by Science and Technology Correspondent Will Goodbody


Watch my report here:

4G is coming soon to a network near you. And over the past couple of days we in RTE News have had access to Vodafone’s pilot base stations, in several locations. That’s given us a chance, albeit an early one, to see what 4G might bring, when all four operators with licences begin launching their networks in the autumn.

Before we tell you about our experience of 4G, there are a few caveats. First of all, because the pilot network is still closed to the public, there was probably nobody else using it in Dublin when we tried it out. As a result, there was no congestion, and so speeds were probably optimised. Second, the network is still being built and is very much in its infancy. So there may be more power and speed to come. Third, the pilot is only operational for data at present, so we weren’t able to test voice. Finally, we only tried it using one type of handset – a Samsung Galaxy S3 – for a couple of hours.

All that said, the initial impression was positive. Consistently, where the signal strength was strongest in the south inner city, we were getting download speeds of around 50Mbps, and upload pace of 25Mbps. At times the download speed even topped 60Mbps in the north inner city. And further away from the base stations, it was dropping back to 25Mbps, still multiples of what most of us are used in mobile and even fixed line broadband. The Vodafone 3G network, with five bars of coverage was at the same time, for example, giving a maximum download speed of around 5 Mbps. Streaming of video, including HD, was almost instantaneous and the quality crystal clear. A 40MB app took a mere five seconds to download.

So far, so impressive. But where exactly are all the networks with their 4G network construction? O2 says it is well advanced in readying its network for 4G rollout and will begin a pilot in late autumn, beginning in Dublin. Eircom says it is currently trialling 4G services in Dublin, Athlone, Galway and Carlow across a range of devices and will launch commercial services in the autumn. It plans to spend €350 million over five years building a new 4G network and improving its existing 3G infrastructure – something all the other operators are also doing.

Three is currently delivering equipment and engineer testing will take place from August. It will invest €25m in this phase alone and 4G will be available to its customers from October, first in all major cities. Vodafone is currently piloting in Dublin, Waterford and Kilkenny. More sites are coming on stream all the time it says, and by the end of August it will have 100 4G locations. Like the others, it plans to launch its network to customers in the autumn.

But networks are just one issue. The operators face a series of other challenges in getting 4G up and running. One big issue is the availability of handsets. While new devices are being launched all the time which are LTE or 4G compatible, there still aren’t all that many, and most are at the premium end of the market. Also, some only work on certain spectrums, making them incompatible for some of the operators networks.

Then there is the thorny issue of pricing. By the time they launch, the operators will have spent hundreds of millions on buying licences and on building networks. Pitching the cost to end users at the right level will be key to success. There will also be the question of how to deal with data limits. Super fast mobile internet access will bring with it increased demand and usage. Will we see all data caps lifted significantly to reflect this, or will you get what you pay for?

And of course having a respectable level of coverage by launch date will be very important. Cities and areas of high population density will obviously come first, rural areas will follow.

So, many hurdles to overcome then before the 4G revolution can begin. But having briefly experienced life on the mobile internet super-dooper highway, it can’t come too soon.