometime in the future. There are reports of current cellular networks in cities getting bursts of speed up to 50 Mbps, which is very good, but is not close to being 4G. But most realized speeds are considerably slower than that.

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Technology The Industry What Customers Want

Will the Real 4G Please Stand Up?

English: 4G LTE single mode modem by Samsung, operating in the first commercial 4G network by Telia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all aware of grade inflation where teachers give out more high grades than are deserved. But US cellular marketers have been doing the same thing to customers and have inflated the performance of their data products by calling every new development the next generation. Earlier this year the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) approved the final standards for 4G cellular data. One of the features of the final standard is that a 4G network must be able to deliver at least 100 Mbps of data to a phone in a moving vehicle and up to 1 Gbps to a stationary phone.

Meanwhile in the US we have had cellular networks marketed as 4G for several years. In the US the earliest deployments of 3G networks happened just after 2001. That technology was built to a standard that had to deliver at least 200 kbps of data, which was more than enough when we were using our flip phones to check sports scores.

But since then there have been a number of incremental improvements in the 3G technology. Improvements like switching to 64-QAM modulation and multi-carrier technologies improved 3G speeds. By 2008 3G networks were pretty reliably delivering speeds up to 3 Mbps download using these kinds of improvement. Around the rest of the world this generation of 3G improvements was generally referred to as 3.5G. But in the US the marketers started calling this 4G. It certainly was a lot faster than the original 3G, but it is still based on the 3G standard and is not close to the 4G standard.

And since then there has been other big improvements in 3G using LTE and HSPA. For example, LTE is an all-packet technology and this allows it to send voice traffic over the data network, gaining efficiency by not having to switch between voice and data. One of the biggest improvements was the introduction of MIMO (multiple input multiple output). This allows LTE to use different frequencies to send and receive data, saving it from switching back and forth between those functions as well.

For a while Wi-max looked like a third competitor to LTE, but it’s pretty obvious now in the US that LTE has won the platform battle. All of the major carriers have deployed significant amounts of LTE and most of them say these deployments will be done by the end of this year in metropolitan markets. Speeds on LTE are certainly much faster than earlier speeds using 3.5G technology. But this is still not 4G and around the rest of the world this technology is being referred to as 3.9G or Pre-4G.

But to date there are very few phones that have been deployed that use the LTE network to its fullest. There have been a few handsets, like the HTC Thunderbolt that have been designed to use the available LTE speeds. And Verizon says it will roll out smartphones in 2014 that will only work on the LTE network.

There is a big trade-off in handsets between power consumption and the ability to switch between multiple cellular technologies. A typical cell phone today needs to be able to work on 3G networks, 3.5G networks and several variations of the latest networks including the different flavors of LTE as well as the HSPA+ used by T-Mobile. So, interestingly, the most popular phones like the iPhone and the Galaxy S4 will work on LTE, but don’t come close to achieving the full speeds available with LTE. And of course, nobody tells this to customers.

Starting in September in South Korea will be a new deployment of another incremental improvement in cellular data speeds using a technology called LTE-A (LTE Advanced). This is achieving data speeds of about twice those achieved on the current US LTE deployments. This is achieved by layering in a technology called carrier aggregation (CA) that links together two different spectrums into one data path.

And the US carriers have talked about deploying the LTE-A technology starting sometime in 2014. No doubt when this is deployed in the US some marketer is going to call it 5G. And yet, it is still not up to the 4G standard. Maybe this is now 3.95G. Probably by the time somebody actually deploys a real 4G phone in the US it is going to have to be called 8G.

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