bmobile introduces 4GLTE for mobile

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Above: TSTT’s CTIO, Roger Richards relaxes after the launch of 4GLTE, the upgrade project he led for the company. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1071 for December 13, 2016

In hindsight, it made sense for TSTT to schedule two press conference on successive Fridays.

It must have been an annoyance for the media, and their attendance flagged at the second event last week, but conflating a business deal that TSTT CEO Dr Ronald Walcott described as “the largest commercial paper ever done in T&T” with the launch of a long awaited upgrade to mobile broadband was sure to dim attention for one or the other to the company’s regret.

So eleven days ago, the source of the backbone of the company’s big spend on infrastructure and systems was top of the agenda. Four days ago, a big bump from a ceiling of around seven megabits on its mobile network to a current top speed of 66 megabits was the solitary news item offered by the company.

Most of the applause for the new speed offerings came from the green or white clad TSTT team members in attendance. Ping latency in the low teens, a boost in speed by a factor of ten and a commensurate rise in upload speeds isn’t the sort of thing that most people, even media veterans, leave their seats to wave a jubilant flag for.

Until, of course, it’s translated into practical terms.

After receiving a test trial of the new system, which requires a new SIM card, a compatible phone (iPhones are still to be brought into the new system) and a dent of just almost $700 as your first installment, things seem to wake up on a smartphone.

I silenced my phone six years ago, so it vibrates when notifications come in. Suddenly, my pocket seemed to be alive with activity, as e-mails, Facebook status updates and Twitter messages gave me the uncomfortable feeling that ants had taken residence in my pants pocket.

TSTT isn’t new to Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G technologies, having implemented a fixed wireless LTE solution for dongles and private hotspots, but its entry into the mobile version of the technology has been delayed by the decision by the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) not to assign 700mhz spectrum to any current players in the field.

Rival Digicel, who have launched LTE in Jamaica, have been waiting for years for the spectrum to introduce the service on installed infrastructure in T&T as well.

Chairman Emile Elias was not happy about the situation and offered “a message for those who have been conspiring to damage TSTT.”

After claiming that TATT has unnecessarily tied access to the 700mhz spectrum to the appointment of a third telephony provider, he threw down a challenge to Cabinet and Dr Rowley to deal with the matter, threatened legal action against the authority by the Board of TSTT and was moved to express his annoyance in calypso, singing, in part, “if they touch TSTT, they touching all ah we.”

So without the spectrum allocation, how did TSTT deliver an LTE mobile solution?

It was, said the company’s CTIO Roger Richards, “a big shoehorn.”

With a mandate from the board and management to make it happen, Richards and his team began to work on the problem in October.

“We were determined to turn around a bad situation,” he said.

“After the CEO set the charter, I got together with the team here. I don’t know why people don’t think we don’t have the capability to do this. We leveraged our partners, specifically Huawei to make this happen.”

What TSTT did was to retrofit equipment used for GSM to carry LTE, optimising the software, equipment and packet core to ferry the signals along.

“We also needed to do it right, to do it first world. I don’t think any of us have had any proper sleep since we started working on this.”

“We needed to do this, because T&T needs this. The directive was to make this happen before Christmas, it would be a gift for the nation.”

bmobile's 4GLTE speeds on launch day at TSTT house. Service is dramatically spotty at launch.
bmobile’s 4GLTE speeds on launch day at TSTT house. Service is dramatically spotty at launch.

The service is active, but very much in the early adopter stage.

TSTT currently offers LTE service in Port of Spain, San Fernando and at six sites in Tobago, primarily in the south of the island.

Service can be distinctly spotty. In St James alone, on one block there’s acceptable service of 36Mbps, but walk two blocks south and you’re suddenly dropped back to legacy 4G speeds of around 8Mbps.

The company hopes to have 85 per cent coverage in T&T over the next few months, but a lot of that depends on whether access to the 700mhz band is granted.

“We launched in 25 per cent more places than we expected,” Richards said, “and there is a continuous programme of expansion planned.”

“There are no specific technology limitations that would stop us from getting to all the places we want to, but there are operational issues as well as economic issues that govern how it’s being deployed.”

The 700mhz spectrum makes better use of the transmission equipment, so it takes more transmission points in the existing 1900mhz spectrum to cover an equivalent area.

“The 700mhz spectrum gives you more bang for the buck,” Richards said.

“Working in the 1900mhz spectrum calls for more sites, more infrastructure, more deployment of hardware.”

“On several levels, it makes more sense to use the 700mhz spectrum. To promote competition for the benefit of the country, let players compete in the 700 space.”

According to Richards, access to the preferred spectrum would speed up deployment of LTE by at least 30 per cent for the company and allow it to cover most of Trinidad and almost all of Tobago.

With number portability now a reality in T&T, TSTT needed to notch a decisive arrow against rival Digicel, who have been aggressively courting users who were fonder of their numbers than their provider.

Even with distinctly spotty coverage at launch, 4GLTE is a promise of better to come from a company that’s badly in need a profile that’s characterised by not just raw speed, but also rejuvenation and relevance.

TSTT is offering access to LTE with a single offering, Everything LTE Premium, at TT$673.88 after VAT with unlimited local calls and text messages and a cap of 20GB of data use. Other plans are expected in January, 2017.