How time flies as we're officially into the second quarter of 2011. But while it may seem fast to us, three months is anything but in the world of technology. For instance, news began filtering in last year that Verizon Wireless had been trialing a next generation wireless network known as Long Term Evolution (LTE).
And last month, the largest mobile phone operator in the U.S., announced that it will turn on LTE commercial services in various parts of the U.S. and has plans to bring in the first LTE phone, the HTC Thunderbolt as part of its offering to customers.
With this commercial launch, Verizon expects average data rates in real-world, loaded network environments to be between 5 and 12 megabits per second (Mbps) on the downlink and 2 to 5 Mbps on the uplink.
Speaking of advanced wireless systems such as LTE, Malaysia has also begun jumping onto the bandwagon. Vendors here are beginning to tout the advantages of LTE as a more efficient wireless system that is able to pack more information bits into the airwaves thereby giving subscribers the ability to surf faster.
At a recent media briefing, Packet One Networks (P1) demonstrated exactly this. The country's first WiMax operator and its chipset and vendor partners, Qualcomm and ZTE respectively, were on hand to showcase how P1's current WiMax gear could be easily upgradable to TD-LTE, the next evolutionary path for WiMax.
In essence, demonstrations showed that this process would only require a software upgrade to ZTE's equipment without the need for any hardware upgrades at all. After the upgrade, download speeds of up to 100Mbps were observed, albeit in near-perfect, laboratory-like conditions of an unloaded network.
P1 CEO Michael Lai said the demonstration shows that its network is potentially ready for an upgrade path to TD-LTE using the current gear provided by the Chinese vendor.
He noted that P1 had already submitted a detailed business plan to the industry regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and is currently awaiting its response as to whether it would be granted the spectrum to commercially make TD-LTE available on the 2.6GHz frequency band.
To put things in context, Malaysia had earlier in September 2010 awarded temporary licenses to nine players in order that they may trial LTE.
Lai also noted that P1 is ready to trial LTE and there are plans underway to upgrade its network, if and when the need arises. On its part, ZTE was eager to showcase its technology prowess via P1's network because it wants to make its products and services a reference for other projects it hopes to win in future.
Cart before horse
Notwithstanding the successful showcase, there are still unanswered questions like when exactly will LTE become a mainstream service, how much would subscribers need to fork out for the service, and if Malaysians really needs LTE in the next few years.
In my experience covering the tech scene for almost 10 years, very often, vendors and service providers are guilty of overhyping a particular technology by dreaming up lofty scenarios and trying to sell that picture to an unsuspecting public.
We saw that in the case of 3G when vendors and service providers all went on a binge to tout the amazing wonders of what 3G could do.
But 3G never really took off when it first came to Malaysia until two years after its launch and much of its success came because of the success of other parts of the mobile ecosystem that came together including quality handsets, applications and content, and friendly usability.
Hype always precedes reality and while I understand this must be the case to a certain extent to push marketing boundaries, the fact is that the ingestion period for LTE is going to take at least three to five years.
In this respect Lai said P1 is realistic about its expectation for LTE having learnt many lessons in the two years it has been in operation including trying to keep up with the expectation of user demands for data, which for P1 claims it averages at 10GB per month, up from 8GB two years ago.
Lai also candidly admitted that P1 last year had struggled to meet customers' expectations and intimated that the company was a victim of its own success with its "Sudah Potong" (Cut to WiMax) 2010 campaign.
After the campaign, a spike in subscriber sign ons caused P1's network to be heavily congested causing a fair amount of dissatisfaction and churn (subscribers leaving for other operators).
Still, Lai remained optimistic and noted that P1 had learnt a lot in these past two years on how to manage its network and have put in place measures to meet this demand and will continue to better serve its 300,000 or so subscribers.
Lai also said P1 planned to increase its coverage by 53 percent this year to 65 percent next year in both urban and suburban areas. "Our strategy is to cover one site at a time and to cover each site deeply," he said.
On managing costs, Lai pointed out that P1 has been trying to optimize each site's network capacity, noting that each base station can cater to up to 200 subscribers, up from 75 in the past.
"We have also learnt how to manage our transmission costs, comprising microwave and fiber connections as well as IP transit costs."
Some final thoughts
Now for the cost of LTE, it's still too early to say how much, as that would depend largely on the competition landscape at a future point in time.
As to whether the country needs LTE, the answer is "probably not for a few years", as in the interim, there are still other technologies that can increase surfing speeds such as HSPA+ for the cellular boys and WiMax Release 2 for the WiMax players.
Meanwhile, it's my belief that not only service providers such as P1 but its competitors--cellular or otherwise--would need to go back to the drawing boards and ensure that the fundamentals are right before sounding the LTE trumpet.
As I've said before, what this means in practice is to ensure that in everything they do, they must have the customers at the center of their minds.
From the design of the network, implementation of rollout plans, customer provision and activation, customer service enquiries and complaints, right down to billing disputes, and even to the termination of service--everything should be about the customers and their experiences.
This implies that they have to provide top-class service to their customers. No more must the customer experience inept call center officers who are just parroting a checklist when helping customers troubleshoot their problems; no more advertisements that claim high speeds, high quality but in actuality are not true; no more promises of deadlines that will be met but fail to be achieved.
What customers want today are a reliable service that's affordable, easy to use, and meets their needs. A service provider that does this effectively will likely win over more subscribers than those who don't.
After all, what's the use of talking LTE when fundamental coverage and base services are not up to par?