Why 4G speeds don't matter

Telstra, Optus and Vodafone love touting their 4G networks, but spurious “theoretical maximum" speeds say nothing about a network's quality or its ability to handle congestion. Is it time to start selling consistency?

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Optus' David Epstein, Victoria ICT minister Gordon Rich-Phillips and Tennis commentator Todd Woodbridge flip the switch on Optus' 4G plus network in Melbourne.

You never know quite what to expect when you turn up to an Australian telco network launch.

A few years ago, Telstra flew over Rebecca Black (of Friday fame) to mark the arrival of its 4G network. And on the other end of the spectrum (so to speak), there wasn’t even an event for Vodafone’s 4G launch earlier this year. It just sent out a memo to the press saying that it’s flicked the switch on its network.

Last week, Optus launched its 4G ‘plus’ network. And in an event that resembled Telstra’s showstopper, they pulled out all the stops.

They found a relevant and informed minister – in this case the Victorian technology minister Gordon Rich-Phillips. They sprinkled the event with some star power – coach and tennis commentator Todd Woodbridge. They scraped together a giant yellow ‘on-switch’ for the cameras. And, most importantly, they found an obscure, yet (as I’ll explain) relevant location to flick that switch – the National Tennis Centre, less than a kilometre outside of the Melbourne CBD.

Out of all the trimmings Optus pulled together for this network launch the location proved to be the most important and relevant. 

It played into its key takeaway from its event: even amongst the masses of the Australian Open, in crowded conditions that would normally cripple most mobile data networks, Optus 4G customers will still have reliable access to the internet on their phone thanks to its new increased capacity dual-band network.

Speed or consistency?

Optus’ message is a departure from the rhetoric we’re used to hearing about 4G networks. Usually, the talk is all about the download speeds.

In fact, speed is such a sticking point with the marketing of these 4G networks, that it was reported a couple of months ago that Telstra threatened to take Vodafone to court over its claims that it had the “fastest 4G network in Australia’.

And again to this point, Telstra – who, if you can’t tell, is trying really hard to win the 4G marketing arms race - replied to Optus’ new 4G launch by saying that its trialling a new technology that can top the 300mbps barrier in download speeds.

Despite Optus’ attempt to shift the focus away from spurious megabits-per-second metrics, the telco’s vice president of corporate and regulatory affairs, David Epstein wasn’t willing to concede that speed isn’t crucial to a successful 4G network. In fact, it's the key selling point for any 4G service.

But Epstein did say this: “speed is now almost a given, just because the way data take-up works and consumer expectations”.

Epstein’s argument is that consistency of the network is now in the forefront of consumers’ minds, and theoretical speeds won’t mean anything if the network is bogged down by traffic.

It’s a particularly potent point when you consider that according to Cisco’s latest Virtual Networking Index, mobile data traffic in Australia is set to grow sixfold by 2017. That's a big problem given that even Telstra's iron-clad 3G network can at times struggle to cope during peak commuter periods. 

Engineered for attention

So, why does speed get all the attention when it’s really a smarter decision for consumers to focus on network capacity? 

According to Informa analyst Tony Brown it’s all about marketing and making headlines. The reality is, most of the numbers the telcos spout are lab-tested maximums, engineered for the purpose of generating attention.

All of Australia's telcos are candid in saying that these are figures - which range anywhere from an impressive 40mbps up to a whopping NBN-rivalling 100mbps - are “theoretical maximum speeds”. Whether that message filters through to the public is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, Brown says there’s a very different discussion taking place inside the war rooms of the big three telcos.  As you would expect, they’re preparing for a future where they duke it out on network quality as well as speed.

“Behind the marketing guys that do use the headline speeds what a lot of other people are starting to talk about now… is yes, it’s nice to have the fast speeds, but it’s really about is having ubiquitous high quality coverage and very few network drop outs,” Brown says.

It may still have a way to go before matching Telstra's coverage, but perhaps Optus is ahead of the game in pushing the capacity aspect of its improved 4G network - even if it is only available for a handful of dual-band compatible devices and in a few major locations. 

Brown says that Optus should be further capitalising on this advantage, possibly to the point where it charges more for guaranteed access to mobile data via its 4G plus network. And that might be a play that we see later down the line, in a future where all telco networks start to show signs of chronic congestion during peak periods and reliability rather than speed becomes a premium service. 

Meanwhile, back at Optus’ 4G plus launch, there wasn’t a megabits-per-second figure anywhere to be seen. Not even a ‘fastest network in Australia’ banner plastered above the giant big yellow on-switch.

It’s a welcome sign. But it's also wishful thinking to assume that the telcos - including Optus with future product launches - will continue this trend. From a consumer perspective, this concept of network speed is easy to understand, and most importantly, it sells.