Video needs more mobile bandwidth

Mobile operators have started launching their first commercial LTE or 4G networks. Many have argued, where is this extra bandwidth needed, as HSPA+ networks can offer up to a 20 Mbps downlink today? I believe more and more bandwidth is needed especially for video based applications and services. But it’s not only about download speeds.

I recently uploaded about a 10 minutes long 720p MPEG-4 video (shot with Canon PowerShot G12) to YouTube. The file size was almost 900 MB. Transferring this over today’s HSPA networks would be very frustrating with a maximum of 5 Mbps uplink. So even in ideal conditions, it will take about 30 minutes. This would be possible, when I am the only user in that base station cell.

Limits of especially uplink bandwidth often hit me when travelling abroad and trying to send images to our online content management system. Sometimes even images compressed for web publishing won’t go through. It would be nice send some videos online too, but usually possible only when back home on a fixed line. 3G roaming is too expensive, and WLAN access points in trade fair and other events are usually too congested.

Anyway, I guess there won’t initially be a business case for operators to offer affordable data in LTE networks for private consumers, but services for organisations could be mobile video conferencing, web conferences (such as Cisco WebEx or Microsoft Lync) and transferring large files over VPN access.

Finnish mobile and broadband operator Elisa believes mobile networks could be used for video surveillance without having to build fixed networks everywhere. There have already been many trials on this using 3G and WiMax in Finland.

But bandwidth is not the only, or many times even the most important benefit LTE brings. In many cases the big different in connection quality comes from the lower latencies which can be as low as 15 ms (milliseconds) in ideal conditions, compared to typically at least 50 ms on HSPA networks.

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I got to try TeliaSonera’s LTE network in city of Turku last summer for a week. It was and is still under construction, so I could only try it inside a few blocks in downtown area. Even with that, the experience was amazing. I got a peek download rates of 47 Mbps, uplink speed of 5 Mbps and latency under 20 ms. However, it was middle of July, and I was prpbably the only user there.

Operators in Finland have been selling flat fee mobile data as ”mobile broadband” for a couple of years now. Marketing has been fierce, and operators have sold these with high promises of even 10 Mbps broadband. And sales have soared: Mobile broadband subscriptions have exceeded fixed broadband connections in Finland.

According to Finnish telecoms regulator (Ficora), there were about 1,84 million mobile broadband subscriptions by the end of 2010, over half of all the 3,2 million broadband subscriptions.

Prices start at about 8,95EUR/month for 384 kbps or 512 kbps flat-fee downlink. Recently operators have started complaining threre’s no future for this ”all-you-can-eat” data, because network capacity is becoming a problem. Especially CEO of TeliaSonera (operating in Nordic and Baltic countries, plus Spain) Lars Nyberg has given many interviews just saying flat-fee has no future. ”Those who use more, have to pay more”, Nyberg said last time I saw in Finland.

One solution to capacity issues for operators is to prioritize traffic so that business users paying more can get quality of service (QoS). When there’s free capacity, consumers are free to take advantage of it too. Finnish operators have argued QoS is now finally coming to mobile networks. It has taken many steps, since they started talking about it already when the first generation 3G (UMTS) was starting in Finland in 1999.

Two of three Finnish mobile network operators DNA and TeliaSonera have already moved to a model where they limit your bandwidth after you exceed your data limit. This applies both to private consumers and organisations.

It’s interesting to see what kind of a pricing model they come with for LTE. With higher bandwidth, charging based on data traffic can be very difficult. How does an ordinary consumer or remote worker know how much remote work or watching YouTube videos is 1, 3 or 20 gigabytes?