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3G signals on handsets, reality or deception?

Fri, 15 Aug 2014 Source: Dowuona, Samuel Nii Narku

By Samuel Nii Narku Dowuona

Social media has become so power that lately, individuals, businesses and even governments place high premium on what people post on social media. So it is not too off the point to recap a few true life stories some Ghanaians posted on Facebook about their respective frustrations with internet access on their mobile handsets.

It was a discussion on whether 3G is real in Ghana, and whether the internet reception signals such as “E” (2G EDGE – Exchanged Data rate for GSM Evolution), “3G” (third generation), “H” (3G-HSDPA – high speed downlink packet access), and “H+” (3.5G/3.75G HSPA+: high speed packet access plus), which usually appear on the top right corner of handsets’ screens, are real.

Godwin Martey was confused whether there is load shedding on telecom internet signals. He wrote; “in my bedroom MTN gives me “H”, Tigo gives me “E”, in my living room they both give me “E”, in the laundry room, Tigo is very very fast with amazing download speed, but MTN will say “NO INTERNET CONNECTION”. When you step out to the main compound they both turn off completely except [when] you walk a little distance to the road. I ask myself, is there load shedding too on the Network Signals?”

Godwin continued; “Charley the thing is not funny at all, I end up being at a certain part of the house depending on what I want to do; for instance when I want to download something urgently I have to go to the laundry room. If I need a good signal to place a long and important call I have to go to the bedroom, no matter how important what I'm doing in the living room is. Now can you imagine how a telco's abysmal service can decide where you will be in your own house at any point in time? You got the word, it's a Maze!”

Later on that day, the online editor of one of the leading media houses in the country, Frank Agyei-Twum told this writer “I share Godwin’s frustration - if I want to communicate on Viber I go into my toilet, and if I want to do Tango I end up right behind my wall. Meanwhile, I have either “H” or “H+” showing on my phone.”

At least three other persons, Jerry, Bob and Rasell also said they have 4G permanently showing on their handsets with MTN, Vodafone and Airtel SIMs respectively. None of the mobile cellular networks has 4G license, so the three gentlemen are confused how MTN, Vodafone and Airtel’s mobile internet services would signal 4G reception on their handsets.

Those were just a few of many real stories that tell the confusion and frustration people go through on a daily basis with the advertised 3G and 3.75G services of the various telecoms service providers in the country. Another confusion is why at least two telcos, Airtel and MTN claim they have 3.75G networks but that never shows on the reception signal people receive on their handset. It is usually “E”, which is 2G, or “H”, “H+” and 3G, all of which are essentially 3G.

Moreover, in spite of the 3G signals that show on handsets, consumers complain of very slow download and upload speeds or a feedback message that says “No internet connection”. The argument is that 3G, H and H+ reception signals are supposed to offer high download/upload speeds characteristic of 3G networks. But consumers say more often than not the download/upload speed is low despite what the signal says.

IT Consultant and Social Media Strategists Maximus Amertogoh believes “the signals that show on our phones are deceptive because the kind of speeds we get are not anywhere near 3G.” He asked on his Facebook timeline “is 3G reception a deception in Ghana – how many of the telcos even have a Coverage Checker on their website?”

He then went on to state, “forget about what is showing on your handset. It can show 3G but without internet connectivity. What is the minimum speed on a 3G network?”

Coverage Checkers

Maximus asks a very important question: why don’t the telcos have Coverage Checker Maps on their websites? A Coverage Checker is a map that shows the areas that each telco has data coverage (2G and 3G), and it shows what kind of coverage is available at each location. So that when a customer is in a particular location, he/she could check from the website, what the general data signal is, as opposed to what is showing on the individual’s handset, which usually differ from handset to handset even within the same location.

Some telcos like Orange and Vodafone in the UK have Coverage Checker maps on their websites. But even though Vodafone also operates in Ghana, it does not have a similar map for the Ghana market; and its customers are getting misled by what shows on their handsets, which does not reflect their experiences.

