First experiences: 4G (LTE) is amazing

This week I have had the pleasure of being one of the first people to really experience 4G, or LTE in Finland. Sonera opened their commercial service in November, and now they have that much coverage in Helsinki it was possible to try it a little bit around the city centre. The first impression has been great.

I’d like to start with getting a quick flash-back into history. I still vividly remember the press conference held in 2004 at the headquarters of TeliaSonera, hosted by both their CEO Anni Vepsäläinen and CEO of Nokia Networks (nowadays Nokia Siemens Networks) Sari Baldauf. The room was fully packed with too many journalists, camera men and TV cameras. It was hot in the room. TeliaSonera was finally launching their commercial 3G (UMTS) service.

Now, about seven years later, without any kind of hype, Sonera has launched their 4G (LTE) service. This week they held a small press conference about their LTE plans this year and going forward, and you could easily count the number of journalists with your one hand fingers. No TV cameras. I think my Canon PowerShot G12 and a few camera phones were the only cameras there.

Nevertheless, after my first  experiences, I have to admit LTE (4G) has amazing potential.

I first tried the LTE network of TeliaSonera in July 2010 when they had a trial in Turku, a city in Southern Finland, about 200 km from Helsinki. I was sitting in a restaurant and could download files at the peak download rate of about 47 Mbit/s. What was even more amazing, the latency was less than 20 ms.

This week I’ve had a chance to try their commercially available LTE network in Helsinki. It was a nice experience to download an episode of a TV series (download size of 1,3 GB) before I finished my appetizer in a restaurant. Or to watch a 8 Mbit/s MPEG-2 stream on VLC without any glitches. The popular test site gave a result of about 37 Mbit/s downlink and 24 Mbit/s uplink, and latency of around 24 ms.

Before I had enjoyed my main course, the OS X Lion update (3,7 GB) was downloaded in the background. That means faster than most Finnish people get with their fixed broadband today.

However, there are many limitations yet which mean LTE won’t probably become a commercial hit in many years. First of all, the coverage is too small compared to 3G networks; building LTE ist just starting. Finnish operators still put most of their resources to extending 3G+ coverage.

Secondly, Sonera charges a whopping 55 euros a month for LTE of which about 10 euros is for the USB modem and the rest is for the service. It’s “all you can eat” flat-rate, but there’s a reasonable 30 GB a month fair-use policy.

To try this, Sonera offered a USB modem by ZTE supporting their 1800/2600 MHz LTE and 3G too. Another Finnish mobile network operator DNA has a semi-commercial pilot (a few hundred users) with a Huawei modem supporting 1800/2600 MHz too. I still haven’t had time to try their LTE yet, but I will do that too.

Sonera has something over 10, but less than 20 LTE base stations (from Nokia Siemens Networks) in Helsinki. They didn’t want to announce the exact number.

I first tried their LTE inside and outside Lasipalatsi, a building in the centre of Helsinki where they have a base station very close. The peak download rate was almost 80 Mbit/s, and 13 ms latency. When Sonera demoed their LTE to journalists during their press meeting, they showed downlink speeds over 90 Mbit/s, but I haven’t been able to reach that.

Some 1,7 km from there, in Kaisaniemi, I could still get 4G inside a cafeteria. But then at the Pasila railway station, about 5 km from Lasipalatsi, there was no longer LTE, only 3G+ (HSPA+).

So, inside the small area of LTE coverage, download and upload speeds and latencies have been wonderful. I look forward to seeing more affordable prices and wider coverage. result using Sonera's LTE in Helsinki.

Of course, 3G and LTE capacity is normally shared by very many users. At the moment, I could have been the only one using the LTE network, or at least one of few ones. So you can expect real life speeds to be mostly slower.

Today, the first 3G/4G modems (USB sticks) from the Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE are very big and power hungry devices too, so a lot of development is needed here. When using a 4G stick, my MacBook Air runs out of battery in just about two hours. Using the integrated 802.11g WLAN (WiFi), the battery lasts for about four hours.

That’s all I have in mind at the moment about my LTE experiences. The rest of the blog post is more or less background information.

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All three of the Finnish mobile network operators have started building LTE. DNA has only a few LTE base stations in Helsinki at the moment, but over 60 base stations (from Ericsson) in the city of Hämeenlinna, about 100 km north from Helsinki.

