tin can phone

Wires? So Last Year, Darling!

tin can phoneEE, a mobile operator in the UK, has just started trialling a small, controlled LTE-A 4G network capable of providing bandwidth speeds of up to 300Mb/s.  This is possible through aggregating different spectrum, with 20MHz of 1800MHz and 20MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum being used to provide a combined ultrafast network speed.

EE has also chosen its first roll-out location carefully.  It would have been easy to choose some low-traffic environment in a quiet backwater somewhere.  EE has decided to carry out the trial in the UK’s Tech City environment — the center for technology startups and support companies in London’s East End. Full of techies stuffed to the gills with gadgets and demanding the latest and greatest of everything, Tech City will be a lightning rod for any problems of bandwidth contention, packet jitter, and collisions. With many of the companies in the area combining data with voice and video, the testing of this ultrafast service should be severe — and it will be interesting to see how EE manages to deal with it all.

300Mb/s is a great deal more than the average business connection speed in the UK at the moment, with the majority of small and medium businesses using ADSL or ADSL2 connections giving connection speeds averaging out around the 14Mb/s level for downloads, with much smaller capacity on upload speeds.

However, there are headline speeds and there are realistic speeds.  Although Virgin Media states that 66% of its customers can expect just over 94Mb/s from its “up to 100Mb/s” fiber to the home (FTTH), an independent site says its research shows that the overall average, polled from real-world measurement of people’s service, shows that “100Mb” fiber tends to give closer to 40Mb/s.

When other connectivity methods from other providers are taken into account, such as fiber to the cabinet (FTTC) and copper ADSL/ADSL2/ADSL+/SDSL, then the UK’s overall average connection speed is just shy of 15Mb/s.  The problem here is that a lot of “wired” systems (including optical “wire”, i.e. fiber) are very dependent on the distance the signal has to travel within the wire.  Therefore, if the FTTC cabinet just happens to be 2 meters from the exchange, you will get blazingly fast speeds: if it is a mile from the exchange, then your speeds will be mediocre in comparison.  Then there is contention — having multiple different users on the same wire at the same time will impact just how much of your data can be carried at any one time.  At 3am in the morning, you may find that you are the only one on the line, and everything is zipping along.  At 10am as other businesses and consumers start downloading songs, videoconferencing, and generally clogging up the system, problems will occur.

And you will find it very difficult if you live out in the sticks: the investment is only there to provide fast services where there is money to be made.  If you are not deemed worthy, then you will have the technical equivalent of a wet piece of string to send your data down.

4G does away with the wires and makes it easier to provision connectivity in out-of-the-way places.  What it doesn’t necessarily do is to provide unlimited bandwidth — and it still suffers from the proximity issues. The EE pilot will identify what it can do around the first issue, and should give pointers as to how dense the radio masts will have to be to give adequate cover for an area without creating too much of a noise level.

However, should 4G LTE-A prove to be successful, it will offer another tool in the consumer and business connectivity toolbox, and for many it could prove to be the force behind dropping the need for a wire at all.

Image credit: StockMonkeys.com (flickr) – CC-BY-2.0