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Rollout of 4G in UK would make digital publishing a reality

| 17 Jan 2012

And the people cried out for mobile broadband, for they were sore afflictedAt last, the dream of truly mobile digital publishing may be about to turn into reality.

For four years now, ever since the launch of the iPhone, publishers have been tantalised by the vision of people being able to access their publications digitally, wherever they were, and at whatever time. The hope was that digital publishing would increase the numbers of people subscribing to publications, and that subscribers who were able to access a publication anytime, anywhere, would become more engaged with the title. In parallel, publishers realised that the launch of the App Store allowed them to deliver magazines and other publications straight into a device that would follow the reader wherever he or she went – day and night. If they got the pricing right, they would benefit from impulse purchasing; someone told by a work colleague about a great magazine could whip out their iPhone, find the title in the App Store, and download it there and then.

There was, however, a snag. Smartphones, and their bigger tablet cousins, are only as fast as the speed of their connection to the internet. And 3G, the current ‘best of breed’ mobile service, is patchy at best, and lamentable at worst. Most operators now claim ‘up to’ 7.2mbps download speeds, which in theory would allow you to download a 500MB magazine file in just over nine minutes (this website explains how broadband speeds translate into how quickly files are downloaded). In practice, in the UK, 3G download speeds are often a fraction of that speed. For example, I have just done a speed test on my fairly new Galaxy SII, with a 3G signal in an area of good reception, and the result showed as 115kbps – i.e. less than two percent of the claimed maximum speed. Downloading that magazine would take me around 10 hours… Buying a smartphone and then using it to access the internet in the UK is often like like asking a racehorse to tow a two-ton dung cart.

True, people can download material using a wi-fi connection – but for most, that means downloading a magazine at home for consumption later, which is scarcely more convenient than buying a printed magazine at a newsstand and sticking it in your briefcase. It’s not surprising that a recent survey by IDG  found that 60 percent of iPads owned by US consumers never leave the home.

So it’s good news indeed that the end of 3G may be nigh. A cluster of recent developments point to a mass rollout of 4G (or something very similar to it) starting next year. First, after many delays and hiccups, the UK regulator Ofcom has announced that 4G spectrum will be auctioned off in Q4 of this year, which should allow some major operators to come to market in the middle of 2013 (others will follow over the following two years, with Ofcom stating that 4G should be ‘widely available’ by 2015, and its target coverage is 98 percent of the UK population – including many rural areas that currently don’t even get 3G). Second, we seem to have avoided a fight over rival standards, with operators, manufacturers and public authorities coalescing around LTE (standing for ‘Long Term Evolution’), which could be described as ‘near-4G’ with properly 4G-compliant versions in the pipeline (here are the gory details for the technically-minded). Third, January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas saw new smartphones from Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony and Nokia being unveiled that all support LTE. And fourth comes a report from Bloomberg that Apple’s forthcoming iPad 3, slated to be launched next month, will be LTE-ready. Other reports suggest an LTE-enabled iPhone will also be released later on in the year.

What difference could LTE make to people trying access publications on the go? That depends on how many people are using it, the weather, all sorts of things. Public LTE networks have been rolled out in Sweden and Norway, with reports suggesting speeds of between 12mbps and 45mbps; in the US, Verizon is advising that realistic speeds in congested city networks will be between 3-8mbps. Or, in other words, around the same speeds as many UK residents currently achieve with their fixed broadband connections. If that is what LTE delivers to the UK, it will be more than enough to make mobile digital publishing a reality, instead of an aspiration.

Mark Rosselli is chairman of CPL

 


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