A Dummy's Guide to 4G

By Sandeep Budki , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Digital
Last updated : September 10, 2013
All that a publisher, marketer or agency executive would want to know about 4G and its aftermath.

Basics of 4G

The next generation in mobile technology promises faster-than-ever-before speeds while downloading files, video chatting, multiplayer gaming, and viewing high definition videos online. This FAQ-based essay tries to cut through jargon and understand what 4G is and how it will impact the media and advertising business.

What is 4G?

4G stands for fourth-generation radio communication access technology, that provides the fastest communication network for accessing the internet on any screen - mobile, laptop or tablet. It is the successor to 3G and promises 7-10 times faster speed. When implemented across India, 4G can help solve the 'last mile' (connecting customers to a network) issue of operators, that is preventing them from getting rural consumers.

How does one access a 4G network?

One needs a USIM (Universal Subscriber Identification Module), which is just like a normal SIM in terms of design, but instead of the normal 64 KB memory, USIM can accommodate 128 KB through CPE (customer-premises equipment) or wi-fi routers, dongles, mobiles and tablets.

Currently in India, 4G access is possible only through data cards or dongles and not smartphones or tablets (the ones available now do not support the technology in use now), which are expected to come in with a bang, once the 4G operators start firing on all cylinders.

What is the difference between 3G and 4G?

To begin with, 3G or 2G technologies were designed keeping voice and data in mind, while 4G has been designed keeping data as the main element. To put it in context, if you are downloading a full length Hindi movie (on an average 500 MB) on 2G, you will have to wait for more than five hours, while on 3G networks you will need to spend around 25-30 minutes (if the download speed is 2Mbps). 4G can cut down this time to five minutes (at a download speed of 10Mbps).

Are there various kinds of 4G technologies?

There are two - LTE (Long Term Evolution) and Wi-Max (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), which can theoretically offer wireless broadband access at speeds of up to 100 Mbps, though the actual speeds will be around 10 Mbps.

In India, all the telcos who have won 4G licences will offer 4G using LTE technology and the best part is that LTE is backward-compatible, which gives it the ability to switch between 4G LTE and GSM/CDMA networks, depending on the availability.

Who offers 4G services in India?

Reliance Jio Infocomm, Aircel, Airtel, Qualcomm, Videocon Telecommunications and Tikona Digital have bagged 4G spectrum licences in India. Ironically, the government companies BSNL and MTNL, which got the licences by default, have still not made any headway in rolling out the services.

Reliance Jio Infocomm is the only player to have bagged a pan-India 4G spectrum and is likely to start services in select circles by the year-end. The country's top telecom operator Airtel has bagged licences to offer 4G data services in four circles - Kolkata, Karnataka, Punjab and Maharashtra - and has also signed a deal with Qualcomm to roll out 4G services on its behalf. Qualcomm has won licences in Delhi, Mumbai, Haryana and Kerala. That takes Airtel's tally to eight circles. Last year, Airtel launched 4G services in Kolkata, Bengaluru, Pune, Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchkula.

Aircel has eight circles and is expected to roll out 4G services by early 2014. It has licences for Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu (including Chennai), West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, North-East and Jammu & Kashmir.

Videocon Telecommunications will roll out 4G by end of the year in Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh (East and West), Bihar and Jharkhand. Tikona Digital Networks has five circles - Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (East and West). It also plans to launch 4G services sometime in early 2014.

Are LTE devices and tariffs expensive?

Prices of devices (dongles and WiFi routers) have started falling. At present, standalone dongles and WiFi routers without bundled data plans from Airtel (the only service provider offering 4G), are priced at Rs. 1,500- 3,000.

In terms of tariff, Airtel offers 2 GB data for Rs. 450 (unlimited beyond that at 128 Kbps), 3 GB data for Rs. 650, 4 GB at Rs. 750 and 10 GB at Rs. 999. The most expensive plan is priced at Rs. 4,799 and offers 80 GB data. Excess data is charged at 50 paise per 100 KB, which is costlier than 3 paise per 10 KB that Airtel charges its 3G customers.

3G adoption has been slower than anticipated. Will 4G go the same way?

It's too early to predict. 3G had its own set of issues ranging from the availability of affordable devices to tariffs on the one end and lack of pan-India coverage, to intermittent or no signals on the other. Incidentally, all these issues will also impact 4G adoption in India.


For those who'd love to know more about the types of 4G techologies, its history and what is happening in India, here is a spec-by-spec guide.

