Harnessing 4G's full potential

Telcos need to look past speed as they map out their 4G future and those that invest time and money in exploring its full potential could end up winners.

The 4G label may be the hottest thing in the telco market but just what it means for consumers, especially in Australia, is still a pretty nebulous concept. Unfortunately, translating the hype to real potential is not an easy task even if your heart is in the right place.

At its annual InTouch conference in Miami, telecom services provider Amdocs pulled out all the stops to spruik the 4G mantra. However, the main event left many with a sense of confusion. 

This was the most anticipated event of the conference. Speaker after speaker had spouted about the potential of 4G and the only question left unanswered was how to make it work. 

Analysts were primed, journalists had pens at the ready and what followed was a curious performance by four dancers with two iPads strapped to their hands extolling the virtues of 4G, in a flurry of movement and sound. The act was followed by an onslaught of unusual presentations, where the dancers awkwardly mimed out how 4G would shape the future. 

Did the offbeat performance illustrate anything worthwhile? Not entirely. While the theatricality drew applause many would have preferred hands-on demos and practical applications of the technology.

Australia is still in the infancy stages of its 4G rollout – so our primary concern is still focused around establishing the service. Yet the situation is quite different in the US, where the major telcos offer the service and are now focusing on how to better monetise and utilise it.

For Amdocs the challenge has been to encourage its customers to better harness the network and realise that the technology could be good for something other than just speed. 

Becoming the master of your data

Imagine receiving automatic discounts or being prompted to continually save money on your data usage. Well, it may become a necessity for telcos in the 4G market. 

According to Amdocs director of data experience marketing Ann Hatchell, retaining customers will boil down to giving them more bang for their buck when it comes to data.

Competition around data usage may also lead to a situation where mobile plans become more flexible. Instead of being locked in to a data usage plan (that is often tied to a telephony package) users will be able to pick and choose how much and how fast their data transfer is. To give an example, if someone wants a cheaper deal on mobile data, can opt for a slower speed for a lower fee.

But the customisation doesn’t end there.

Amdocs’ director of product and marketing solutions Rebecca Prudhomme says that 4G could lead to creative data plans, where consumers will be able to choose when or where they are able to access data on their device.

“One example could be something like a parent switching off their child’s devices data usage while in the car,” she says.

The silent mobile phone

This next prediction could take the silent-mode on mobile phones to a whole new level. Phones have always been defined by the fact that they offer a remote voice-based communication service, but 4G has the potential to change all that. It may be years away, but eventually telco’s may be offering voice services on a device as an add-on rather than a necessity. Customer may be able to buy a ‘smartphone’ looking device that can’t actually call anyone.

The speed factor of 4G

‘Speed’ is a major allure for consumers but it is hard to look past the argument that the term ‘4G’ is no more than marketing spin.

As it stands there is no one network format that t defines what is or isn’t a 4G service, it’s all about ‘speed’ and relativity to 3G. For instance in the US, a 4G service is provided through two separate technologies, WiMax and LTE.

One only needs to take a look at the recent controversy around Apple's new IPad to get an idea of the headaches the 4G label can cause.

The new iPad 4G models only support LTE mobile broadband networks running at 700 MHz and 2100 MHz. That leaves out Telstra's 1800 MHz network -- currently Australia's only commercially available LTE offering. Optus has run 700, 1800 and 2100 MHz trials, while Vodafone has run 1800 MHz trials.

Regulatory concerns have forced Apple to reluctantly remove the 4G tag but the fact of the matter is that there is no concrete definition of what constitutes a true 4G network.

Looking forward to "4G Enhanced'

It may seem premature but there are many who are already wondering about the next step to 5G. However, Amdocs, general manager of data business experience, David Sharply disagrees with the notion saying that the next wave of data speed discovery would more likely lead to a label of “4G Enhanced”.

But when telcos see the ‘speed’ as the key marketing driver for the new network; there’s no telling where the numbers will end. 

Behind the razzle and dazzle, and the iPad strapped mime artists, unleashing the full promise of 4G will not be fulfilled unless telcos are willing to invest in them.

UK Disruptive Analysis analyst, Dean Bubley says that telcos are still focused on speed because exploring other other features is deemed a waste of time.  

“[4G] will all be more of the same services, just faster and a little bit cheaper,” Bubley says.

While analyst firm Frost and Sullivan’s Craig Cartier agrees that 4G is “all about data transfer” and not frills, he argues that there may be a case for telcos to invest in added services.

“Everyone of us now has a smartphone,” he says.

“Even my Mum and Dad have a general understanding of technology and can use a smartphone and Skype.”

According to Cartier, if telcos can effectively market and sell the possibilities of 4G then consumers may buy into it. After all, the telcos are essentially all selling the same product and added services may create a point of difference between providers.

Amdocs Prudhomme admits that while some telcos will simply see 4G as a “bigger pipe” for data transfer, other should “use it to become innovators”.

But she’s not willing to draw the line on which region of telcos will bite first. With 4G networks still in rollout phase it may be too early to ask the innovation question in Australia, However, given the cutthroat competition in the market understanding the full potential of a 4G network could be very handy for out telcos.

Harrison Polites was a guest of Amdocs at the company's 2012 InTouch business conference in Miami

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