Using Digicel's 4G

An assessment of the early deployment of Digicel's HSPA+ mobile broadband Internet network.
Putting Digicel’s 4G to the test
Originally published in the Business Guardian, May 17, 2012.
A promotional scene staged by Digicel Trinidad and Tobago on the launch day of the 4G service. Photograph by Andre Neufville, courtesy Digicel.

Last Friday, Digicel became the first telecommunications provider to deliver mobile broadband direct to the cellular handset in Trinidad and Tobago at a cost it would only acknowledge as “hundreds of millions of TT dollars.”

The launch day was preceded by an elegant rebranding advertisement shot in Barbados that used artful slow motion as a bravado counterpoint to the message of speed that the 4G service seemed to demand.
Friday’s launch day focused on experiential engagements, with brand ambassadors on the street, massive banners and at least one sly tap on the head for their competitors, a green truck apparently crushed by a falling 4G logo on the Solomon-Hochoy Highway.

The product is straightforward. Current Digicel customers with compatible phones can follow the instructions for accessing the service at the company’s website
New customers or customers with phones that don’t support the data stream (most smartphones manufactured in the last 30 months will) will need to visit a Digicel store.

Digicel says that for customers with an “unlocked UMTS, HSDPA or HSDPA+ 1900MHz device, our 4G service will work.”
The HSPA+ protocol was a late entry to the 4G dance, and it was only allowed onto the floor after the International Telecommunications Union reviewed the protocol.

Digicel invited a small group of technology bloggers along with this columnist to test the service on a loaner device of their choice. I’m currently testing the company’s 4G network on a Galaxy Tab, a ten-inch tablet device.
On first blush, the Digicel 4G network was a real surprise. Broadband on a GSM network is never the same experience that you’ll have on a wired network or even a CDMA based data only network.

Digicel acknowledges the impact of voice traffic on a GSM based data service, but states that “we have designed our network to allow calls to use the 2G network to minimize this.”
Both of telecom rival TSTT’s efforts at a wireless network were based on data only CDMA, first EV-DO and later WiMax. The new protocol, HSPA+ offers much higher potential speeds at 21Mbps than earlier, more common (at least in the first world) 3G networks, but theoretical peaks are always some distance from practical experience, particularly on GSM networks.

Responding to an e-mailed question, Digicel stated that “Our network can support speeds up to 21Mbps. 4G shares the bandwidth. This can go below and above depending on time of day and number of subscribers.”

On launch day, my test account got bumped from the 4G plan, dropping speeds substantially. Irritating, but also educational. Off the broadband network, my speeds were clocking between 0.9 to 0.5Mbps, far slower than the 3.4Mbps I’d been experiencing. Still, this is promising example of what users will experience when they are unable to access Digicel’s 4G signal, which defaults to their EDGE network automatically in such instances. If you exceed your data allotment, the service will also back down to EDGE.

More recent tests delivered speeds of just over 5Mbps and other bloggers testing the service have reported speeds as high as 7Mbps. Upload speeds are just over 1Mbps and Ping times range between 80ms and 200ms.
Digicel Trinidad and Tobago is following the international model of selling mobile broadband as blocks of data.

Prepaid and postpaid customers pay the same price for data plans which range in price on a monthly basis from 400MB for $199 to 4GB for $299.
Heavy users can add an extra 1GB of data for $49.
Curious users interested in testing the service can buy a 300MB “day pass” for just $25 or a seven-day plan of 300MB for $69. Both data allotments evaporate once the time is up.
Blackberry users can access a week long plan of 300MB offering access to social media for $35 and two 30 day plans of $99 (400MB) and $119 (1GB).

Roaming users will be able to access 4G service in any Caribbean island served by Digicel at the company’s standard rate of $.0003 cents per kilobyte or $2.82 per megabyte for web service.
No unlimited plan was available at launch. In response to queries about that option, Digicel responded: “Our data bundles are quite attractive and will suffice for most users. We encourage subscribers to test this out to determine what their usage will really be. We are, of course, open to providing any offerings that would be in the best interest of all customers.”

Users can monitor their consumption of data on the plans they have bought by
visiting the Digicel website. The setup of the data use page is a bit fussy though, particularly if you’re doing it on a mobile device with a small screen.
The company offers the service using a standard phone SIM, which you can put into a tablet or phone and on a USB modem for computers.

It’s hard to make a case for the dongles though, because the company has chosen to allow tethering, which turns your phone or tablet into an access point for the 4G service.
Setting up wireless tethering was simple on the Samsung Tablet, the work of minutes and connection speeds were essentially undiminished.

When you can use your phone not just for a connection to the Internet but also as a hotspot to add a laptop or tablet to the mix, it’s easy to see where those gigabytes of data will be going.

BitDepth#836 on what Digicel should do next.
An opinion piece for Contact Magazine, written in November 2011, that predicted the mobile broadband changes of 2012.
brash announcement of their plans for a HSPA+ mobile broadband network.
BitDepth#832, on the impact that mobile broadband Internet will have on the news media.
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