TSTT announces HSPA+

TSTT hosts a press conference to sign the paperwork to build their new mobile broadband network based on HSPA+. Is it too little too late for the telecoms giant?
TSTT announces mobile broadband strategy
Story and photographs by Mark Lyndersay, originally published in the Business Guardian for April 26, 2012.
TSTT’s CEO Roberto Peon and Huawei Technologies General Manager Logan Shi at the signing ceremony for the company’s new 4G broadband network. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Last week, TSTT introduced a refreshed strategy for mobile broadband for cellular phone users at a low-keyed event at the Hyatt Regency. In September, the company plans to roll out a new fourth generation (4G) broadband data for its bMobile network based on the HSPA+ protocol. The new mobile broadband service will cost the company $500 million to deploy.

The event featured short supportive speeches from the company’s brand ambassadors Brian Lara and Machel Montano and in the small audience, the company’s newest face, Anya Ayoung Chee before culminating in the signing of an agreement to supply the technology by Chinese provider Huawei.

TSTT has been running Internet services to mobile phones using 1995 vintage GPRS/EDGE based technology, often described as 2.5G, rated at speeds up to 115k. On the local network service usually hovers between 20 and 50kbps, speeds once associated with dialup.
Mobile phone users hoping for speeds more in line with the demands of the modern Internet could tap into the company’s WiMax network using a mobile hotspot device to connect to a mobile phone’s built-in WiFi connection.

The mobile hotspots appeared in TSTT’s stores along with the long-awaited iPhone, but users soon began to complain about the spottiness of the WiMax network, heat generated by the mobile hotspot device and the price of access for the WiMax network.
Aggressive discounts on iPhone prices and the mobile broadband pricing plans soon followed, but corporate TSTT’s commitment to the WiMax network seemed to be flagging less than two years into the introduction of the service.

Within months of the introduction of the new hotspots and the iPhone, TSTT was limiting new WiMax hotspot customers to purchasers of its smart mobile devices from Apple and the Android platform.
The WiMax network was approaching saturation and there was no corporate will to expand network provisioning for a technology that had quickly blown past its sell-by date.

Add to these pressures the surging rumours among the technology cognoscenti that the company’s rival Digicel was looking to get into the mobile broadband market with its own offering. There was a clear need to not just take action, but to be seen to be taking action.
That road brought the media to the Hyatt, but TSTT is long months from implementing its HSPA+ network for mobile devices with its technology partner and insistent insider buzz suggests that Digicel will be ready to launch much sooner than that.

In that context, it was quite brave of Lisa Agard, Executive Vice President for bMobile Services and Retail Distribution to trash-talk the competition at the launch of the new service strategy, describing TSTT as demonstrating “a nimbleness and vision for the future of telecoms in T&T that is at odds with our flatfooted industry compatriots.”
Those are fighting words, and TSTT is some distance from putting even blanks into the firing pistol of this particular broadband race.

It’s also a market that is likely to bring significant rewards to the first mover. No doubt aware of this competitive danger, TSTT announced that it will roll out as many as 30 free WiMax powered WiFi networks in popular liming spots from July 2012.
Customers irritated by the toasty WiMax hotspot dongles will now be able to access fast network speeds while coasting a lime, but the service will be restricted to current TSTT’s customers with either pre or postpaid accounts, Blink Broadband and Blink-on-the-go (WiMax) customers. Qualifying users of TSTT’s services will be able to sign up for the new free product by registering to use it online.

Agard also described download connection rates that will be as much as 10 times faster than before. In response to an e-mailed question about this, TSTT is unwilling to commit to a specific target speed for the new service until it is ready to launch, but confirmed that the service will offer speeds 10 times faster than its existing 2.5G network.

That won’t excite many of the technology faithful, since that sounds dangerously like a one megabit connection. Still, HSPA+ is capable, in very high-end installations with compatible hardware, of as much as 168Mbps, though most common installations deliver peak speeds of 20Mbps.

Beyond the bold dissing of Digicel, there were precious little details about the new project, which will take advantage of recent infrastructure improvements in connectivity to 96 per cent of the company’s cell towers, which are now connected to substations and switches by fibre optic cable in both dense and rural areas.

The company was also unwilling to commit to support for older 3G capable devices and will only promise that it will be making new devices available which will make full use of the HSPA+ network.
As a technology, HSPA+ is regarded as an evolution technology for older 3G capable phones and such phones are technically capable of being connected to the newer network.
TSTT is also still to prove that it is capable of breaking a streak of mobile broadband service disappointments.

The company introduced a
CDMA based EVDO network for laptop devices in 2005 that promised mobile connectivity for road warriors. In less than two years, the network had become so saturated with traffic that the company closed it to new customers.
In 2010, the company
introduced a CDMA WiMax network to address the same needs and within 18 months had stopped advertising the service and began restricting sales to iPhone and Android customers.

These two networks addressed a small slice of its customer base interested in mobile broadband for business or lifestyle access and TSTT couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Asked whether the company had invested in the type of bandwidth provisioning necessary to meet the needs of the general public, now primed to expect broadband to the handset as a requirement of modern connectivity and not a luxury, TSTT responded that: “Part of the advantage of using Huawei as our technology partner is that they have built 4G-ready networks in some of the largest markets in the world.”

“With their expertise and our past experiences with new network development, our goal is to meet the service demands of all of our customers.”
Huawei also built the WiMax network for TSTT, but the company described the current network saturation as “due to investment decisions not [the] performance of the manufacturer.”

The next six months will pose the strongest challenge that the incumbent telecommunications company will face since Digicel announced its presence in 2005. So far, TSTT has proved to be one of the few Cable and Wireless affiliates to resist the presence of the Irish telecommunications provider in the Caribbean, but mobile broadband might well prove to be a watershed technology for the local cellular market.

Wireless TV
Unnamed competitors in the cellular market aren’t the only rivals that TSTT will be drawing a bead on in the immediate future. The company plans to introduce a $95 wireless IPTV version of its suite of cable channels.
The commercial target seems to be less Flow than DirecTV and perhaps even GreenDot, a small Internet and IPTV provider, both of whom deliver their product wirelessly.
Customers will be supplied by TSTT with an external antenna and set top box. The service is described as a competitive option to cable TV in the home.

Spectrum return
The company also announced that by the end of May, “tens of thousands of customers” would be supplied with new handsets to replace devices which will be affected by the return of the 1800mhz spectrum to the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago. The company declined to disclose exact numbers on those affected by the frequency reallocation, but the handset swap will cost the company millions.

BitDepth#836 on what Digicel should do next.
My early experiences with Digicel's new 4G mobile broadband service.
An opinion piece for Contact Magazine, written in November 2011,
that predicted the mobile broadband changes of 2012.
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