MWC, 4G, 5G. OMG: When your smartphone rocks but your network sucks

New innovations shown in Barcelona for SoC, display and modular/convergence designs for mobile handsets appear promising, but the key issue that seems to be ignored is 4G over-subscription.


As the analysts and crowds leave Barcelona this week, absorbing all of the new innovations at Mobile World Congress 2016 -- perhaps in a celebratory bar-hop over garlicky tapas downed with the requisite glasses of sherry and Spanish brandy -- we are left to ponder all of the takeaways from a busy week.

At least, if I was at MWC and heading home, that's exactly how I'd be celebrating it.

There are new and powerful handsets to look forward to with faster, multi-core systems on a chip that have been designed to pair with matching VR headsets, like the Samsung Galaxy S7.

Phones that feature innovative modular technology, like the LG G5. And phones that can bridge the gap between handset and laptop, like HP's new Elite X3.

And many of us are still reeling from the news today that the display manufacturing landscape will be forever altered with Hon Hai's (also known as FoxConn) $6.2B purchase of beleaguered Japanese CE giant SHARP Electronics, known for its industry-leading IGZO technology, which will soon benefit from economies of scale in mainland China.

But while all of these technology innovations that have been previewed at MWC 2016 have been interesting and promise more advanced handsets, ultimately everything that we have been shown will be running on the same over-subscribed 4G networks that are in operation today.

So while the SoCs on the handsets become faster, with improved GPUs, better memory technologies and nicer displays -- you're going to get the same slow 4G LTE network performance.

But wasn't 4G LTE supposed to be a huge improvement over 3G? Wasn't it supposed to solve all of our performance problems?

When LTE was rolled out by the major US carriers in 2011/2012, it seemed like it was going to be a godsend. If you were one of the first to be able to participate on those networks, it was not uncommon to get 20Mbps, 30Mbps or even 40Mbps sustained transfer speeds. And for a short time, it was great.

In 2016, if you live in a major metropolitan area in the United States, you're going to be lucky to see 10Mbps on a consistent basis. More realistically you are going to get between 1Mbps and 3Mbps, during prime business hours, even if you have five bars of signal.

What happened?

Well, what happened is tens of millions of customers joined each of the North American 4G LTE networks. And as I predicted back in 2010, what we got was LTE Hell.

Rate capping and introducing expensive overage charges for bandwidth hoggers has become the norm. "Unlimited" legacy data plans by all of the main carriers have been eliminated.

The big buzzword now which is our best hope for alleviating this congestion is 5G. But 5G, which is promising network speeds exceeding 3Gbps and much lower latency, isn't expected to be rolled out nationally across carriers until 2018 at the earliest -- more realistically, it will be closer to 2020 before we see it widely deployed.

So we have a while before all these whiz-bang smartphones can really do whiz-bang stuff, like stream 4K movies over 5G mobile data networks.

Indeed, over the next few years there will be some "4.5G" upgrades that will extend the life of existing 4G LTE networks and offload some of the congestion and can bring speeds up to 1Gbps with LTE technology. But it's not a magic pill and you'll still need new phones to take advantage of 4.5G's improvements.

So what's a wireless carrier to do in the interim?

Well, one of the technologies that is likely to make a significant impact in how we use mobile technology is good 'ol Wi-Fi.

Specifically, it will be a combination of 802.11ac Wave 2 Multi-User MIMO, 802.11ax and 802.11ah in next-generation access points deployed ubiquitously in public spaces, residences and commercial buildings provided by the carriers, using seamless 4G to Wi-Fi handoff methods that will alleviate congestion and provide the broadest coverage possible.

But until we see these Wi-Fi improvements introduced in mobile chipsets, we're going to be dealing with 4G LTE Hell for some time to come, no matter how spiffy our smartphone tech gets.

Is your gee-whiz smartphone living in 4G LTE Hell? Talk Back and Let Me Know.