The 4G Revolution

Rahul Devnath
Published: April 2016


After 3G it’s now the 4G technology that is knocking at the gates of the Indian consumers

For an average Indian consumer, ‘3G’ and ‘4G’ are two of the most puzzling terms in the mobile technology vocabulary, but they’re used persistently to sell phones and tablets. If you’re looking to buy a new smartphone or mobile internet access device you’ve probably seen commercials and offers for 4G-compatible devices. Some of you might even own a 4G-compatible device already. But just what is 4G? How does it equate to prevailing 3G networks? And what is the current availability of 4G networks in India?

In the Indian market, Airtel has been the forerunner in offering 4G data services since 2012 and launched its TD-LTE based mobile service in 2014, being the first to do so. 4G has been there for a while, but has slow adoption. However everything is set to change in 2015 where 4G services will propel internet speeds, helping the country leap ahead in telecommunications technology.

Simply, “4G” is a marketing term that describes a fourth-generation mobile wireless cellular network. Mobile cellular grids evolve and a good example has been the way the initial 3G offering grew with the introduction of high-speed data services. New generations usually bring new base technologies, more network capacity for more data per user, and the potential for better voice quality, too.

mobileWhile your retailer might have told you that 4G phones are supposed to be even faster, but that’s not always the case. There are so many technologies called “4G,” and so many ways to implement them, that the term is almost meaningless. 4G technologies include HSPA+ 21/42, the now obsolete WiMAX, and LTE. But there’s a big variance between 4G LTE and other technologies called “4G” though, and it’s most visible in upload speeds. If you upload a lot of data – posting photos or videos, for instance – you’ll find LTE’s upload speeds are far better than those on HSPA. Thought there’s a caveat, not all 4G phones sold in India will support your service providers 4G network. For example, if you are on Airtel, make sure to get a 4G device which supports 2300 Mhz band.

4G networks are new and are still being rolled out around India. As well as having to pay for the substructure, carriers also have to buy the sectors of the radio spectrum from the government for 4G. But in the coming year, things are going to be exciting. To begin with, Airtel is not alone in the race; a total of 9 players have 4G spectrums available and are ready to roll out their services.

Airtel’s current mobile plans reflects the increase in mobile customer data usage year on year. Mobile data usage is expected to increase still further with the faster 4G network. Airtel’s initial tariff were lower than 3G and now remain same for 3G/4G services. If they don’t provide better services, they won’t charge you extra for it either! The problem is the service is far from perfect and 4G network availability is still non-consistent.

There are many dissimilar ways to implement LTE, too, so you can’t assume all LTE speeds are the same. Carriers with more available radio spectrum for LTE can naturally run faster networks than carriers with less spectrum. And there’s another catch here. Most telcos would rather not implement 4G for voice at all. For instance, Airtel at the moment provides LTE-based 4G internet speeds upto 18 Mbps, but make use of 3G spectrum for voice. The switch over is not smooth either, with people reporting issues while receiving calls on LTE networks.

But among others, Reliance Jio deserves a special mention which has set the stage for a revolution. To begin with, RJio is already offering public wifi hotspots in Kolkata completely free of cost. While for most companies voice users are the primary consumers, RJio is looking at new generation of data hungry users. Importantly, these voice subscribers are from the higher-end of the market and are unlikely to be price sensitive. What Reliance Jio can offer to these subscribers will be something which very few other service provider can – internet on mobile at unmatched speeds at extremely low cost compared to other options in the market.

While it’s difficult to see Rio as the king of the game today, in the near future things might turn out in favor for them. When a majority of users are making voice and video calls over the internet, analog voice services will see even less takers. It’s important to understand that 4G Voice calls are actually completely digital system of mobile telecommunication compared to 3G’s traditional method of handling voice. The pure voice newcomers have used voice tariff discounting to gain market share. However, RIL Infotel can afford to match the incumbents on voice tariffs, but use high-speed data as a market share gaining tool.

That makes a very important case for the future of voice over mobile networks. For one, your voice will eventually will be completely digitized and will be carried over the internet, much like the Skype or Viber. But all these technological offerings, may not remain exclusive to the Indian middle and upper class alone. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Digital India” vision which potentials to transform India into a connected knowledge economy offering world class services at the click of a mouse, will be implemented in a phased manner by 2019.

At the end of the day, it promises to change the life in rural India. As part of the plan, the government has set a target of providing broadband connectivity to 2.5 lakh villages and making as many schools Wi-Fi enabled by 2019. Considering, PM Modi’s specific interest in making broadband bandwidth available to masses, India is sure to leap frog globally to provide one of the highest internet speeds in the world.

So, at the moment should you switch to 4G? Well, if you like to surf the Web and especially stream video, 4G can be heaven. If you connect a laptop to your mobile link, 4G makes a huge difference. In general, anything involving transferring large amounts of data gets a big boost from 4G. Watch out for the data limits on your service plan, as it’s easy to use up a lot of data very quickly with 4G.

If you have a 3G phone and you’ve been frustrated with slow data, 4G may be the solution. 4G won’t solve any dropped call problems, though, as all calls will be made over older networks until carriers switch to voice-over-LTE during the next few years. Finally, if you want to future-proof yourself, get a 4G phone. 4G coverage is only going to get better, and that’s where the carriers are spending most of their money right now.

 - Rahul is a well travelled Bangalore based photo journalist with experience in reporting, writing and communication. Currently, onboard The Jain University Press, he specializes in aviation and technology.