4G wireless woes
Apple's experience in Australia highlights the inadequacy of opaque terms such as 4G
Apple's problems in Australia, where it faces the wrath of the country's Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) for promoting its new iPad as a "WiFi + 4G" device, is a timely reminder of the need for greater clarity over the exact definition of "4G".
Apple's latest iPad supports LTE from AT&T and Verizon in the US and Bell, Rogers, and Telus networks in Canada, but is not compatible with Telstra's LTE network in Australia, which uses 1800MHz frequency.
In a statement, the ACCC alleged that Apple's promotion of the iPad as 4G was "misleading".
To be fair, Apple makes it fairly clear on its website that consumers outside the US and Canada should check with their service providers whether the iPad is compatible with their LTE networks. But then most people go by what they read on the box, and in Australia, the label boasted "WiFi+4G".
Apple also said that it will clarify the issue on its website and in marketing material to be sent to its distributors, and even offered to reimburse dissatisfied customers in Australia.
But the problem of a lack of clarity surrounding 4G and LTE has been brewing for some time, and Apple is not the only guilty party. Operators and regulators around the world also like to name-drop the term 4G, probably to tap an aura of being at the frontier of wireless technology.
The truth is that LTE deployments globally are extremely patchy. Different countries use different frequencies, and even where operators do have LTE networks, they tend to only be in metropolitan areas.
In the UAE, Etisalat's LTE network uses 2.6 gigahertz frequency, which is not compatible with the new iPad's 4G connection. The device will, of course, be compatible with 3G, HSPA+ and WiFi networks in the UAE and the rest of the world.
Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, the operators lack the spectrum that is required for the new iPad's 4G capability.
As early as mid-2011, Informa Telecoms & Media warned that the LTE industry could become "regionally fragmented" owing lack of coherent spectrum policy and spectrum availability.
The emergence of distinct regional and even national bands and band combinations will pose difficult choices for equipment and device vendors in terms of which bands they choose to support, according to Informa.
But the term 4G is itself also opaque. It is used to refer to LTE in its various forms, WiMAX, and even HSPA+. Indeed, Du, the UAE's second telecom operator recently gained approval from the UAE's telecoms regulator to call its HSPA+ network 4G.
While this might appear to be a case of using the term 4G as little more than a marketing tool, it is important to remember that much also depends on the perceptions of the end user. The average broadband user is more concerned about the quality of service that they receive than the technology that is used to deliver the service to them.
Most operators can ill-afford to wait for LTE to become a mainstream reality. With data traffic growing at a phenomenal rate, many operators in the Middle East are investing in Single RAN platforms and optimisation techniques that squeeze more life out of their existing networks, while also helping to put them on a clear path towards LTE.
Furthermore, operators are also increasingly pursuing techniques such as WiFi offload to help improve the mobile broadband experience and reduce costs in network hotspots. Such trends will blur the lines between 3G and 4G, and even between fixed and mobile - at least in terms of the end user' experience.
Operators, regulators and device manufacturers may want to heed lessons from Australia, and focus less on opaque terms such as 4G and more on customer experience.
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