11-inch MacBook Air and ZTE's 4G modem; a quite large and power hungry USB stick.The third Finnish mobile network operator Elisa also has some LTE coverage at least in Helsinki and neighouring suburban city Espoo (close to Nokia Siemens headquarters), but they haven’t told details yet in public. They haven’t given their LTE for journalists to try either.

Finnish operators have built 1,8 and 2,6 GHz coverage for now, until Finland’s east neighour Russia is ready to move their military navigation systems to other frequencies to avoid interference. Later operators hope to be able to build 800 MHz coverage which would enable expanding LTE to more scattered areas too.

Why are lower frequencies needed? They enable larger cell sizes in radio networks. Thanks to the 900 MHz band (versus 2100 MHz), Finnish operators have been able to build almost nation-wide 3G (HSPA+) coverage in scattered areas to reach small towns and many summer cottages too.

This week I asked Finnish operators for comments about the 800 MHz band. They seemed to agree we would start seeing first commercial 800 MHz LTE networks in 2013 or later.

An official from the Ministry of Transport and Communications told me the Finnish government is expected to start the decision process later this year. Due to the economic situation, they might want to have an auction for the 800 MHz licenses, even though that failed with the 2,6 GHz frequency. There were only a few applicants and no foreign players. The money raised was just a few million euros.  Earlier that year, Suvi Lindén, the former Minister of Communications in Finland had boasted for the Finnish business newspaper Kauppalehti (in Finnish, read a bad Google translation here) Intel would come to compete in Finland for a WiMax license.

I also met Hossein Moiin, the CTO of Nokia Siemens Networks a few weeks ago for an interview. He said if the demand for bandwidth and mobile data increases as fast as it has done so far, we could see as broad 4G coverage as 3G networks offer today. I think that would be great.

However, this week, Finnish mobile operators were not as optimistic as Moiin. “I think we will never see as broad 4G coverage as 3G will have”, said Marek Hintze, the head of mobility services at TeliaSonera Finland during their LTE briefing earlier this week. Executives from DNA and Elisa gave pretty much same kind of statements.

LTE also brings good news to global travellers. Moiin was happy we could finally have one common mobile network standard around the world after 30 years of disagreements.

In Europe LTE is pretty much the default choice pushed by the European Commission. Many operators in the U.S. are going for LTE after 3G (HSPA) or CDMA2000. LTE is also expected to be used in Australia.

And even though China will probably go for a little bit different variant of LTE than Europe, due to their different frequency policies, time division multiplexing (TD-LTE), versus frequency division multiplexing (FD-LTE) in Europe, these technologies are mostly compliant with each other, according to Hossein Moiin. I believe him, because since 2003 he has been one of the gurus who has been writing these next generation standards which have eventually led to LTE.

* * *

Either way, Finland is not quite in the lead of LTE anyway. Telia, the Swedish division of the TeliaSonera group, announced at the Mobile World Conference (MWC) in Barcelona to build LTE (4G) in almost 220 cities by the end of 2011. I recall Telia also charges about 60 euros (or 600 Swedish kronors) for the service. So to really experience LTE today, Stockholm is probably the best city in Europe.

Of course we could also argue if the first generation of LTE is really 4G at all. Some engineers think the real 4G will be LTE-Advanced, coming after some years, which supposedly offers maximum download rates from 300 Mbit/s to as high as 1 Gbit/s. Then again, according to the ITU standards, already >20 Mbit/s HSPA+ can be called 4G.

So networks are still very interesting. The world of wireless can be very different from today in just some 5 to 10 years.

It would be interesting to read your experiences of 4G (LTE, WiMax) in different cities.

3 thoughts on “First experiences: 4G (LTE) is amazing

  1. I am absolutely envious! I don’t know what else to say… So if this looks like a spam comment, my apologies, Mike

  2. 35mbps seems about right here in the USA on Verizon network in the midwest. I have seen some report rates as high as 55mbps/15mbps. I have maxed out at 42mbps. You have mentioned that you have gotten unto 80 and some ’reporters’ as much as 90. That would be awesome but my understanding is that the LTE frequency very much dictates the speed. Verizon is operating in US at 700mhz and 35-55 is the download rate. I am surprised that 1800/2600 mhz network can do 80+. In my experience as well, the drop off rate as you distance your self from the tower is just precipitous. The LTE also has difficulty penetrating walls and in some of the steel roof buildings my mifi prefers to do 1x/3g. My observations are from Sioux Falls SD, Chicago Il, and Minneapolis MN in the US and as I mentioned on Verizon network..

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