4G LTE in Lebanon – The Review: A Premature Venture?

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.

The coverage:

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.

The speed:

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?

The experience:

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.

Conclusion:

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.

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Will 4G LTE Work On The iPhone in Lebanon?

As of writing this post and as far as I know, the only device in the Lebanese market that is capable of running 4G/LTE is the iPhone 5. LTE enabled android smartphones have not been imported yet and the current ones in the market do not contain that functionality.

However, there is one hurdle that I’m not sure if the ministry of telecommunication is familiar with regarding actually getting 4G to work on the iPhone 5.

No, I’m not talking about the iPhone 5’s model, something I told you about many times before, being the first blog to tell you to buy model A1429 (click here). I am referring to the following:

“Apple’s power over operators is often overstated, but for the first time, a carrier has confirmed that the company conducts its own tests on an LTE network before deciding whether to enable 4G services on iPhones and iPads for customers of that company.

Swiss operator Swisscom admitted that was the case to mobile-focused website Telecoms.com, confirming an Apple policy that many had previously believed to be true. A Swisscom spokesperson told Telecoms.com that the company “only enables 4G access after testing their device on an operator’s live network.” (source)

In order for LTE to be enabled on the only LTE phone in the Lebanese market so far, Apple needs to personally verify that the Lebanese network is up to par. Have we received any Apple technicians in the country to test out the 4G network ahead of the pilot phase and subsequent commercial launch in April?

The iOS 6.1 update brought LTE functionality to a multitude of European and Middle Eastern countries. The functionality is not via activating the chip in the phone, it is enabling the toggle which allows an iPhone’s user to access their carrier’s LTE network. In order for us to receive this toggle in Lebanon, we will require another iOS update. Will Apple do one specifically for us and possibly other smaller markets in case they come and test our upcoming 4G LTE networks?

Seeing as much more important markets, especially European ones, had to wait months for the 6.1 update, I doubt.

This is the current state of the network data settings:

LTE toggle iPhone 5 - 2

 

And this is how it should be:

LTE toggle iPhone 5

I am writing this because I’m not sure if this issue has been brought up to those who are concerned with launching 4G in Lebanon. Having LTE work on our iPhones is not as simple as having the service activated on our sim cards and it also involves much more than simply having a functional network in the country’s main cities.

Which iPhone 5 to Buy in Lebanon?

I told you about this before (here and here) but minister Sehnaoui confirmed it on twitter yesterday.

Nicolas Sehnaoui iPhone 5 tweets

For the many Lebanese who will benefit from the price reductions (the phone is going for $800 max these days for the 16GB capacity) to buy the iPhone 5 either for themselves or for their loved ones this Christmas, there’s one important thing you need to ask the shop from which you’re buying the phone: which country did you get it from?

If they got their iPhone 5 from the United States or Canada, model being A1428, the LTE that will launch later in 2013 won’t work on it as the chips are incompatible.

If the country of origin is anything in Europe or Australia, then it will work. The model should be A1429.

If you can’t but buy it from the United States, here’s a way you can do it: send the person buying it for you to an Apple Store and get them to buy a no-contract Verizon iPhone 5. It will have the sim card slot fully unlocked and its LTE capabilities are compatible with the frequency that’ll be launched in Lebanon soon.

For those of you who have already bought their iPhone 5 without asking about the country of origin, tough luck. Odds are you won’t be able to benefit from LTE once it’s rolled out.

Telecom, Mobile TV and LTE 4G in Lebanon

I was recently invited to an event held by the Ministry of Telecommunications in Beirut to discuss the accomplishments of this ministry throughout the past year.

Many numbers were unveiled to show improvements from year to year. For instance, the number of data subscribers in Lebanon has tripled in the past year, due mostly to the introduction of the 3G data bundles. The country had about 200,000 subscribers in September 2011 and more than 900,000 in September 2012. The speed has increased 18 fold, from 70Kbps to 1.8Mbps, on average. Although I believe the comparison is slightly unfair since we’re comparing different generations.

Smartphone penetration in the country is more than 50%. DSL subscribers have increased by about 40,000 over the past year, up from 200,000, which I found not to be that impressive considering all the price drops. The average speed is now 1Mbps. But nothing was mentioned about improving the speed further up to the speeds that are currently advertised as possible. For instance, as a subscriber with IDM, I pay $50 per month for 2Mbps and 20GB in quota. I get the 20GB but I only get 1Mbps. However, since I live in the North and we don’t usually get upgrades quickly here, the comparison may not be accurate. But it’s the same situation in my apartment in Achrafieh where I also get only 1Mbps.

The minister also announced that 5 companies have gained rights to start introducing data services in the country, making the total 7 with Alfa and MTC. I believe this should increase competitiveness and maybe bring the prices down although no timeframe for the introduction of these companies’ services was announced.

