What to expect from 3G?

So, finally 3G is set to launch in India from Private operators. One of my friend came to me and asked:

“So what should we really expect from 3G? End of wired broadband?”

Very nice one!

Short answer - NO, NO yet!

It’s quite strange to see, how users are taking 3G. Actually it has been largely “overestimated” technology, specially from Indian media. Let’s first try to understand - What exactly is 3G? Without going into geeky definitions - 3G is simply upgrade from 2G. It uses higher frequency, and thus has more spectrum available for more bandwidth. That’s all. One important thing we need to understand is - 3G is more or less just a last mile technology i.e it connects telecom network’s exchange to consumer’s device. Mostly 3G, 2G, landline network, and broadband network - all share same core network backhaul. Western countries who did deployed 3G many years back are going into hybrid path of taking 3G to 4G apart form offloading peak data to (wired) broadband networks. They are promoting use of wifi, bringing new gadget FemtoCell. At this time, it doesn’t makes sense to say - 3G is everything! Latest capping on uncapped 3G plans by AT&T is a good example of that.

So we will be getting blazing fast speeds?

Yes/No. If you take 3G as upgrade from current 2G networks, for sure you will see high speeds, BUT if you take 3G as an alternate of current (wired) broadband technologies then NO. Indian operators will be launching 3G on HSPDA, and thus it will support (theoretical) peak speeds of 3.6Mbps. 3.6Mbps! wow….isn’t that soooo fast? No! Read again. It’s just “theoretical”

You will get 3.6Mbps - with two simple assumtions.

  1. You are sitting on 3G tower!
  2. And you are the only subscriber there!

In real world, you will get speeds like - 600-700Kbps or so on average. Well, that’s still quite decent as compared what people get via 2G networks. In India, we see 2.75G EDGE based networks, which support peak speeds of 238kbps. Now, again that’s all theory. In real world, speeds are mostly around 120-130Kbps. It’s less of 3G Vs DSL and more of wire Vs wireless. Refer to article on - How inefficient are wireless networks from Rod Alferness, chief scientist at Alcatel-Lucent’s research arm Bell Labs.

So, how’s 512Kbps Wired (DSL) broadband as compared to 3G?

Wire still wins. As I said, one can imagine 3G as more or less just a last mile technology. You can assume it to be an alternate of copper pair coming to your home from telecom exchange. Beyond that, backhual network resources are all shared. Now, in case wired network - you have a “dedicated” wire coming to your home/office from the exchange. That’s “dedicated” in case of DSL links, and whether or not you use, it does NOT effects your neighbors. After wire reaches exchange, it is linked to opertor’s core network via DSLAM. Now from here, you are all on shared resources. You share same router, same fibre optic cables, same switches, with over thousand of people. In case of DSL, operator do this by applying “contention ratio”. It is usually around 1:20 or 1:30 A 1:30 contention ratio means that a Physical 2Mbps port is actually shared between 30 people. And thanks to capping in plans, everyone does get 2Mbps! That was case of 3G (wireless) networks, back end is all shared (as was in case of wired) while front channels are also shared! Since 3G is based on wireless, it needs wireless spectrum to transmit data. Keep in mind - wireless spectrum is ALWAYS limited. Reason - when we are throwing energy out in space, we cannot really put any crazy amount of radiation out. We have finite limits on radiation, and hence spectrum band cannot go beyond certain level. If you have heard of 4G, it is actually more about using that same amount of available “finite” spectrum more efficiently. Thus, now you are with “limited” spectrum and that too shared between users! Thus, do not really expect it to be a very good alternate to wired broadband. It will be an good alternate for people who have very low usage, apart from fact that they can’t get a good wired link may be due to distance from telecom exchange, or bad copper pair. If someone just needs Internet connection for say email, little surfing, chating etc - 3G might prove to be more reliable then wired broadband where cables are prone to cut.

How is 3G as compared to 2G?

