The mobile broadband battle is hotting up, but does it really matter which technology rules the day, and is the notion of competition really just a distraction?
In mobile broadband, the temperature of debate is rising rapidly. It's WiMAX vs. LTE vs. HSPA+, with a torrent of propaganda washing over sensible comment. Despite the cacophony of competing claims and over-promises, this "battle" is really just a chicane, one that diverts attention from critical business issues that will determine success or failure as the technologies evolve.
The crux of the argument centres on "Mbps"; with partisans for all three contenders trotting out their peak data rates to savage opponents. In the HSPA+ camp, pundits fire out theoretical peak data rates of 42Mbps DL and 23 Mbps UL. The WiMAX forces respond with theoretical peak data rates of 75Mbps DL and 30Mbps UL. LTE joins the fray by unleashing its theoretical peak data rates of 300Mbps DL and 75 Mbps UL. All hell breaks loose, or so it would appear. Were it not for the inclusion of the word "theoretical", we could all go home to sleep soundly and wake refreshed, safe in the knowledge that might is right. The reality is very different.
Sprint has stated that it intends to deliver services at between 2 and 4 Mbps to its customers with Mobile WiMAX. In the real world, HSPA+ and LTE are likely to give their users single digit Mbps download speeds.
So in the one metric that really matters - end user experience - all three technologies will be much of a muchness. Data rates will offer a noticeable improvement on what you see via your home WiFi, or whilst surfing the web on a train, but not quite enough to herald the dawn of a new age in mobile. Despite this reality, the campaigns currently targeting end users have the same annoying ringtone as the campaign that preceded 3G. Remember all the hype around video calls? Remember the last time you actually saw someone making a video call? 3G has certainly transformed the way that people think about and use their mobile phones, but not in the way we were led to expect.
The pointless stoking of customer expectations around 3G set our industry back years, and we cannot afford a repeat performance with mobile broadband. Disappointed customers spend less money on handsets and services because the experience they were promised has not quite materialised. Disappointment is shared with friends and family and across the social networks we are trying so hard to monetise. All of this dampens uptake and diminishes expectations.
Meanwhile, the pundits bang on about their pet technology. One claims that HSPA+ might delay the deployment of LTE. Another posits that WiMAX might be adopted, predominantly, in the laptop or netbook market. A third insists that LTE could replace large swathes of legacy technologies. These scenarios might happen ... or not. The most likely, if less stirring, outcome is that they are all coming, will be rolled out to hundreds of millions of subscribers and, within five years, will be widespread.
Confusion unsettles investors, who move to other markets and starve us of the R&D funds needed to deliver mobile broadband. At street level, early adopters hold off on buying the next wave of technology while they "wait it out." Who wants to end up with a Betamax if VHS might ultimately ‘win' ?
What we all want are ecstatic customers who can't help but show off their device. We need to produce a ‘Wow' factor that generates momentum in the market.
Where we should focus, urgently, is on the two issues that demand open discussion and debate: are we taking the delivery of a winning user experience seriously, and are we ready to cope with the tidal wave of data traffic that will follow a successful launch?
The first issue concerns delivery to the end user of a seamless application experience that successfully converts the improved data rates to improvements on their device. This can mean anything from getting LAN-like speeds for faster email downloads through to slick, content-rich and location-aware applications. As we launch mobile broadband technologies, we must ensure that new applications and capabilities are robust and stable. More effort must be spent developing and testing applications so that the end user is blown away by their performance.
The second issue, the tidal wave of data, should force us to be realistic about the strain placed on core networks by an exponential increase in data traffic. We have seen 10x increases in traffic since smartphones began to boom. Mobile device makers, network equipment manufacturers and application developers must accept that there will be capacity shortages in the short term and, in response, must design, build and test applications rigorously. We need applications with realistic data throughput requirements and the ability to catch data greedy applications before they reach the network.
At Anite, we see the demands placed on test equipment by mobile broadband technologies first hand. We are responding to growing demand for new tools that provide measures of end user experience by test applications and simulate the effects of anticipated capacity bottlenecks. Unfortunately, not everyone is thinking that far ahead. On the current evidence, applications that should be "Wow", in theory, may end up producing little more than a murmur of disappointment in the real world.
So let's stop this nonsense about how one technology trounces another. Conflict may be interesting to journalists, but end users simply do not care. As an industry, our energy needs to be focused on delivering services and applications that exceed the customer expectations regardless of whether they access the network via WiMAX, LTE or HSPA+. Rather than fighting, we should be learning from one another's experiences. Do that and our customers will reward us with growing demand. If we all get sustained growth, then don't we all win..?
About the author: Dominic Rowles is business unit director at Anite.