When it comes to the current generation we have, 3G, it was announced that Alfa, for instance, has over 800 towers to cover a lot of Lebanon. My problem though is that the advertised coverage is still greater than the realistic one. Many areas which have 3G theoretically on Alfa’s map are not covered in real life. However, the coverage has definitely improved throughout the year and seems to be progressing as such. My problem with 3G, and this is even worse with the upcoming 4G, is the pricing. I don’t have a problem paying $19 per month for a data subscription… if I got more than 500MB. With 3G and being a little careful, the 500MB can be barely enough. But I believe that if the ministry’s hope of getting the country high up the digital age is to be realized, then the quotas need to be drastically improved.

For the full report, click here.

Mobile TV:

MTC announced a service that they will be unveiling in the first quarter of 2013 called Mobile TV. The service will allow users to watch a selection of movies, documentaries, series and sports reports on the go. They will also be able to stream live TV without going to a channel’s specific website.

Mobile TV, however, will not be using your existing quota. After all, what will 500MB do if you wanted to watch a movie on it? MTC will be selling Mobile TV as bundles which will allow you access to a specific number of channels. The prices were not decided upon.

I personally think this service is slightly more useful than “changing the tone to a song one” because it’ll be very hard to top that in the matters of uselessness and silliness. But overall, I think this is fairly useless. Perhaps some users who actually don’t own a TV set, rare as they may be, will find it useful. But for the absolute majority, I believe the cost-effectiveness of it, especially if you combine it with the much more useful mobile data, will deter them from actually becoming loyal to the service, although I see many trying it out for a month or two.

After all, why would I need TV on my mobile?

Either way, you can check out the demo of mobile TV here.

4G LTE:

As I had told you before, the frequency that Lebanon will be deploying for LTE is band 3 which means that most commercial phones equipped with LTE coming from outside the US will work on the network, though most LTE users at first will be iPhone 5 users because most LTE-equipped android phones haven’t been released in Lebanon yet, as far as I was told by an Android-enthusiast.

The area that Alfa’s LTE will be able to cover indoor spreads from about Geitawi to Downtown and down to some parts of Baabda during the initial launch phase. MTC did not unveil a coverage map. The coverage outdoors expands slightly but this is basically the area that will be covered.

The red areas are the indoor coverage and the gray areas next to them are the outdoor coverage

20 sites have been equipped in order to provide this coverage and Alfa will be sending out mobile sites to universities across the country to show students the service. They’ve also launched the pilot testing phase yesterday with commercial launch aimed at the second quarter of 2013.

I asked them about trying to be part of the pilot testing but they said the people have already been chosen, which I thought was disappointing because I’m sure I’m not on that list. I also asked them about potential prices for the 4G LTE bundles and they said decisions haven’t been made yet. However, I shared my concern that 500 MB quotas and 4G will be absolutely ridiculous. I basically stood there as the Alfa spokesperson showed me LTE speeds and counted to 5 in front of him as I pointed out to the data he had downloaded in those 5 seconds. And that was my entire monthly quota.

The average is for the last 30 seconds. This was taken at the beginning of the test. A few seconds later, the average became well over 90Mbps

The speeds that I was shown averaged around 90Mbps with Alfa and about 70Mbps with MTC. However, they both admitted that these are lab speeds that are as such because they’re the only ones using the network. When the pilot testing phase ends and 4G becomes available for the public, expect speeds to be much less than 90Mbps although far, far higher than their 3G counterpart. After all, do you need more than 30Mbps as speeds?

Upload speeds, though, were far – far less impressive with both MTC and Alfa averaging 1Mbps.

Nothing was mentioned about whether rolling out 4G will be as problematic as when 3G was released. Hopefully the infrastructure was improved drastically since then. Either way, 4G is rolling out with a much smaller area of coverage than 3G and I don’t expect that to change very fast because even in very advanced countries, 4G LTE is present only in major cities so far.

Other:

It was announced that the process with which a company can get an ISP license is now very easy. So expect a lot of new ISPs to pop up soon. Alfa said that about 195,000 subscribers use their U-chat plan. Alfa has over 1.8 million active subscribers. MTC did not unveil a number but last time I checked, they had more than 2 million, which brings mobile penetration in Lebanon close to 100%.

The Beirut Digital District is a nice venue and the event was highly organized. However a lot of the presenters, even though they hold high position jobs at their corresponding companies, had absolutely no idea how to give a presentation.

Ericsson unveiled a very cool and creepy device which got the attention of everyone there which turns your body into data storage. For example, you go to a hotel and you book a room. The concierge programs your lock to the palm of your hand. So in order to open the door, you only need to touch the doorknob. Futuristic, you bet.

Nothing was mentioned about upgrades to the ADSL network which I found to be odd seeing as fiber optics had been a discussion point for a while now.

A service that I believe should be added to the mobile sector is being able to change carriers while keeping your number. I don’t see that discussed anywhere.

