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Connectivity on the go: why not all mobile internet services are the same

By , Head of Wireless, Vox.
14 Jul 2023
Theo van Zyl, Head of Wireless at Vox.
Theo van Zyl, Head of Wireless at Vox.

Driven by a changing environment, including a return to the office for many as well as tougher economic conditions, more consumers are taking a closer look at their connectivity requirements. Are they spending too much money and does it adequately serve their requirements? While they look for alternatives, what needs to be kept in mind is that not all connectivity is equal - and it often comes down to choosing between quality and mobility. 

We are now well into the post-pandemic phase with organisations taking differing approaches to working. Some small businesses might have given up on their physical offices altogether in an effort to save on costs, some have taken a hybrid approach balancing working from home with coming into the office, while others have returned to the office almost full time.

During the peak of the pandemic, when workers had to remain indoors, there was a requirement to have reliable and stable connectivity in order to enable an efficient work-from-home environment. This meant ideally a fibre line or a fixed-LTE connection that was preferably uncapped and could be shared with the whole family.

With people either returning to the office for most of the week, or splitting days between working in the office and remotely - and with tightening wallets - they are now reassessing whether they actually need that level of connectivity at home and whether they should rather switch to mobile connectivity that offers them more flexibility.

A hybrid working approach can easily result in employees meeting with their colleagues or suppliers outside of office premises, such as at a coffee shop or restaurant and all you need is a laptop and your own connectivity. After all, you don’t want to be doing your banking or confidential work using a public WiFi connection that could easily compromise your (and your company’s) security. Even if you are going to a client’s office, what happens if you are unable to connect to their guest WiFi network?

The reality is that people are demanding connectivity that is a lot more flexible than before - they want reliable internet access on the go. The obvious solution is to go for mobile connectivity. However, one area that still tends to trip up consumers is the difference between mobile and fixed-LTE and what it means for their user experience.

Why fixed-LTE is not the same as mobile

It is crucial for consumers to understand that mobile internet and fixed-LTE (in the cases of most of the operators) are not the same. The data bundles and costs are not the same, while the coverage of fixed-LTE is small in comparison to overall mobile coverage. Depending on the provider, a fixed-LTE service can be set up to only work with approved WiFi routers, and can be geo-locked to a particular location as specified by the customer. Why is this the case?

Unlike regular mobile connectivity, which is aimed at giving the user flexibility and convenience of use, fixed-LTE connections are about providing the users with a better quality of service. By working off a fixed location, the mobile operator can dimension their network to match user demand.

This usually works by allocating three towers to provide a particular user with an internet connection; the user’s router locks on to one tower and if that doesn’t work, it moves on to the next one. In the end, it depends on the mobile operator as to how big (or small) the geo-locked area is, as well as how strict they are when it comes to locking a user down to a particular area or using a specified router only.

It should be noted that with many service providers, the geo-lock doesn’t mean that the user is stuck with only being able to use their fixed-LTE at one location; in many instances, users can easily register a secondary location so that they can continue to enjoy their connectivity, but this is not as seamless as many users would like it to be. Fixed-LTE is also cost affective and can get as low as 80c/GB on an uncapped service before reaching data thresholds.

Challenges with mobile connectivity

This is simply not the case with a regular mobile internet connection, as the mobile operator simply doesn’t know where a user will go next, and cannot guarantee that they will have a good connectivity experience in that area. Take for example if a user goes to the Sandton city centre when a major conference is taking place: the huge volume of people will end up causing network congestion and poor connectivity for those making use of their mobile data. Yet if they go to the same location on a quiet Sunday afternoon, they will experience the best that mobile connectivity has to offer.

Similarly, think of the vast numbers of tourists that head down from South Africa’s inland provinces to the coastal areas over the holiday period: they’re not just lazing at the beach, they are video calling friends and family, playing online games, streaming movies and series and more, all of which puts a strain on the normal mobile network. This is not the case with fixed-LTE, where operators might have foreseen the growth in demand and provided increased capacity to deal with it.

Let’s also not forget that mobile data costs an exorbitant sum, with anywhere between R69-R79 or even much more per gigabyte of data. Once you follow up on some emails, open a few attachments, make video calls with family and friends, and watch some Netflix or YouTube, the data bundles start depleting while the costs start going up.

Choosing between mobility and quality

The argument against not allowing mobility when it comes to fixed-LTE is that the users benefit from better network quality as the operator knows where all the fixed-LTE users are located and how much capacity they need to allocate in those areas in order to meet demand. It is important to note that some operators don’t make this distinction and their ‘fixed-LTE’ devices can be moved around, but at the cost of sacrificing quality, which defeats the purpose of a fixed mobile connection in the first place, but could provide the best of both worlds for some users depending on their needs.

Users need to understand what is on offer before making the decision to buy: some operators allow you to move around and some don’t, while others may allow you to use a fixed-LTE sim in any device (or even a phone to be used as a wireless hotspot) while others only allow the use of approved WiFi routers.

The reality is that it is a trade-off - if you want true mobility, you can’t have the best quality, and if you want the best quality, you can’t get true mobility. Ultimately, users will have to weigh up the pros and cons of the different options and match those against their needs to find the solution that is best suited for them.

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