So LTE is becoming the big trend in mobile communications throughout the region, browsing, social networking and other Internet applications being benefited by the new technology create expectations above levels never seen before. But when a new generation of cellular architecture is introduced in a market, more often than not, there is a gap between user expectations and what real life implementations can effectively accomplish. I'm far from being optimistic (which is something I owe to my technical education); so I think unless key players within the local industry start to inform mobile consumers now, government regulatory bodies get conscious about the importance of quick spectrum policies release and MNO quickly enable LTE enhanced features, the number of angry users will be bigger than the happy ones.
LTE going viral, but less flu viral more like cold viral
LTE commercial launches in Brazil, Puerto Rico and Uruguay, more launches announced for 2012, several completed trials, and media frenzy have set up the viral behavior for the technology. But the truth is MNO’s are initially targeting principal cities and are not offering a total country coverage which is well justified if several constrains are considered, constrains which I’ll mention later, additionally the end device offering is restricted to USB modems in some countries free of charge, and the spectrum is also limited majorly 2.6Ghz and some in 2.1Ghz, worth to mention that it is a strong desire for refarming several bands.
Is LTE walking the same path of UMTS?
I’m well convinced their adoption story is very different, don’t get me wrong, but in terms of delayed penetration, enhanced features being introduced also late, and its influence to slow the growth of other technologies, that’s when I’m not so sure how different paths really are. According to several reports, UMTS 3G technology accounts for 100 million subscribers in LATAM at the end of 2011 something like 15% of all cellular connections in the region, projections state that 4 million of subscribers will be added each month, and a initial retraction of 2G GSM technology growth is expected no early than last part of 2012; these figures can be used as a reference for a long term analysis. Another approach can be used considering that LATAM UMTS first commercial services where available back in 2006 and that it wasn’t till 2009 that it finally took off, so a three year mark can be used to decide how different paths would finally be as well. Whatever the case or model used to compare them, the fact is that some challenges of the past must be addressed again for LTE; Backhaul network capacity is not being improved quickly and spectrum is not abundant, regulatory bodies today use spectrum caps as a mean to control operators.
Real life implementations
MNOs use the line “LTE is going to boost our data business” for current LTE state of the art, this means that at least at the beginning two important factors must be put aside; the first, is the mesmerizing effect smartphones have on LATAM and Caribbean consumers which will not be an ingredient of LTE, the second being that voice service is not going to be invited to the party either. How bad is it for the adoption of the technology? Let’s take a look the users to find out.
MBB (Mobile Broad Band) users
There are three MBB user groups in the region and one potential MBB user group: Occasional, Heavy, Elite and Users inside communities where conventional wired BB is hard to implement. Of course this classification is personal and might be open to debate, so comments are welcome. In the Occasional group you´ll find users who recently acquired an IM (Internet Messaging), Pin to Pin, or a decent web browser enabled phone, and are just discovering mobile social apps, this group is just adopting new internet usage patterns but they have either a content restricted plan or a cap in the amount of monthly data, so usage is mostly occasional and the “Cloud” stills something that pours rain on them. In the Heavy group you'll find those who already depend on staying connected to develop business, to entertain themselves or to just feel normal, they use a bigger set of apps and the Cloud is a familiar concept, for them as long as they get their vital apps delivering as expected, they're happy. The Elite group, is form by people who already changed completely their Internet usage pattern and challenge the network performance, they expect MBB to behave as FBB (Fixed Broad Band), normal usage involves online gaming, P2P, ubiquitous service, anytime, anyplace and every application at the same time. For these users sometimes a lot is never enough. The final group consists of people targeted by several government plans to increase internet coverage and mobile infrastructure represents an attractive alternative for various reasons.
User expectations in the region
We users in this region stand out for the need to stay in contact and to be noticed, we are collectivist by nature and music is a factor of major importance that eases interaction, so above all, operators should keep this in mind when designing new plans or apps. Now, what the first group should expect it's almost straight forward, these users should see LTE as a motivator to increase their interest towards Internet based services and more important, to start using them. The motivation of migration towards LTE can be accomplish with a bit of help from MNO through the active promotion VOIP apps. Yes, VOIP! Voice service is the jewel of the crown, I can't think of a better catalyst to speed adoption of a technology other than the killer of the killer services.
Most of the heavy users already use VOIP apps and other Cloud base services so this group should be the most beneficiated, as long as they understand that in the beginning, coverage will be limited and service is going to be bound only to their laptops, if these limitations are well informed by MNO, the "Heavies" should expect an improved browsing experience with at least 10 times better latency and plans with a higher threshold on total downloaded data taking into account that the new technology has a better usage of the available spectrum. MNO should gradually but quickly take advantage of the best of LTE advance features like Carrier aggregation, High order MIMO, Heterogeneous network deployment (Macro/Femto) and Advanced interference coordination schemes, without forgetting to put some pressure on device manufacturers to introduce attractive handsets besides USB modems current offering.
My words for the Elite group, are the shortest, they should keep expecting... although MNO can use enhanced QoS/QoE models, backed up with commercial plans adjusted to everyone's needs (at least in the paper), LTE full potential will not come immediate after implementation. LTE has a big set of advance features and not all may be available right away due to manufacturer roadmap policies, not to mention that investigation and standardization bodies continue to work on new features, so a long way still ahead.
Finally, the spectrum polices play a huge part on fulfilling user expectations, bands above 2Ghz will just not be enough and LTE coverage will be limited, that’s way the need of refarming 700Mhz band, it is imperative to speed up analog broadcast to digital conversion, spectrum cap on operators in the region hinder the adoption of technology and is arguably a good method of control. Lastly the paradigm of having to geographically free a whole band to license it, must be taken down; a band can be auction partially to be released in rural areas.
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