As the deployment of commercial 4G services continues to gather pace, two issues in particular have grabbed my attention:
- the not insignificant challenge faced by the mobile industry in making the batteries in next generation of handsets last an average working day
- transitioning literally billions of consumers from traditional narrowband voice and messaging services to IP based equivalents without bankrupting the industry in the process
More on the second of these issues in a later post.
The mobile industry is generally well versed in addressing the challenges associated with bringing 4G services to market - spectrum acquisition, network upgrades, handover between 3G and 4G, and indeed getting handsets to market on time.
However, few within the industry have fully grasped the scope and ramifications of the personal “energy crisis” that 4G appears likely to introduce to the hapless consumer.
With the rise of the smartphone, we have all got used to having devices where the battery lasts roughly a working day - rather than the 7 to 14 days that used to be the norm 10 years ago. Generally, mobile users are happy provided they can make it to end of the day with some charge still left, enabling them to plug the device in overnight and replenish its energy stocks for the next days activities.
Battery life is of course highly variable, driven by the type of use the handset is subject to - the amount of emails a business users sends from the field, or the number of posts a consumer makes to social network sites like Facebook. However, regardless of usage patterns, that working day “lifetime” is a key threshold for user. Operators are quick to point out that when too many customers breach that threshold too often, customer service calls, handset returns - and costs - quickly rise, indicating at the same time an increase in unhappy, churn prone customers.
So I was somewhat surprised to find that , when it comes to battery performance in the latest generation of 4G handsets, the disconnect between expectation and reality – and between operator and OEM - is large and increasing. GigaOM recently commented that many new US 4G users are reporting battery lifetime’s half of that of their current generation smartphoneshttp://gigaom.com/mobile/when-will-lte-stop-sucking-your-battery/, taking them well over the “working day” pain threshold.
Caru Ventures and RTT Programmes (www.rttonline.com) recently undertook a piece of work for Nujira, (www.nujira.com), a Cambridge based start-up providing technology to improve radio transmitter efficiency, to understand the underlying causes of increased power consumption in LTE handsets, and the potential for power efficiency technology to address those problems.
In common with others, we found that the main reason behind degraded battery performance is the increased demands LTE places on the handsets radio. Higher underlying bit rates together with a network set up to maximize throughput by making handsets transmit at faster data rates for longer mean a 4G radio will consume approximately 6x - 8x more power than the equivalent 3G (HSUPA). As a result the radio goes from accounting for 10% of the total device power budget in 3G to nearly 50% in 4G, entirely consistent with GigaOM’s reader reports.
However, we also found that Operators and OEMs are not engaged on ensuring handset radio’s maximize their use of battery power. Talking to a majority of the top ten operators worldwide during the study, what we heard were concerns over current battery performance and a desire to engage more with the supply industry on how to meet consumers expectations on battery performance, but limited understanding of how to address the problem.
Why does all this matter to the average man in the street? Well, 4G mobile should be a key component of all our economic futures. Numerous studies have shown that GDP per capita is intrinsically linked to the quality of broadband available in a community. 4G promises significantly faster internet access over a much wider geographic range than has been possible with 3G, speeding up business processes and letting consumers interact more efficiently. Many rural communities will get their first broadband services of any type over 4G.
If 4G handsets fail to break the “working day” threshold when used in anger, the service will quickly be rejected by consumers and the economic benefits will not be forthcoming.
As the Caru/RTT study on radio efficiency in handsets discusses (http://bit.ly/yqVIeh), there are significant steps that can be taken relatively quickly to mitigate this problem. The industry should be prioritising development of solutions to this issue before a local energy shortage becomes a full blown crisis.
As users, we need to hope that the problem gets resolved before 4G hits the market in earnest and we start parting with our hard earned cash on the latest iPhone.