Varies. Quick question to you - tortoise or rabbit? :) If you are heavy data user, surely 3G is very good, while if you just need connection for voice, text messages etc, till now 2G is winner. As said 3G uses higher frequency band and thus more energy consumption. Apart from that, it will take very very long time to get a 3G everywhere network. Initially, we are going to see a hybrid network of 2G+3G. I have personally played around with 3G network of Govt. owner telco BSNL in India. It was quite good - fast as compared to 2G, but to be very true, I didn’t really needed those speeds! Web browsing was bit faster and I was even able to use mobile VoIP. For email and IM - it doesn’t really makes any difference. And since it consumes more battery, running IM on cell phone 24 x 7 (as I do) is better on 2G as compared to 3G. Mobile VoIP is interesting - making skype calls right from cell phones. Well, that’s nice BUT I wonder if Indian operators will really leave this on. As we see in Western World, operators greatly fear loss of revenues from it, and not really permitting VoIP over 3G.

To be true, I don’t really see much of a Consumer model for 3G. Now, it supports faster speeds, it can be good for laptops via USB dongle stuff. Well, if you are 2G data card user, then it will be good for you, while you are on move BUT if you are wired broadband user, it will not be able to serve your needs If you are a smartphone user, here are things you can do with 2G - surfing (a little slow), email, IM, GPS Navigation system etc. Here are things you can do on smartphone in more better way as compared to 2G - surfing, GPS navigation, email with heavy attachments etc. And here are things you can ONLY do with 3G - Mobile VoIP, Mobile TV, Video on demand, Video calling etc So, I still feel there really lacks demand of that much bandwidth oriented applications for smartphones. Email with heavy attachments is good, but what really you would be emailing via smartphone? A complex 5MB pdf file - which is terribly harder to read on smartphones, or a super complex excel sheet which is even more harder to analyse on smartphone. To be true, if you have that sort of usage, it is still better to carry laptop with you! Mobile TV - I don’t think that will be really a hit. We can surely expect people to be watching live cricket matches …or something like that, but well that’s just for a small period of time, while they are travelling and initial spotty 3G coverage will make bit bad experience. Video calling etc more eye catchy. I wonder if people are really going to use it. Given fact - so many people have broadband connections, and laptops with embeded webcam and microphone, people still prefer to have text chat, or voice chat sometimes. ;)

One of the major arguments given in support for 3G is - it will help in increasing data penetration across country, which I feel is not right. Observing our Govt. based giant telco BSNL’s network, they claim that they have exchanges in across half of million of villages in India and just 50k more villages to go. This means that we really have fibres going all along those villages apart from decent copper network. Still why we don’t see good broadband connectivity? Reasons are complex. Varies from technical to non-technical issues. Firstly, BSNL is a Public company and not really efficient in management. Other fact is - India great suffers of International bandwidth. We don’t really have content in India. I would say - over 80% of websites Indian users visit are mostly hosted outside India. You use facebook for sharing your pics with friends. You are your friends might be on same ISP, but facebook server is not really in India at all! All content is passed via overloaded undersea network. Youtube still doesn’t seems to be all in India. It is like a chicken story for India: We don’t have big datacenters hosting lot of content here because bandwidth is expensive and bandwidth is expensive because we don’t have datacenters here! When facebook decides not to put there server in India, and put it away in US, they do lot of savings, and that saving actually goes in terms of networking tariff here in India. Peering ratios of domestic carriers with International carriers just goes crazy. I have a DSL line at home, and DSL circuit does supports speeds upto 12Mbps - based on attenuation, signal margin values but I just get 512kbps - 24times slower then what is possible. At present, in India - last mile is not really a problem, the major issue lies in backbone capacity. We can proudly say - we can get a 2Mbps link for just $3/month. It looks facinating because we know we can do a LOT over 2Mbps link, but wait, didn’t I told you - this is with a capping of 125Mb/month? :P This actually diminishes lots of possibilities. We cannot really call that capping as fair usage cap. In Western World, fair usage cap is usually around 100-200GB a month, which is well beyond consumption of data by a home usage, but less then a GB cap in age of youtube does not makes any sense. For last mile, I think, we should call it issue when we would be using last mile’s full capacity. In India, regulatory rules are not really that much tight as compared to Western world, and hence opertors can actually take advantage of it by wiring country well with copper. I am not really promoting more band wiring but point is - operators here definately have advantage of wiring in lot free manner to get things up. These are problems which really needs to be addressed before we really think of great broadband everywhere. Good luck India for 3G launch! :)