  • There are two versions of LTE: TD (Time Division)-LTE and FDD (Frequency Division Duplexing)-LTE. They differ only in the way data is transmitted over the network and the same device cannot be used to access both versions of LTE.
  • Since regular phone calls over 4G are not a possibility, because the technology has been designed only for data services, players are working their way around this. To start with, voice will be offered through VoLTE (voiceover LTE), which could be a VoIP-based service such as Skype and Google Hangout. But the catch is that you cannot make calls to regular mobile phones or landline numbers in India, since it is not allowed.
  • Players are also trying to leverage existing telecom networks for offering voice and data support. Airtel, for instance, has conducted trials on Circuit Switch Fallback (CSFB) technology, that allows mobile broadband data traffic over LTE and when LTE coverage is not available on 3G or 2G networks. It even allows the use of GSM (2G or 3G) network for voice and SMS services. As of now, it is not clear when Airtel will start using CSFB along with LTE technology, commercially.
  • Videocon, which has adopted FDD-LTE, could have an advantage over the others. Unlike TD-LTE, FDD-LTE technology is being used in most parts of the US, and is also being rolled out in Europe, where there is already an ecosystem of devices in place.
  • South Korea became the first country to roll out 4G using the Wi-Max network in 2006 and three years after that, Scandinavia launched the first FDD-LTE network offering 4G. In the US, both Wi-Max and FDD-LTE technology have been in use since 2008, whereas in the UK, 4G services using FDD-LTE have been in place since 2012. The world's largest wireless operator, China Mobile, plans to launch 4G services in China by the year end, using TD-LTE technology. This is a positive development from India's perspective because it can bring down the cost of devices using TD-LTE technology. The dampener for India is that it still does not have smartphones and tablets that support this technology.

What can jumpstart the widespread acceptance of 4G?

Since Reliance Jio Infocomm is the only operator to bag a pan-India 4G licence, it can provide seamless connectivity across India. Whatever it does in terms of tariffs, services and device prices, will be a trendsetter and other 4G players will be forced to match it.

Reliance is also capable of coming up with market-disruptive strategies and large-scale operations that can change the overall landscape of 4G in India. This is not the first time that Reliance is foraying into the telecom space. Way back in 2003 it had, through Reliance Infocomm (now Reliance Communications), practically transformed the country's telecom landscape by introducing a mobile handset along with voice and data services for less than Rs. 500.

The buzz is that Reliance Jio will offer LTE tablets for Rs. 3,500 along with data plans as low as Rs. 10 for one GB of data. The company is also getting ready to tap the TV and cable space after Mukesh Ambani funded the merger of Network 18 and ETV. That development gives Reliance Jio preferential access to content from 25 channels (of ETV and Network 18) for its Live TV service.

How will 4G impact publishers and advertisers?

It is expected that 4G will boost mobile browsing and its users will consume at least twice as much data as their non-4G counterparts. This means publishers and advertisers can look forward to more unique visits, mobile impressions and page views from devices like mobiles and tablets, which currently don't offer much traction.

As users spend more time on mobile web, generating more mobile impressions, page views and unique visitors, advertisers are encouraged to use elaborate, innovative and interactive content on the mobile platform, to ensure greater engagement with the target audience. However, this might hasten the movement away from the print medium.

What are the challenges that mobile advertising faces?

Mobile advertising has the potential to feature among the fastest growing industries, riding on the back of the 4G wave. But most marketers admit that they don't have a mobile advertising strategy in place, to take full advantage of the medium.

Currently, mobile banner ads are the main form of advertising on mobiles, but they lack originality and the concept has been borrowed from online strategies. Though 3G has improved data speeds considerably (even if it is in patches), it has not tempted marketers to experiment with rich media ads on mobile which can help them engage with consumers and improve click-through rates.

The key to mobile advertising is personalisation of the messages. The provider knows everything from the target's location (via GPS) to what they browse and download. How best marketers can engage with users, is in their hands.

How will 4G help content creators and advertisers?

High speed Internet on mobiles will create new opportunities for content creators. Mobile websites will essentially become primary touch points for brands and users.

Video content will play a pivotal role, since buffering and downloading will become faster and hence, campaigns on YouTube, Facebook and other video platforms will gain popularity. Display advertising will also be supported by richer formats, with greater scope for innovation in terms of content. On the entertainment side - live TV and regular soap operas - 4G will reduce constraints on mobile bandwidth, which will lead to increased usage.

A Note From the Editor

It is hard to imagine the future. More than 20 years ago, just before the satellite television explosion hit India, I read a column by a prominent media expert. She went on about the dozens of channels that would soon be beamed into our homes. For us at the time, used to only Doordarshan, it was impossible to comprehend the picture of the future she was painting.

Some years later, when mobile telephony came, it was treated as an emergency service - not surprising since each minute of talktime cost a pocket-emptying Rs. 16. Few could have imagined that within a dozen years most Indians would own a phone.

Even fewer could have foreseen that it would allow migrants to the city to chat endlessly with their families back in the village. And, I am sure, no one anticipated just how liberating mobiles would be for the smallest Indian entrepreneur - the vegetable vendor, the drain cleaner, the key maker. They have gained because their contact numbers are painted on walls and nailed on trees.

These are random examples to illustrate that when there is a big technological leap, it is hard to comprehend where it might lead, how it might be used by consumers.

4G is one such. At this moment it is easy to dismiss the hoopla: 'When 3G is still struggling with its teething problems, why would consumers want 4G?' It is a valid question. However, the mobile user is evolving rapidly. As a colleague pointed out that in India, a country which gave the world the phenomenon of the missed call, consumers now obsess about data download schemes. And 4G is entirely about fast data download. And mind you, these aren't just the well-to-do but the less privileged as well.

A 27-town survey of 21,000 households 10 months ago expected the number of Indians surfing on their mobiles to grow 50 per cent to 130 million in 2013. The same survey found that among these users, the average monthly mobile bill was Rs. 460 of which about Rs. 200 was spent on surfing the internet.

The great Indian data game has already begun. 4G will only hasten it.


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First Published : September 10, 2013
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