Are you sure?

4G, 4G+ and the coming of 5G

Mobile operators in Hungary say they are constantly working to increase the coverage and speed of their 4G networks. The pace of progress by operator may vary, so may the speed experienced at different spots of the country, but overall, Hungarian networks are doing well at serving users.

5G: the prototype network has been build.

If you, like the growing number of smartphone users, spend ever more time on your mobile – often at the expense of time spent in front of the computer – the chances are that you are connected to a 4G or LTE network. This type of network is designed to enable the fast data transfers required by, say, music download or video streaming, and several other activities that are frequently done on smartphone. Due to this switch in traffic, and the mounting pressure for ever faster connections, coverage and speed are the two main areas mobile operators constantly strive to improve, and that is no different in Hungary. 

Creating a solid home base

In terms of residential outdoor coverage, Magyar Telekom’s 4G network stands at 97.6%. Residential indoor coverage has reached 85%, according to data provided by the company. Last year, the company and Telenor decided to develop 4G network jointly. Under the agreement, Telenor is gradually implementing and operating the 800 MHz 4G network in the Transdanubian region, while Magyar Telekom (MTel) is doing the same in the rest of Hungary – except for Budapest – where both companies are developing their own networks separately. Since it won the necessary frequencies for LTE network in late 2014, Telenor’s 4G outdoor residential coverage has grown from 52% to 97.9% by this September, Telenor said. MTel started off at a similar level: By putting 450 4G base stations into operation two years ago, it increased its residential outdoor coverage to 73% from 54%. Thanks to joint development, 4G is available at 2,486 locations, of which 1,223 have a population of less than 1,000, Telenor said. Vodafone launched its 4G service in December 2014. By now, outdoor residential coverage has reached 93.74%, the company said.

The pacing of the 800 MHz network development is largely defined by the terms set by the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), the authority auctioning bandwidths.

One clear aim of the authority with this bandwidth was to improve coverage in thinly populated areas. Every operator has to follow these priorities; Vodafone, too, is developing its network based on these principles, the company said. At the beginning of the process, it was the highly populated areas and roads that were given priority, Telenor said. “According to the terms of contract with NMHH, Telenor should have covered 350 towns with a population of less than 1,000 by now. Yet we provide coverage at 808 towns,” the company wrote.

In line with international standards, the frequencies used for 4G in Hungary are band three (1,800 MHz), band seven (2,600 MHz), and band 20 (800 MHz). In cities, all three bandwidths are used. In thinly populated areas, band 20 is used more often, while in areas with higher populations band seven is preferred. The development of the 4G network has not really required new infrastructure, rather operators have adjusted and expanded the existing one. One main issue here is space: The number of antennas that can be installed at one location, for example a rooftop, is finite. So companies use antennas able to operate at several frequencies, or reduce their size so they take up less space, Telekom said. There is no universal tool to address issues resulting from heavy usage or poor outdoor conditions, Telenor said. The company may use base stations temporarily for the duration of a festival, or at locations commonly visited by tourists.

International comparison

Beyond coverage, speed and reliability are two components by which operators are judged. According to data from OpenSignal, a company that ranks mobile operators and countries worldwide based on their performance, Hungary fares well in all the above.

OpenSignal collects information from millions of smartphone owners through its apps, and uses the crowdsourced data to build coverage maps as well as analytical reports. With a 79% average, Hungary ranked ninth in an LTE coverage global comparison in Q4 2015, on par with Norway, Sweden and Estonia, and slightly below the United States (81%) and the Netherlands (84%). First placed South Korea (97% coverage), and second placed Japan (90%) are some way ahead. Yet South Korea plays in a different league: that country and Singapore have set themselves apart from the main body of global operators, providing both superior coverage and speed, OpenSignal wrote. Hungary has nothing to be ashamed about with its 28 Mbps LTE download speed, which placed it third after Singapore (37 Mbps) and New Zealand (29 Mbps) in the company’s global speed test, measured during the same time period. In the overall performance of the world’s global LTE operators, factoring in both average network speeds and network availability, Hungary’s three telecoms achieved 83% coverage and 30 Mbps speed, according to OpenSignal.

Future landscape

This latter may prove to be the most credible information on speed. Even though operators are able to provide internet speeds higher than this, in real life, especially on a mature market where ever more users compete for bandwidth, it is hard to achieve 150 Mbps (if not impossible except under lab conditions). Still, Magyar Telekom claims to be able to provide 300 Mbps download speed at several hundred 4G stations, thanks to the introduction of 4G+ (LTE-Advanced) technology. With capable mobile phones, users can reach up to 150 Mbps at most parts of Hungary, the company said. While the company continues to develop its 4G network, as this best suits the current demand, it has already started installing 4G+ technology. So far Telekom has made 4G+ available in 14 eastern Hungarian cities and eight of the most visited towns around Lake Balaton, as a result of which music and video download is faster, apps run more swiftly and consumer experience is undisturbed, even at festivals or other mass events, MTel wrote in a statement to the Budapest Business Journal. Telenor has started implementing this technology in the capital and major cities which it says, in theory, provides 300 Mbps download and 50 Mps upload speed, double the current 4G speed.

While 4G and 4G+ can probably accommodate the needs of mobile browsers, streamers and the like for many years ahead, the development of 5G is already happening. Magyar Telekom invested early in 4G: the technology was first tested in Hungary by the company in 2009, and it says it was also the first to introduce a commercial 4G mobile service to market here from January 1, 2012. The firm would like to lead again with 5G. Its German parent company, Deutsche Telekom is involved right now in the international standardization works and testing 5G technology, and speeds of 1.5 Gbps in a mobile phone prototype, have been achieved, Telekom say.

Neither Telekom, nor Telenor expect the technology to launch before 2020. Part of the reason is that devices need to catch up. The first 5G-capable mobile internet modem was announced by Qualcomm only recently (last week). The company says Snapdragon X50 5G modem is capable of download speeds of up to 5 Gbps which is five times faster than the fastest 4G modem. Given that today only a fraction of mobile phones sold in Hungary support 4G+ technology, the beginning of the next decade appears to be a reasonable time for a start.

With geographical coverage lower than that for outdoor coverage, operators tend to highlight less the level of residential indoor coverage, even though 80% of the time, people connect to the mobile internet from their home, office, or some other indoor location, research by Cisco IBSG shows. Boosting indoor coverage remains a challenge for a variety of reasons, from construction materials to local topography.