I’ve been using 4G around Beirut for the past two weeks. Alfa were kind enough to give me a dongle and a line with a 10GB plan for that purpose.
The result, 2 weeks in, is that I am less impressed than when they first showed me the service back at some ministry events.
I personally didn’t use the dongle because it doesn’t allow me to really test coverage. Don’t expect me to hop around with it connected to my Macbook pro for testing purposes. So I used the line I got on my iPad mini, which I carried everywhere I went around Beirut, giving me a more or less similar impression of what to expect on mobile phones.
The maps being circulated around for Alfa’s coverage (MTC has similar coverage as well) show a very well covered Beirut. The reality, however, is much less optimal than that. For example, Alfa’s map shows that both Beirut Souks and ABC have LTE towers nearby to enable indoor coverage. I can count on one hand how many times I had indoor coverage in both of those places. Outdoor coverage is also spotty sometimes and you will find your device switching between 3G and LTE often. Coverage in Achrafieh stops around St. George Hospital. Anything East to that doesn’t have LTE. Coverage in Hamra, when I tested it, was borderline horrible. The LTE I got simply didn’t work and when it did was far less optimal than the 3G I was using on my iPhone 5.
I had possibly Lebanon’s fastest internet in my pocket for a few weeks, though I guess that’s not saying much. In fact, while the bandwidth I was getting is possibly impressive in itself, it somehow becomes less stellar when you realize that this is less optimal for what 4G LTE should be giving you. My friends in the United States are used to an average of 20 Mbps with speeds reaching 60Mbps sometimes, something I haven’t seen in any of the many, many speedtests I’ve done, fully knowing that the 20Mbps figure was what an alfa spokesperson said to expect on average in Lebanon. Now I wonder, if we are still in the phase when there aren’t many users sharing the bandwidth and we’re not getting the average speed, what can we expect when 4G is rolled on phones?
I enjoyed the fast speed that I got whenever I did. For instance, I downloaded The Perks of Being a Wallflower off iTunes, its size being about 1.4GB, in slightly less than 2 hours by creating a hotspot out of my connection. Songs that I purchased from the iTunes store would download in less than a minute. I didn’t need to worry about the time it would take an app to download or update – even if my iPad fell back on 3G more often than not in many of the tasks I mentioned earlier.
I also really enjoyed the leisure that the 10GB quota gives. It is, however, priced at $99 per month which means it’s definitely not within my range. The quotas, on the other hand, are not 4G-centric. There has been constant talk about how we have the best 4G prices. This isn’t true. You, as a user, are subscribing to a mobile data bundle, not a 4G bundle. If your phone supports 4G and you find yourself in a 4G area (only Beirut at this time), you automatically switch from 3G to 4G, which means you use the same bundle that you had all the time for 3G to use 4G when available. So if you find 3G quotas unacceptable, the same logic still applies.
Are the bundles enough? As it currently stands, I would still say they are overpriced. However, I believe the quota itself will suffice, even with 4G, because the speeds are not that much better than optimal 3G (I have seen 3G speedtests that are better than some 4G ones I did) and coverage isn’t good enough for you to burn through your MBs without noticing.
Moreover, LTE will absolutely demolish your battery life. I was literally able to see the battery percentage of my iPad mini dropping in front of my eyes the more I used LTE, which could be because coverage isn’t as good as advertised. So be prepared to have your chargers around when the service is rolled to mobile phones. Trust me. You will develop battery-phobia.
I think 4G LTE currently in Lebanon is a premature venture that we’ve undertaken. Of course, things are bound to improve from now on and I have to say that my experience with the pilot phase of 4G has been better than the pilot phase of 3G which was all over the place. But do we really need 4G now when there are many facets of our internet sector that are in a much dire need of improvement?
Of course, 4G is great and all. And to further develop economically, our country desperately needs such measures. But couldn’t it have wait a year or so more pending bettering the service before rolling to the public and providing further improvement for our 3G services?
If it were up to me, I would have waited on 4G and developed Lebanon’s 3G even more because our 3G coverage, based on my experience abroad, is not the best that it could be yet in spite of all the tangible improvement we’ve seen recently.