Afterword

ThimphuTech was the first technology blog in Bhutan. We started writing it in 2009, just as broadband and mobile internet started to take off. (Although internet in Bhutan was launched in 1999, it was either super-slow or super-expensive, and was only used by a selected few).

In the blog, we wrote about technology and food, but also about plenty of other stuff. The blog became popular and influential in Bhutan. A companion bi-weekly column -- Ask Boaz -- was published for many years in the Kuensel, Bhutan's national newspaper. (The complete Kuensel columns are available as an ebook, Blogging with Dragons).

We stopped updating the blog when we left Bhutan in 2014, but the information within the posts can still prove useful, and thus we decided to keep it online.

We thank all our readers.
Tashi Delek,
Boaz & Galit.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Is Bhutan ready for 4G? A few issues related to the upcoming LTE launch

"And I have promises to keep..."
B-Mobile is launching LTE tomorrow, October 24. LTE is a fourth-generation (4G) mobile broadband technology. According to the launch announcement, it will be available in selected parts of Thimphu (Ministers' Enclave, Dzong, Norzin Lam, and a few other areas). To use LTE, you will need a mobile handset (or data card) that supports the new technology.

While keeping up with the latest technologies is nifty, a few issues related to this new launch come to mind.

Speed

Surprising, the expected download speed is not mentioned in B-Mobile's launch announcement. A promotional ad that I found on BT's Facebook page promises "4 times faster than 3G, 10 times faster than home broadband!". Yet, an older announcement that can be found on BT's website talks about 35-40 Mbps. Here is a summary of this information:

LTE Speed is ...... according to this source
20 Mbps"10 times faster than home broadband" (maximum broadband speed is 2 Mbps)
35-40 MbpsAnnouncement
84 Mbps"4 times faster than 3G" (maximum broadband speed is 21 Mbps)

So what speed is LTE in Bhutan going to support? Your guess is as good as mine. In any case, this is only the theoretical maximum speed. What the actual speed will be is anyone's guess. For example, the 3G download speed mentioned on BT's website is a cool 21 Mbps. I have never been able to come even close to that speed.

Cost

BT's LTE is expensive for customers. First, you will need a special LTE SIM, which is Nu 500. Granted, this includes Nu 500 worth of data, which you'll have to use within a week. It's not clear why you need to hurry up and use that data so quickly.

Over and above the one-time SIM investment, there is of course the recurring cost of data. The price per KB for LTE is Nu 0.001, which translates into Nu 1048/GB. That's "10 times more expensive than home broadband, and 3 times more expensive than 3G!". Compare that to LTE in India, which costs the same as 3G, and as little as Rs 50/GB.

More troubling is the question of payment when your LTE phone is out of the LTE coverage zones, and then falls back to using 3G, or even worse, EDGE or GPRS. Do you still pay the subscription prepaid rate of Nu 1048/GB, or will you be charged according to the much cheaper 3G tariff? In other words, does BT keep a separate account for data usage for each of the technologies? This is not clear and I could not find any information about this issue on the website.

Band

About a year ago, B-Mobile switched the frequency of 3G in Thimphu from 2100 MHz to 850 MHz, as the lower frequency offers better reception in buildings. In general, frequencies in the 2000 MHz range cannot penetrate buildings very well. The new LTE band to be used in Thimphu is 1800 MHz, which is again not optimal for urban areas. LTE can also support lower frequencies such as 700, 800, 850 and 900 MHz, which offer superior reception in buildings. I am not sure why LTE in Thimphu will be using the higher frequency of 1800 MHz; there might be a hidden technical issue that I'm not aware of. Otherwise, should we expect another change of frequency, as was the case with 3G?

User Equipment

LTE requires LTE-compatible handsets that support this standard. They tend to be expensive, and not easy to procure, especially in India. My guesstimate is that at least 99% of smartphones in Bhutan do not support LTE.

For example, the popular Samsung Galaxy S III (GT-I9300) does not support LTE (contrary to what's mentioned in the Kuensel article). The Samsung S III LTE, which is a different variant (GT-I9305), does support LTE, but it is generally not available for purchase in India.

Another example is the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5's US/Canada edition (A1428) does support LTE, but not the 1800 band, so this phone will not be able to use 4G in Bhutan.

Does Bhutan need 4G?

Aside from all these issues, the key question is: why now? Who will benefit from the deployment of LTE at this point in time?

LTE is a new technology. Although it has various advantages compared to 3G (and will eventually supercede it), many of these benefits do not play off in Bhutan. For example, LTE offers better handling of fast-moving mobile phones (up to 500 km/hour). I don't see that as a useful feature in Bhutan until we get our first bullet train. It also offers advantages in highly-congested metropolitan areas. Again, not very applicable for Bhutanese towns.

In contrast, 3G and its 3.5G derivatives, such as HSPA and HSPA+ (with a theoretical download speed of up to 168 Mbps) are mature technologies which are backward-compatible with 2G. 3G uses cheaper telecom equipment, cheaper handsets, and when deployed correctly, can provide adequate mobile broadband for Bhutan's needs in the foreseeable future.

Relative growth of 1G/2G/3G/4G users worldwide
shows greatest increase in 3G (apologies for the 3D bar-chart)