LTE Woes

by @edent | 7 comments | Read ~1,120 times.

(The author currently works for Telefonica - but these views are his own)

Do you remember when mobile phones were in their infancy? The frequencies allocated to Racal's Vodafone and to BT's Cellnet were mutually incompatible. You couldn't simply switch your SIM to another handset, you had to specifically make sure that it supported your carrier's frequencies.

As the mobile market matured, "dual band" phones became common. Any phone you bought in the UK would work on any UK carrier's slice of allocated spectrum.

Then, of course, some people around the world decided that they wanted different frequencies. Sometimes for good reason ("we're already using 1800MHz for something important.") - sometime for no real technological reason ("we can bolster our economy by having everyone buy locally manufactured phones!").

The phone manufacturers reacted and now tri-band and quad-band phones are common. You can roam your 2G phone all around the world. Mostly.

With 3G we expected thing to be a better. Even the name - Long Term Evolution - implies that the wise heads behind the standard have a long-term solution, right?

Wrong!

At best estimates, there are around 26 different frequency bands allocated to LTE around the world! I say "estimate" because not all of the bands have been finalised yet. There may be more.

This is not just costly for manufacturers; it's highly confusing for customers.

Apple recently got in trouble with regulators in Australia. Apple were selling the 4G iPad and Australia has a 4G network - so consumers naturally thought they could use the new iPad on the ultra-fast mobile network. Not a bit of it. The iPad was totally incompatible with Australia's network.

The new iPhone, if bought in the UK, will support some of the proposed UK bands. It won't support all of the bands in the US, and none in Canada or Japan.

So we're back to the bad old days of mobile networks. The phone you buy could be locked to the carrier you're on. The chances of you taking your phone abroad and having it work are slim.

Customers want a phone that works everywhere. Manufacturers don't want to produce several regional variations of their phones. Network operators don't want to have to support customers who complain that their phone doesn't work as expected.

Yet we are in this crazy situation where the regulators around the world have failed to agree on a standards harmonisation which will benefit businesses and individuals.

Do we wait and hope that software-defined-radios become efficient enough to mitigate this problem? Do we simply accept that our access to technology depends on our geography? Do we pay more for phones that work globally? Or do we complain to our regulators and hope they see sense?

Or do we just buy the latest shiny gadgets and reluctantly put up with complications when we travel abroad for business or pleasure.

7 thoughts on “LTE Woes

  1. steve says:

    Phones ? You are complaining about phones ? What about the charge adapters used to charge the phones ? Those differ. What about the sockets where we plug in the differing chargers to power the phones ? Those differ. What about the voltage levels in the differing sockets where we plug in the differing chargers to power the phones ? Those differ. What about the unit of distance that the electricity is delivered over for the differing voltage levels for the differing sockets where we plug in the differing chargers to power the phone ? Those differ. Phones !! pfft.

    1. Perhaps you haven't heard - all modern phones charge via USB. They all have micro-USB sockets. I even blogged about it in 2009!

      So, the charging is really easy. Worst case scenario, you buy a £5 adapter at the airport. You can't adapt your phone to work on different frequencies.

  2. Kai Hendry says:

    I'm taking my UK Iphone5 to Singapore. Hope it works with M1/Singtel. Gulp!

  3. A couple of things:

    - It's not going to get fixed by a software-defined radio. You also need an antenna that can function acceptably at all these frequencies - it's hard enough getting one that'll work pentaband - and PAs that can output the required power at these frequencies. SDR doesn't solve those issues.

    - When mortals roam, they don't want LTE. They are paying so much for data roaming, LTE would bankrupt them in minutes. Worldwide roaming on WCDMA is frightening enough (says the person who clocked up $600 of charges in 3 hours in Taiwan by mistake). Ok, so this isn't applicable if your phone is unlocked, but still… there's a business issue besides the technical one.

    @Kai: voice and 3G data will be fine.

    1. The antenna point is very well made.
      However, on roaming, I don't think that's true. In Europe, at least, we now have caps on roaming costs - which will fall further.
      Many travellers, I suspect, buy a local SIM or get a specific roaming SIM.
      That's what I did when I went to the USA - bought a T-Mobile PAYG SIM for a few dollars. Of course, I was locked to 2G because my phone didn't have the ability to connect to the US 3G frequencies.

      I guess I'll just have to buy a Satellite Phone 🙂

    2. I know what you mean. My UK phone works extremely well in Brazil, USA, & a bunch of other places, but it's massively expensive. A few days in Rio checking the odd map and website, and I was almost bankrupt.

  4. "do we just buy the latest shiny gadgets and reluctantly put up with complications when we travel abroad for business or pleasure." << This, basically. For now anyway.

    There have always been lots of bands and LTE has added new ones. What's changed is that there's now common global technology instead of CDMA, UMTS, GSM, etc, but the actual band plans remain country- and operator-specific.

    Market forces will drive a degree of comptability over time. You can already see the effect of this in several places. Probably regional skews will emerge -- e.g. a European profile, a North American one, a Chinese one, etc.

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