Cellcos will never shut up about data speeds

data speeds
Image credit: PLDT

As far back as the ancient days of 2.5G, cellcos have been obsessed with data throughput speeds as a marketing hook and a competitive differentiator. This made sense back when we had competing network standards, data speeds were generally terrible and the overall mobile data experience frustrating (remember WAP?). And it made more sense when the iPhone arrived and gave 3G a purpose in life (the fact that the first iPhone didn’t support 3G notwithstanding).

But now that we’re well into the LTE-A era – and with 5G looming somewhere in the distance – it seems fair to ask at what point it makes sense for cellco marketing teams to stop boasting about how fast their data speeds are and find other ways to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Clearly we’re not at that stage yet. We know this thanks to companies like OpenSignal and Ookla who produce regular reports measuring broadband data speeds across the globe – because most of the cellcos who rank #1 in their particular market for data speed tend to go into marketing overdrive, waving their OpenSignal/Ookla results in the faces of their rivals to the point that one starts to wonder who they’re trying to impress – prospective customers or just the shareholders. (Probably both?)

Usually the inevitable cellco press release is the standard “We ranked #1 in data speed and this illustrates our commitment to our customers, our technological excellence, our pledge to build the best network in the country in which we have invested xx million dollars, and generally how awesome we are” meme (see Telstra and PLDT/Smart for recent examples).

Sometimes they get a little more flamboyant – StarHub celebrated its OpenSignal ‘win’ with a music video featuring the ‘World’s Fastest Band’, comprised of the world’s fastest pianist, finger snapper, nunchaku master, head smasher, floss dancer and bum skipper (yes, there is such a thing – watch the video if you don’t believe me).

Then there’s Cellcard – ranked by Ookla as the fastest cellco in Cambodia– who was so chuffed that it launched a Network Service Guarantee, which offers free voice minutes to any customer whose phone call gets dropped. It’s hard to imagine how that could go wrong. (That said, notice the guarantee is for voice calls, not data connections or speeds – which is wise, if somewhat off-topic regarding the Ookla results. Well, that’s marketing for you.)

I’ve complained about this marketing obsession with data speeds in the past, but I’m starting to mellow out about it – partly out of resignation. I suspect data speeds as a marketing ploy will be with us for a long time – it may be silly, but in these days of cross-industry competition and disruption, any hook will do, I suppose.

Also, I will say the OpenSignal/Ookla reports are valuable reality checks for mobile operators and vendors that tend to promote data throughput capabilities in terms of theoretical peak speeds in optimum conditions (meaning a lab) rather than commercial networks in real-world conditions.

The reports also offer some badly needed perspective in the sense that having the same technology as everyone else (as opposed to the GSM/CDMA wars of old) doesn’t ensure the same results.

For example, the latest global LTE report from OpenSignal reveals that of the 88 countries surveyed, Singapore has the fastest average LTE speeds at around 44 Mbps, while India has the slowest at just over 6 Mbps. Naturally there are numerous reasons for this, such as spectrum availability and where a given operator sits on the LTE evolution curve (from the original LTE [Release 8] to LTE-A Pro [Release 13/14]), for instance.

The point is that in the real world, LTE is at different deployment stages in different markets – and data speeds are a good way of measuring how far along that curve everyone is.

This is also worth keeping in mind as the mobile sector flings itself breathlessly at 5G. Early adopter markets are for the most part much further along the LTE curve. They’re also much further along in LTE adoption. (The Indian government may consider itself an exception to this, but I have a feeling its 5G ambitions are in for a savage reality check down the line.)

So I’m actually looking forward to the speed-test reports when the first 5G networks go live. After several years of glorious hype over 5G’s capabilities, it will be refreshing to see how 5G works in real life – and to measure the gap between hype and reality.

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