The Need for Better Internet on Our Phones
Mobile internet is an essential part of smartphones nowadays… well, for 75% of us. Despite living in a place where my fastest network reaches 5 megabit download speeds, on very intermittent 3G, it certainly is an essential part for my usage, to the point where even with my third-world network, I simply cannot fathom how there’s still a fourth of users who aren’t on data plans. It’d be interesting to see if that subset of smartphone users shares a large chunk with the subset of budget or low-range smartphones, which admittedly see little gain from having data plans – particularly in third world countries with slow 2G and 3G networks. But with apps such as Whatsapp dominating the Latin American markets (my experience here closely reflects this statement), a lot of budget users still have data plans, even the 20 MB data capped package plans (yes, that’s a thing here) are widely adopted by the poorest of smartphone users.
So with mobile internet on the rise, and endlessly tending towards a necessity to have your phone justifiably be called “smart”, there are a few factors that matter for a good mobile internet experience. The three most important factors are most certainly speed, amount, and the sometimes-overlooked availability. The availability and amount bits are mostly dictated by your carrier, and how much infrastructure and generosity they have. The other important factor is speed, both for uploading and downloading, and is highly dependent not just on the type of network you are on, and how your carrier manages it, but whether your hardware supports said networks or not.
This hardware support has to be invented, designed, built, and put into your phone for you to enjoy the next tier of network speeds, and the theoretical maximums of these speed not only increase with new “generations” (in the technical term) but also with the improvements within the technological generation. Perhaps the most talked about improvement of recent years came with the Snapdragon 805 and its support for Cat 6 LTE (Cat stands for category, not cats… sadly), which was originally introduced with the Galaxy S5 LTE-A that was released in Korea last year. The device features a download speed which has an upper bound of 300 Mbps. Now it is very important to clarify that Mb (megabit) and MB (megabyte) are not the same thing. Many carrier employees confuse this and I’ve had disputes with unknowing managers over this:
First of all, they sell “megabits” per second because the number will be bigger, and I think they do know users will confuse this number with the one they see more often in their device’s storage. The theoretical maximum of Cat 6 LTE translates to 37.5 megabytes (8 bits in 1 byte) per second download speeds, which is still crazy. But there’s many people that think their 50 Mbps internet will let them download that 50 Mbps file in 1 second, when in reality it’ll take at least 8 times that much – not accounting for the hundreds of factors that could impact this speed.
So everyone here knows, either because you are an enthusiast or because of marketing, that phones now come with 4G LTE, and years prior 3G, and we still hear about 2G every once in a while. Let’s start by getting an idea of what they are.
G For Gen
The “G” stands for “generation” in the wireless technology world. Each generation is incompatible with the one prior, which is why modems must accommodate for newer and older technologies to get complete coverage – so if you want the new generation, you’ve got to upgrade your phone. The immediate noticeable improvement in each generational jump is speed, as 4G is significantly faster than 3G which is significantly faster than 2G.
The first generation was the old analogue cellular systems, and it was with the second gen that we saw the jump to digital systems – which were pretty slow at the time. Many phones, even new phones, retain 2G because in many markets it serves as one of the primary networks, and on some more advanced ones it serves as a backup solution. Internet speeds on 2G phones range from 9.6 Kbits per second, to around 200. Very reminiscent of the dial-up days it cohabited with.
The third generation (3G) starts at this 200 Kbps rate and can range up to a theoretical maximum of 82 Mbps using HSPA and HSPA+ technology.. but don’t go around looking for that. The 3G covers a lot of standards, though, with known ones including UMTS, CDMA2000, EDGE (blackberry throwback…), and HSPA.
Then came 4G with systems such as LTE and WiMAX, claiming to have the real-life speeds of 5 Mbits per second and more, but standardized in availability and consistency to reach that home cable connection feel. Now we’ve got versions of 4G promising speeds of hundreds of megabits per second. Another benefit of 4G is their “All-IP”ness that allows them to replace the old circuit-based voice phone calling with voice-over-IP systems… something that’s starting to be seen with internet calling being widely adopted.
What does Cat 6 LTE mean for me?
So when the Cat 6 LTE S5 came out, it doubled the theoretical maximum download speed of that of the traditional S5 launched months before. The Cat 6 devices have the advantage because they look at the swath of available carrier spectrum and pull together two of the disparate bands into a single, much wider and faster connection of up to 40 MHz. This carrier aggregation is not new and the Galaxy S4 was the first to feature it, combining up to 20 MHz of spectrum (using Cat 4).
Despite the insane speed limit of these new technologies, in the real world you won’t see them often… if ever. The load at any given time, as well as area coverage and availability, can influence (and destroy) your speed. EE carrier from London, for example, only saw a peak of 60 Mbps in their Cat 4 LTE service tests. This depends on the “spectrum lanes” your carrier provides, and whether they congested with heavy usage at a given location. But with Cat 6 LTE accessing two separate bands, they’ll be able to create more space in some bands, which means that even those who do not have Cat 6 phones will benefit as there’ll be less traffic in each lane.
Is the speed worth it?