A telecom Executive, who used to work with Airtel told this writer “Coverage Checker Maps was a boardroom discussion while I was at Airtel. Now I have left and it has still not become a reality.” Obviously the telcos have questions to answer on why no coverage checker maps on their websites.

The telcos have largely remained silent on the question of coverage maps on their websites. But an executive of Airtel admitted they discussed the subject in the past but cost was major hindrance. “It costs US$1million and that is too much,” he said. He however assured that the matter has not been shelved completely as it is an important customer service tool. Indeed, if a telco failed on any licensing requirement and the regulator fines them a million dollars, the telco would find money and pay. So investing a million dollars in a customer service tool could not be bad investment.

MTN did not give any official response to why they do not have a coverage checker map on their website for their “valued customers”. But a reliable source at MTN told this writer they are feverishly working one, and it will be ready soon. “Once you enter a particular zone you will get a message on your phone what kind of coverage you have in that area,” the source said.

Meanwhile, one of three 4G LTE players, Surfline, which is due to launch commercial service in the whole of Accra next week, has done an elaborate coverage checker map, ready to be uploaded on their new website before the launch. It is just for Accra, where they have coverage, but industry watchers laud that as a good start for a company serious about being transparent to the customer.

So why the misleading signals

On the question of why handsets signal 3G, H, H+ or even 4G, and yet the customer experience in terms of download and upload speed is nowhere near what is characteristic of 3G or 4G, one telecom executive noted that the signal on the handset could be attributed to two thing; a last mile communication between the cell site serving that handset at a given time, and secondly, the handset’s own interpretation of the signals from the cell site, based on technological specifications the manufacturer put in that handset.

He explained, for instance, that some handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and others, are 4G ready so they often read certain ranges of 3G signals as 4G, even though in fact the service is nowhere near 4G. Indeed, an official of Airtel said in a mail to this writer “certain handsets interpret our 3.75G signals as 4G depending on the location of the customer.”

To put this in perspective, all things being equal, the highest speed on a 3G (HSPA+) is up to 21Megabits per second. But ordinary 4G promises up to 100Megabits/second under same conditions, and 4G LTE promises 3.5Gegabits/second under same conditions. Currently, real life speed on one of Ghana’s 4G LTE networks, Surfline, is showing a minimum of 24.5Mbps, which is just about a quarter of what 4G promises ceteris paribus, but it superfast in terms of customer experience and better than the non-practical 3G maximum speed of 21Mbps. So the 3G service providers showing 4G on a handset at the speeds customers experience is relatively a big joke.

The expert also explained that with the question of speed, when a customer is very close to a cell site serving his/her handset, he/she is likely to get speeds close to the maximum speeds the 3G network offers. But even that depends on how many other devices that cell site might be serving at that particular point in time.

“If that cell site is serving only one device or just a few devices, the speeds are likely to be high for each user, but if it is serving loads of devices, which is usually the case, then there is automatically shared speed and that would mean each individual’s experience would not be as great as when there are no other devices on that cell site,” he said.

Indeed, there are other factors such as what website the customer is browsing – whether that website is hosted locally or overseas and how many more people (usually hundreds of thousands to millions) are browsing that website at any point in time, and what activities they are doing online (whether just browsing, live streaming or downloading). Things like movement, being indoors and other factors, also affect actually experience even though the checker on the handset may indicate any of the 3G ranges.

One other expert explained “you know there is a timer on every website for opening new webpages, so if you try to open a webpage and the time runs out while the page is not yet opened, your handset may give you a feedback like ‘No internet connectivity’, but it does not mean you do not have 3G, because very often, while it says ‘No internet connectivity’ for a particular webpage, it opens another page easily without any stress.

“Sometimes too, there may be activities on the background on your device; once one of such activities is timed out the handset may interpret it as ‘No internet connectivity’ and give you that feedback but it does not mean there is really no service,” the expert said.

The second part of this article touches on whether there is indeed a minimum speed for 3G, what the 3G spectrum bands in Ghana are right now, more on what affects actual customer experience, and what the coming 4G LTE promises in Ghana.

Columnist: Dowuona, Samuel Nii Narku