This post aims to provide some insight into some of the most widely used mobile technologies in the Caribbean, and compares their real life download speeds against each other.
Recently in the Caribbean, the main mobile providers have begun to roll out “4G” services. Most mobile users are aware of “3G”, and believe their service is based on 3G technology, but is that true? Moreover, what should be their expectations regarding the much anticipated 4G roll out? This post aims to provide some insight by first highlighting the major technologies that are being used, and thereafter by comparing the data rates of popular technology standards against each other.
What is 3G? What is 4G? Where do they come from?
In order to place today’s technology in the proper context, it is useful to consider how and from where they have developed. The most significant starting point is the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) standard, as reflected in Figure 1.
GSM is a second generation mobile technology (2G) – the most widely implemented of its time. It is also the foundation for a number of subsequent standards and technologies. A key feature of the GSM standard was that voice conversations were digitised, as opposed to earlier mobile technologies which were analogue-based. The digital format allowed transmissions to be encrypted and SMS text messaging.
Third Generation (3G) – Third generation mobile technology further developed the data carrying capacity of 2G, from SMS messaging to include mobile Internet, mobile video and TV. The caption “3G” covers broad range of standards, including EDGE, HSPA+, WiMAX, and LTE, and with each new standard, data transmission speeds increased, which in turn improved the mobile phone’s data access capability. Most 3G standards are far more efficient than 2G for voice transmissions, although operators have marketed 3G around its data capability. Nevertheless, there are limitations endemic to the 3G platform that will not satisfy the demand for broadband speeds and capabilities on mobile phones.
Fourth Generation (4G) – Fourth generation mobile technology has truly been designed to fully realise mobile broadband. Standards such as WiMAX and HSPA+, which are currently being used by Digicel and LIME, respectively, are generally considered precursors to the full 4G standard, but nevertheless could fall under the 4G umbrella. Standards that fully satisfy the 4G classification are LTE Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced (also called “WiMAX 2”), but they are still being finalised and will not be ready for adoption before 2012.
As discussed in an earlier post, Evolving Over the Long Term: Considerations towards implementing LTE, one of the main characteristics of the 4G standard as defined by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is that the networks are all IP packet switched networks. This means that no distinction is being made between voice packets and data packets, and consequently voice and data traffic, which will have serious implications on current pricing structures for mobile services.
Is my mobile phone’s technology faster than yours?
Having outlined the evolution of mobile technologies, the key point to note is that each generation, and for the most part each standard, is an improvement on earlier generations or standards. However, with the variety of standards available and being used by mobile network operators, it can sometimes be challenging to fully appreciate their impact on the mobile phone user’s experience. Table 1 below, highlights the maximum download and upload speeds for some of the major standards that are being used, as well as those proposed for 4G.
With regard to WiMAX/WiMAX 2 and LTE/LTE Advanced, it is important to note that the maximum data speeds vary based on the relative speed of the user’s movement. For example, with regard to WiMAX 2 and LTE Advanced, if the user is in a high-speed situation, for example in a moving vehicle or on a train, the maximum possible data speed is around 100 Mbps (download) and 50 Mbps (upload). On the other hand, if the user is stationary or even walking, download and upload speeds of up to 1 Gbps and 500 Mbps, respectively, can be achieved.
But in the real world, how do the technologies measure up against each other? Table 2 attempts this comparison by calculating typical download times across key mobile standards used in the Caribbean. It is stressed that the maximum download speeds presented in Table 1 have not been used, since very rarely do mobile users achieve such speeds. The norm tends to be within the region of 40% – 50% of the maximum speed, but it could be lower, depending on network traffic, distance away from cell tower, etc.
|Standard (speed)Item (data size)||EDGE
|Small web page (100 KB)||4.6s||0.2s||0.1s||<0.1s|
|Complicated website (250 KB)||11s||0.4s||0.2s||0.1s|
|Image from 5M pixel camera (1.5 MB)||1m 10s||2.4s||1.2s||0.6s|
|MP3 music file, good quality (5 MB)||3m 54s||8s||4s||1.9s|
|Complete CD (650 MB)||8h 27m||17m 20s||8m 40s||4m 8s|
|Movie (1.5 GB)||19h 58m||40m 58s||20m 29s||9m 45s|
Table 2: Comparison of download times for select mobile standards used in the Caribbean (Source: 123myip.co.uk)
Although the telecommunications industry is anxiously awaiting the launch of 4G, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate wholesale abandonment of 3G and pre-4G technologies. Experts anticipate, into the foreseeable future, that 3G technologies will remain for voice traffic, with a 4G overlay for data, until appropriate models and mechanism are established to facilitate comprehensive billing of IP traffic.
Further, the race is on to see which standard, LTE Advanced or WiMax 2, will be ready first and will be implemented by mobile network operators, equipment manufacturers and handset providers. It is likely that one of the standards will eventually become an orphan, especially if there are deployment or operation issues. Hence it is important that mobile operators and regulators get it right.