This one is a tricky question. For many uses, such as social media photo sharing and web browsing, the speed upgrades as of now will not mean too much. Especially given that the size of the pictures that is uploaded is heavily compressed… but the big recurring benefit will be found in video downloads and uploads. With manufacturers pushing for higher resolution screens that are on their way to hitting 4K this year, suitable 4K media will soon follow. Be it through streaming or batch downloading, our files will get heavier – and thus, if we want that crisp 4K movie, we’ll need to have faster and faster speeds. So, like most things in tech, there seems to be a synergy between the displays in our homes, the media for such displays, the need to have that same media in that same quality in our pockets, and the download speed requirements to access to said media. Technology is a web of intricate interconnectivity and it rarely leaves its nodes behind.
Another short – but worth mentioning – side effect to higher download speeds would be that social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and the like should be raising their compression standards to allow for richer images that would now, in theory, be uploaded in due time. Wouldn’t it be nice to have images of resolution higher than 600×600 to see on your phone’s future 4K display? But social platforms, video streaming, and any sort of download can get faster and faster and still have to answer to one little crippling detail…
Despite the crazy amount of time we spend downloading data on our phones, cellular network data has not kept pace… Carriers are dealing with this increase in use – and its consequential congestion – not through infrastructural investments, but through data caps of various forms. While mobile internet is a “limited” resource (after all, you can only accommodate so much traffic into carrier bands), data caps have a huge downside to all users, and not just those who willingly abuse the system through overuse. Cisco forecasts 15.9 Exabytes of mobile data traffic per month by 2018… that’s about 15,900,000,000,000 megabytes. So congestion would only get worse without new ways of dealing with it.
The American Way
Sprint had doubled data for American consumers in August of 2014… This sparked a lot of controversy all over the internet, because like Jon Broadkin from Ars Technica bluntly put it, “The carriers’ networks didn’t double in size overnight. The capacity was always there”. And it is true – they simply decided to boost data, and soon the rest followed.
These networks also “throttle” the users who “hog” it by downloading large amounts of data using unlimited plans, but according to the major carriers only the top 5% of users face this. The throttling and data caps are the scythe and hammer of the american carrier regime, and the regime is corrupt. The network doesn’t really analyze the past usage patterns of the users, how much data they’ve used that month, or where and at what time – it just throttles based on how much stress the band has at the moment. This means that everyone suffers from the data hoarders with unlimited plans that try to use their mobile connections as their home Wi-Fi. Peak time management and other thresholds don’t really work either.
The big problem with data caps is that they made the incredible newer generations and standards a waste of money. They make the virtues of these technologies and services borderline useless past a certain point. Think about it: a 300 Mbit per second connection would drain your 500mb data cap in 13.333 seconds. Imagine how horrible it would be if your friend was using your phone and accidentally (or willingly, but then he shouldn’t be your friend) clicked a download link that was big enough to drain a huge chunk of your data in one quick go? You could be rendered dataless (or speedless for some) over silly mistakes, such as an app defaulting to a high quality stream.
Moreover, once you go over your data cap, you are at the risk of being throttled over nothing (hence “speedless” in the previous paragraph). So once you go into a congested area, you can kiss your Cat 6 download speed bye-bye. So they are forcing you to be extremely careful with the service they promote so much. You have every reason not to use their service, and use Wi-Fi as much as possible, even if slower and even if you are unlimited, to get to the end of the month without facing a severe disadvantage.
So while unlimited data for everyone isn’t ideal (because of the previously mentioned constraints of cellular infrastructure), these data caps are severely hurting the service that is provided to americans – that pay top price for it, by the way…
While some networks such as T-Mobile and Sprint still offer unlimited data, it is sad that the widest-reaching and best-performing networks in America are resorting to these cheap anti-funding campaign by circling through the problem with barriers that result in a sub-par mobile experience.
Progress versus Greed
So as we see, arguably the most important market for the big OEMs pushing these technologies forward features the most expensive mobile connections, and, for said price, less-than-stellar service. And such a service degrades the impact of these technologies, that in the end shape the services we love – and the progress of many industries. Just like Netflix wouldn’t exist with the internet speeds we have today, and the invention of broadband internet, we can barely predict what kind of services we are missing out on due to the greed of the carriers that limit the reach of our smartphone’s intelligence. And with the American market being one where the mobile manufacturers thrive the most in sales, with it being such an important region to the mobile world, these limits indirectly affect all of us, for it is known that countries like America end up dictating the technological standards of many nations that soon follow, and many OEMs adapt and adjust to american demand first and foremost.
Luckily there are honest services in important markets, and countries like South Korea keep pushing mobile internet forward. They are now investing into a 5G wireless service that would be hundreds of times faster than the current 4G networks, with download speeds surpassing 800 megabytes (yes, megabytes this time) per second. Hopefully american consumers stop sitting around in conformism and demand en masse that their services pick up their slack and provide them with the promises they tout. Hopefully bureaucratic enterprises aid the consumers in their struggle against capitalist greed. Hopefully Firefly comes back on air. All these things are unlikely, but we can still hope… It’s 2015, America, and you are too wealthy for this… behave like a first-world superpower should.