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BLOG: 4G: A tough promise

Ric Clark | Nov. 8, 2012
Are Asia’s 4G networks ready for the challenge of iPhone 5?

Apple's iPhone 5 launch seemed like a mini-typhoon barrelling across Asia in recent weeks as Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan were among the first markets in Asia for the new 4G handset. Globally, sales in the first five days on the market reached five million. So it's not difficult to imagine how many mobile users across Asia were lured by the buzz surrounding the iPhone 5 to test the richer mobile user experience and blazing download speeds that 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks claim to offer.

The iPhone 5 may be driving interest in 4G LTE, but it may also stand as one of the first real stress tests of Asia's new 4G networks.

Mobile data traffic is expected to increase 30 times between now and 2015. For example, 350,000 visitors access Facebook through mobile every day. This traffic has already grown by a factor of 20 since the start of 2012. Consumers are watching more online YouTube videos via mobile devices than ever before as well. As a result, the percentage of viewers accessing YouTube via mobile devices has grown from six percent to 25 percent over the past 18 months.  In 2011, traffic from mobile devices to YouTube tripled. 

The paradigm shift of mobile switching from a voice- and messaging-centric technology to a data-heavy channel is evident. It's happened so fast that wireless networks are barely able to cope with surging mobile data traffic, and the growth will compound exponentially in the next few years. LTE adoption will happen faster than previous mobile technologies. People, accustomed to broadband at home, now want it in their hands.

Immense pressure

Yet, before Asia's mobile network operators successfully capitalise on this trend to boost profitability and growth, they are under immense pressure to deliver the 4G's promise of unprecedented bandwidth, latency and capacity that customers demand.

Today, the worldwide market for mobile operator revenue is based, in part, on the assumption of industry experts that future subscribers will have access to mobile broadband for use with high value services such as video streaming, wherever they happen to be with mobile hotspots.

Even with the availability of new, strategically placed smaller radios, mobile network operators until recently have not had an economically feasible way to connect those radios back to the network from public places like lamp posts or on buildings.

However, due to the ongoing global economic slowdown, mobile telecom operators are being conservative in their capital expenditures. Until markets improve, we have to question how operators will meet the fast growing demand for network access and high-speed data traffic throughput.

Many mobile operators are looking at using alternatives to traditional cell towers, specifically mini-base stations called "small cells", to provide local capacity in dense areas that need additional coverage. Traditionally macro towers are characterised by high-power, longer reach or range radios used at macro cell sites whereas small cells just need power and a connection to the network (mobile backhaul).


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