Overall, while there’s obviously a lot of room for improvement – especially when you get a taste of how the telecom sector is in other more advanced countries – the work being done is impressive.

4G LTE in Lebanon: The Technical Aspect

Plus961 has written about Lebanon starting initial testing for LTE in about two weeks. The article that Rami quoted, which was published in Annahar (click here), sets a timeframe for initial pilot testing starting November 16th while commercial rollout will start in select areas across the country on April 23rd.

The area that will first be covered is Beirut city, from Geitawi onwards. LTE theoretical speeds according to Alfa testing have reached 100Mbps. Actual speeds will be quite less, however, around 40-50 Mbps in best case scenarios. The average speeds that my American friends on Verizon get are approximately 30Mbps.

A source in Alfa has told me that the frequency bands Lebanon will be rolling out will be band 3 (1800 MHz), initially, with other frequencies added later on, which makes the Lebanese LTE network compatible with most international 4G handsets, apart from the ones that are made proper for AT&T, Canada’s Bell, Rogers and Telus and a few Mexican carriers who have opted to use the frequencies that are employed by the aforementioned carriers: band 4 (AWS) and 17 (700b MHz). I assume it’ll be the same for MTC.

This means that prospective iPhone 5 buyers need to buy their phones from European countries or Australia. The American Verizon iPhone works as well.

The plans, however, haven’t been set yet although I don’t expect them to be up to par with the potential demand. LTE is very fast internet and any plan that doesn’t go into several GBs in quota is doomed to be quite useless. Theoretically, you can burn through the 500MB plan (the most popular one among 3G subscriptions) in less than a minute.

On the other hand, and even though LTE is needed to move the country forward in the ever growing digital age, should we be moving towards it when there are a lot of areas in the country without proper basic coverage, let alone 3G? For instance, my hometown in the Batroun caza barely gets any reception. 3G is unheard of over there.

Moreover, moving towards LTE will also get our ADSL speeds to considerably lag behind with the optimal state households get being 1Mbps.

But either way, since many believe I criticize too much, I’ll leave at that and hope LTE rolling out in Lebanon turns out better than the way 3G was unveiled.

iPhone 5 in Lebanon: The LTE “Issue”

Many people have been asking which countries they can purchase an iPhone 5 from and have it function normally in Lebanon.

The confusion is because the iPhone 5 will support different frequencies of LTE depending on the country you get it from. For a full list of those frequencies, click here.

What many Lebanese users are forgetting is the following.

  1. We are not getting LTE in Lebanon anytime soon. I have it from trusted sources within Alfa and MTC that it will be a few years before LTE goes out of trial phase in Lebanon, which obviously makes sense. I mean it hasn’t been a year even since 3G was rolled out.
  2. By the time LTE becomes available in Lebanon, Apple would have released iPhone 10 and odds are you would have given up on your iPhone 5 by then and upgraded.
  3. The iPhone 5 keeps the same frequencies the 4S and the 4 used to connect to 3G and older cellular generations and as we all know, older generation iPhones work well  – or as well as a smartphone can work – in Lebanon.

What does it all mean?

It means that you can buy an unlocked iPhone 5 from the US, France, Italy, Australia – any country basically – and have it work in Lebanon. Your only problem remaining is to find a nano sim. Good luck with that.

Lebanon To Get LTE Along With 3G?

We all know that we have the worst internet in the world in Lebanon. Our politicians are mostly always full of promises and little action when it comes to almost every regard of our lives so treat this as yet another one of those “talks” that get you excited, but hopefully this time something will actually happen.

So 3G is coming to Lebanon come September, apparently. We will finally have decent internet to use, albeit it will only be on our mobile phones. But it’s a start. Many people, however, were critical of the imminent implementation of 3G saying that the world is already moving to 4G or LTE technologies, which offer much higher speeds. Lebanon implementing third-generation technologies while the rest of the world is moving on to fourth (or even fifth) generation stuff isn’t really stepping up your game in a competitive market.

However, it looks like Lebanon will be receiving LTE upgrades in some areas, while 3G is more spread out over the country as a whole – which is very, very good news. After all, even more advanced countries such as the US have not implemented LTE in all of the country, only in major cities so far. So what do you expect from a country with much more limited resources?

According to this article, MTC Touch (one of the two mobile operators in the country) has built over 850 3.5G stations in Lebanon, of which 200 will offer 3.9G services (giving you double the speed that 3.5G can offer, about 40 Mb/s) and 50 of which will be LTE stations, allowing download speeds of around 173 Mb/s.

And if this wasn’t good enough, the prices that are being thought of (and I’m sure this will apply to Alfa as well since this is a monopoly) are not bad at all. In fact, they look to be very promising. Prices could start from a mere $10 (and go to over $100 depending on the download speed of choice) allowing data quotas of about 2GB for smartphones (both upload and download) and over 15GB or even 20GB for laptops.

Alfa will issue a formal statement about the 3G services it will offer on Thursday, May 12.