The 4G technology is coming to our mobile scene at last. This is quite evident, given that the government and operators are eyeing a private public deal that will step-up the transition from the current 3G networks to the super fast 4G infrastructure.
The promises and challenges of 4G make it a point of focus in our fast developing mobile industry. Today, let us examine this technology and the issues around it.
4G is the fourth generation of mobile communication standards. It provides super-fast mobile broadband access for devices like PCs, tablets and smart-phones.
Its benefits are clear in places where it has been deployed. Other than speed, there is more efficiency in spectrum usage and an improved user experience when compared with 3G (third generation).
Technically, a 4G network is an all IP mesh with low latency in data transmission. These networks rely on packet-switched nodes while 3G networks feature both packet switching and circuit switching mechanisms.
End users benefit from superior Internet connectivity which supports multimedia services like mobile TV, video calling and conferencing, live streaming and others. There is also better voice quality.
The 4G technology is synonymous with faster data transfer speeds; hence it is ideal for future demands of mobile broadband Internet.
Although 4G technology is gaining momentum in Kenya, there are some challenges. The technology requires a well developed ecosystem of handset developers, carriers and other industry players. Users can only enjoy the benefits if their gadgets are enabled and linked to a service provider with substantial network coverage.
There is also the issue of capital expenditure on the operator’s side. The 4G roll-out is an expensive affair with an unpredictable return on investment in some markets in rural Africa.
In Kenya, the roll-out is estimated to cost Sh70 billion. In a bid to stem the CAPEX, nine firms, including major operators, are teaming up with the government in the roll-out.
Notably, new mobile generations come with underlying technologies and teething issues.
A number of consumers get confused when terms like LTE, WiMAX, HSPA+ and others come into play, as mobile carriers use the high-speed tags to market their services. Long Term Evolution (LTE) is an optimised cellular technology with fast down-link and up-link speeds.
In the mobile markets, it is branded as a 4G base technology. LTE works on a full IP-network architecture and delivers superior voice quality and data.
There are two versions, namely, the frequency division duplex variant or LTE FDD and the time division duplex type or LTE TDD. LTE devices can support both variants but the FDD type is more common among global carriers.
Deployment of LTE also comes in either LTE-advanced or the ordinary LTE. This access technology has increased spectral efficiency, scalable bandwidth capabilities, reduced latency and high data speeds.
There are some versions of WiMAX and HSPA+ which are marketed as 4G access technologies. HSPA+ or High Speed Packet Access Plus is an upgrade of HSPA networks so that data rates are increased.
Recent trends in the mobile sector have been marked with operators up-grading their 3G networks to 3.5G and beyond while based on the existing WCDMA and HSDPA infrastructure.
HSPA+ provides enhanced data speeds, spectrum efficiency and increased bandwidth for multimedia services. The capabilities of some versions of HSPA+ place the technology in a competitive edge with LTE in the 4G race.
Most mobile users view any new technology on performance basis. In the case of 4G, the hype might soon fade if data speeds remain pedestrian, with inadequate network coverage.
The 3G technologies promised to unravel broadband dreams by providing a reliable wireless last mile for Internet access. 4G is also riding on the same promises with hopes of faster speeds. As at March 31 this year, Kenya had 6.49 million subscriptions for mobile Internet access.
The figure is set to increase exponentially with time and technologies like 4G are a vital ingredient.
The author is an ICT analyst and a telecommunication engineer.