Demystifying 3G in India: Looking Beyond the Advertising Jargon

Before moving on to 4G, the question to ask is: have we had the best of 3G? In reality 3G networks in the country suffer a bad fate and so do the 3G subscribers, except in a few areas.

Telecom companies in the country are talking about the next generation telephony already. India’s largest telecom player Airtel and others have committed to invest thousands of crores into 4G infrastructure. Companies have also made significant investment into 3G.

Before moving on to 4G, the question to ask is: have we had the best of 3G? In reality 3G networks in the country suffer a bad fate and so do the 3G subscribers, except in a few areas.

State of 3G in India

India SmarthphoneIndia offers mobile data networks in all the three flavors of 3G, HSPA and HSPA+. Mobile data traffic in India is estimated to reach 900 petabytes per month by 2017, and 60% of that data coming from video content access on mobile devices, according to Cisco’s 2013 Visual Networking Index.

Consumers have shown faith in 3G, which is fast gaining popularity with increasing smartphone penetration we have reasons to believe 3G will work in India. Operators such as Airtel, Reliance and Vodafone have also seen an increase in their 3G user base.  However, 3G connectivity across the country is not consistent, even in urban areas, and in most cases connectivity keeps fluctuating as you move from place to place.

In India in spite of telecom operators having deployed advanced HSPA and even HSPA+ networks, users on a day to day basis get only around  2-6 Mbps download speed and 1-3 Mbps upload speed in most areas, with an exception of some urban area users who get speeds ranging above this. (These speeds were tested by us using the Speedtest app on mobile devices)

Even if the users get consistent speeds of 10Mbps, which is quite a bit for above average usage, it will be nowhere near what speeds the networks can actually offer.

A survey by Opera’s Skyfire found that, more than half of 3G customers on India’s mobile networks suffer from significant stalling and re-buffering during video streaming on their device causing a dip in demand for video content.

In spite of this sad state of the 3G service available to Indian customers, why are telecos busy expanding their 4G deployment in the country, which at this rate might end up suffering a similar fate?

3gWhat is 3G?

3G stands for for “3rd generation,” and refers to the 3rd generation of mobile networking standard, set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), capable of providing high-speed data service to mobile phone users. Other than a 3G capable network, the only other prerequisite to access mobile data at 3G speed is a 3G enabled handset on the users side.

3G networks allow broadband-speed internet access on mobile devices. This allows users to access the internet, check email and download files, music and video clips onto their handsets at practical speeds.

Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) network, based on the 3G mobile technology, using  the WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) protocol was one of the first implementation of high speed mobile data. These networks have since improved their data performance with the introductions of HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) and later on, HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access), which offers mobile data speeds comparable to newer 4G LTE networks.

3G Speeds Demystified (Upload & Download)

3G towerAny data connection consists of two speed components, the upload speed and the download speed. Download speed might be the more important one, as it is the speed at which data is transferred from the mobile network to the mobile device. For eg. browsing, streaming music or video etc are mainly affected by the download speed availiable.

Upload speed is the rate at which data is sent from a mobile device to a mobile network. This speed is important in case of instances like attaching files to emails, uploading photos or other content to social media sites and so on.

Most speeds advertised by telecom companies are always the download speeds and not the upload speeds, and upload speeds are usually slower than download speeds.

3G, based on WCDMA, was one of the first iterations launched and offered data speeds of up to 384 Kbps upload and download.

HSPA, it is the terminology used when both HSDPA (3GPP Release 5) and HSUPA (3GPP Release 6) technologies are deployed on a network. It offers up to 14.4 Mbit/s download and 5.76 Mbit/s upload speeds theoretically. But in daily usage the download speeds will range anywhere between 2 Mbps to 10 Mbps.

HSPA+ (3GPP Release 7 and beyond) offers up to 672 Mbit/s download and 168 Mbit/s upload speeds.

The above mentioned speeds are the theoretical speeds available through the technology and not the speeds actually deployed on Indian Networks. 3G speed availiable on Indian networks, as advertised telecom operators, range from 2 – 21 Mbps.

How fast a data connection do you need?

If primarily use the phone for voice, then 3G is more than enough for your requirement. If you are into browsing the internet, uploading pictures and other media onto social networking or other sites, you can do with a 3G connection.

You can also stream music and watch streamed video clips on your mobile using a consistent 3G connection.

For most practical purposes a good 3G connection is all you need.

Do keep in mind that any kind of 3G data usage will drain your mobile phone battery quicker than when 3G is switched off. This is the case especially if you live in an area with poor 3G coverage, as the phone searching for the non-existent 3G signal will drain your battery further.

Then you might ask who is 4G for?

2G3G4GProbably for the ones who need a insanely (as per telecom Ads) fast and cutting edge data connection. If you have the extra buck to pay for the expensive 4G connection, then you do go for it, as it will (theoretically) give you those insane data speeds to make your media streaming a much more pleasurable experience. With large players like Reliance gearing up for a pan India 4G roll out, prices will drop eventually.

Also in most cases, a faster data connection equates to more data being transferred i.e you might hit you data limit on your plan much sooner.

Nowadays most mobile phone users (at least the urban users) in the country have a mobile data connection. With the advent of mobile data technology today, we have a faster new technology being introduced every couple of years, giving customers no time to understand what connection or technology suits their requirement the most.

Even though 4G (4th generation mobile technology), that is available in the form of Mobile WiMax or LTE(Long Term Evolution), has been available in various circles across the country for some time now, 4G availability and adoption has been slow.

Our experience with Airtel 4G was really bad. When Airtel launched its 4G service in Bangalore we went ahead and bought a connection. Withtin 3 days we saw that, contrary to what the advertisments said, the download speed were peeking at 2.7 Mbps and uploads at 0.39 Mbps.

Airtel 4g

The above picture is a screen shot from the Airtel portal, promoting their 4G LTE connection. According to it you can download the complete Bollywood movie Barfi on their 3G network in 41.6 seconds. Really now?

Speeds promised by any telecom operator should be more consistent with what a majority of the users can access in most areas, and not restricted to a few users in fewer areas.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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