Without SLAs, consumers must endure over-hyping of service capabilities

© Flickr/cc-licence/Neerav Bhatt

© Flickr/cc-licence/Neerav Bhatt

  • What’s the obsession with headline data speeds?
  • Why “theoretical” has no place in marketing materials
  • Consumers lag far behind verticals in terms of service assurance
  • The advent of 5G will only make matters worse

Why do we do it? Why does this industry keep over-playing the capabilities of mobile and broadband services to consumers? Not a month goes by without some legal action or complaint against a service provider whose advertised service levels far exceed the actual levels. And so it is with mobile; far too many marketers within telcos latch on to the theoretical best-case data transmission speeds and – with some deft wording – plant the idea in customers’ minds that these speeds are actually attainable. No. They are not.

The move to rearchitect networks for 5G and enable network slicing as a means to offer new, finely-tuned services to specific vertical market industry customers is well underway, and we’ve been covering developments here for a number of years. These services will be underpinned by detailed service level agreements (SLAs) that will penalise the telco if they under-deliver. As we move to agile, dynamic services with rapid spin-up times, zero touch automation (in whatever form we eventually agree upon) will play a key role in ensuring service quality and continuity. If all goes to plan (and there is still much work to do first), it should be a winner for telcos.

So much for big business. What about the mass consumer market? Are we going to be offered “five nines” SLA terms when 5G rolls out? No way – not even if we would be prepared to pay for it, which obviously we’re not, as we are very price sensitive.

Consumers are already being conned by inappropriate performance claims, the vast number of which are all focused on speed. This practice exists now with LTE, and it’s only going to get worse with 5G. How else do marketers try and sell the benefits of 5G to consumers? There’s going to be a tremendous (and unhealthy and unwelcome) focus on data speeds – and in the early years of 5G, this is going to result in serious disappointment.

Hands up if you’re getting 600Mbit/s on LTE

Case in point; a press release this morning from UK mobile operator EE – which enjoys a spot of “creative” marketing – seeks to promote its two new LTE-connected WiFi shared access points (you can read it here). The flagship model is described as a CAT 12 enabled device “capable of supporting theoretical download speeds of up to 600Mbit/s”. Well, yes, that is indeed theoretically true – category 12 LTE user equipment, as defined in 3GPP Rel-11, can support download speeds of 603Mbit/s and 102Mbit/s upload. But this performs comes with many caveats. It absolutely needs carrier aggregation, but channel bandwidth is only one factor – others include network loading (the number of subscribers in the cell being accessed), the configuration of the system (2x2 or 4x4 MIMO for Cat 12) and the level of signal interference (and to reduce this to a minimum you’ve got to be practically sitting on top of the cell site).

EE launched LTE-Advanced with carrier aggregation back in late 2016 for Cat-9 devices, aggregating the 1800MHz band it once used for 2G GSM with the 2.6GHz band for its LTE-Advanced service, which it calls 4G+.

LTE-Advanced, with the right devices and network conditions, can offer pretty impressive throughput for users, but it varies – considerably so if a user unknowingly wanders into an older LTE cell. For a consumer tempted by the “theoretical download speeds of up to 600Mbit/s”, they should also be aware that they would burn through their monthly EE data allocation of 50Gb (and their £40) in about 83 seconds… Thankfully, there is no way on Earth that’s going to happen.

A fairer deal for consumers

Fast-forward to 5G and the promise of anything from 1Gbit/s to 10Gbit/s of data throughout. Consumer expectations will be sky high, fuelled by the inevitable marketing onslaught, and they might even pay a little more money for this blazingly fast service (although if they believe the 600Mbit/s LTE-A claim, and indeed the various 1Gbit/s LTE trial results from aggregated spectrum, they might not be in such a rush to try 5G). What will be the backlash when actual real-world service falls depressingly short?

There is no way telcos can guarantee these best-case theoretical speeds, so it’s time to stop talking about them. It’s suggestive marketing and its misleading. Mobile operators can’t even guarantee 100 per cent geographic coverage, let alone ultra-high data speeds. Service assurance is non-existent for consumers, it’s pretty much a case of “you get what we give you, but we can’t promise anything”. Makes you very appreciative of where you stand in the customer pecking order – enterprises at the top, businesses in the middle, and we consumers down in the basement.

Time for an innovative operator to rip up the old model and come up with something better. And yes, we would pay for that.

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