Andrew Ferguson on new mobile broadband tech that will benefit consumers but cause more industry headaches
As we’re using increasingly data intensive mobile apps, it’s no surprise that Ofcom recently recorded a year-on-year doubling in mobile data consumption. We’re inevitably heading towards another bottleneck which will need widening. iPhone screengrab by Michael Berliner, Guardian Media Network
After a decade of 3G, which initially was the preserve of the business traveller, we recently arrived at another turning point in the mobile broadband story: 4G. This promises so much, with many believing it will be the mobile technology to rule them all. Alas, that is not the case. Ofcom and regulators around the world are already considering 5G and the radio spectrum implications this will bring.
A fifth generation of mobile broadband technology is needed because as more of us use our mobile devices to consume more internet based content (particularly video), even 4G will start to struggle.
In the UK, 4G will use three parts of the radio spectrum – 800MHz, 1800MHz (this band is in use already by EE) and 2600MHz. The 800 and 2600 bands should start offering a service after the Ofcom auction is complete, which if plans do not change means services from other network providers will be available in the summer of 2013. The problem with 4G is that there is no single band in use across all of Europe, let alone the world, so if you take your 4G phone to Europe it may or may not support 4G speeds.
The solution is to reach an agreement ahead of the rolling out of the next generation of services, which is why we are talking about 5G. The EU has announced that 700MHz is to be a common band across Europe for mobile broadband, and Ofcom is now working towards making this a reality.
Some reading this may already have noticed that 700MHz is on top of where Freeview is, and also recall that some £180m had already been set aside to handle interference issues from 4G on the 800MHz band. So yes, once international agreements on 700MHz have been reached, Freeview may need another round of retuning. The expected date is 2018, so there is plenty of time to plan, and if internet-based catch-up TV continues to rise in popularity, the millions using Freeview may have shrunk in number by then.
However, if in 2018 you’re still using Freeview, you may need to replace your TV aerial (that in the original digital switchover you managed to avoid changing), and you will need to retune your set-top box as the TV channels jump around the radio spectrum. As with the digital switchover and the 4G interference plans, we can expect a round of assistance for those who would struggle otherwise. Although as set-top boxes gain better internet integration, there may be scope for internet-connected devices to be retuned automatically.
This push by the EU and Ofcom is part of a plan that by 2020 every household in Europe will have a broadband connection of 30Mbps available to everyone. In the UK, the current goal is for everyone to have 2Mbps by 2015, so this represents a major change. A second goal is that half of us will actually be buying a service that connects at 100Mbps or faster. This sounds like pie in the sky, but the reality is that almost half the UK already has the option of a service like this via Virgin Media; they just choose not to use it.
Getting 30Mbps connections to rural parts of Europe will not be easy, and this is where 4G and 5G enter the equation. The 700MHz spectrum is ideal, as the lower frequency means the signal travels further, so no need for a mobile mast sat in every tree in the countryside. Also, walls and double glazing are less of a hindrance to the signal, which means we should spend less time hanging out of windows in search of connection. Now these things are all very similar to what has been promised with the 800MHz 4G band, but the reality is that each 4G band can only cope with so much data travelling over it, and a slow, congested internet is never fun.
We could complain that the hundreds of pounds we have just spent on our 4G capable handset that is going to be obsolete in a couple of years are wasted, but who can honestly say they are now using the same 3G phone as they did six years ago? The mobile operators who are set to spend perhaps £3bn on 4G licenses and several billion more rolling out 4G are now looking at a similar auction in 2017/2018, which may have an impact on 4G data prices. All will become clearer in 12 months’ time, once all the 4G plans are on the market.
One exciting prospect, while we wait for 5G and 700MHz to become available, is that a technology known as whitespace can exploit the gaps between TV channels and other uses of the radio spectrum and provide internet connections. The concept has been shown to work in trials, but no commercial deployment has appeared just yet. Ensuring this technology does not interfere with other services is the key, but solutions exist for that, it just needs a commercial operator to decide there is a profit to be made. For those who have no 3G service now and do not expect 4G to help, and their county council’s local broadband plan is only going to deliver a 2Mbps service, keep an eye out for whitespace. It may just mean you don’t have to wait till the end of the decade to get a better broadband service.
Thanks to The Theguardian Blog!