Double the 4G subscriptions, is it time to double down and repurpose 3G?

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Paul Carter, CEO of GWS, examines the state of 4G in the UK and what it could mean for 3G networks in the future.

The UK’s first 4G network was launched 3 years ago, almost to the day, by EE. Its launch was met with a muted response from consumers and businesses, who didn’t think the cost of upgrading to 4G would be worth it. Despite the initially slow uptake of the service, EE announced recently that 14 million of their customers now have a 4G subscription and, just as interestingly, their 4G customer based almost doubled in 2015.

While EE’s rapid 4G customer growth is good news because it shows that consumers are willing to adopt the latest technology, bringing 6.3 million new users onto a network in a single year means that data throughput performance will have to be carefully monitored to see if customers have been impacted. UK network operators lag behind a lot of Western nations when it comes to adopting and implementing new technologies, for example Three has become the first UK operator to implement VoLTE just last month, however the ability make voice calls over a 4G LTE data network has been available to our cousins in the USA since this time last year.

Taking a look at what is happening in the European telecoms industry is also enlightening. With voice traffic being increasingly carried on 4G, networks operators will find that their 2G and 3G networks will soon carry low enough traffic to either be shut down or for the spectrum to be repurposed for 4G or potentially future 5G services. T-Mobile Czech Republic and Telenor Norway have both publically stated that their intention is to switch their 3G services off in the next five years. It is highly likely that UK network operators will want to follow a similar route of consolidation and repurposing, and the recent spike in consumer uptake of 4G provides an indicator that UK consumers shift to 4G is starting to make this strategy seem feasible.

What this means for the UK market is that consumers have adopted 4G purely on the basis of the improved mobile data throughputs it promised, and while we should have all four major UK operators offering VoLTE by the end of next year, this is not yet a deciding factor. Consumers ultimately are not fussy when it comes to how their voice and data services are delivered. It could be 4G, WiFi, 3G or even 2G, the only factors that really matter to consumers are that their services are reliable and that voice quality or data speed are to the level they expect. An analogy of this attitude can be seen in the success of the iPhone. The device itself is high quality and iOS is famed for ‘just working’. While there are a myriad of Android devices that offer a blend of features that would better suit most consumers at a lower price point, Android’s less stable user experience leads consumers to Apple’s door.

In terms of 4G then, consumers have taken up these subscriptions based on the throughput speeds offered to them, with double the number of people on that spectrum compared to a year ago, the maximum speeds achievable could be lower and there will be more stress on the network at peak times. Operators will need to make sure that they are able to maintain oversight of their network and be able to deal with any issues quickly. Regular network testing, which provides a macro view of network performance as well as detailed, on the ground data is one fool proof way to maintain the level of real world customer network experience that is key to retaining customers. This is no easy task, as it is important to remember that the UK does not have a 100% 4G coverage footprint yet; in fact network testing we undertook earlier in the year found that some of the UK networks are challenged in providing 4G signal coverage indoors.

As long as operators uphold the data speeds and reliability that consumer expect, then we can expect to see the beginning of the end for 3G connections around the world as operators are able to move their customers voice and data traffic onto 4G. This process may take a little longer in the UK than across the rest of Europe but with such a population 6 times the size of the Czech Republic it is hardly surprising that effectively rolling out a high quality networks takes some time.

Paul Carter GWSPaul Carter is CEO of Global Wireless Solutions, Inc. (GWS), an independent benchmarking solution vendor for the wireless industry. With more than 22 years of experience in the cellular network industry, Carter founded Global Wireless Solutions to provide operators with access to in-depth, accurate network benchmarking, analysis and testing.


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