This post is by Julia Kukiewicz, editor of Choose.net, a UK consumer site that has covered the consumer broadband market since 2004.
By the end of this year, all of the major UK networks will be selling 4G.
As with most nascent services, providers will have to walk a fine line: build consumer expectation too high and you’re paving the way for disappointment and sluggish take up; under sell the benefits, and the result will be the same.
There’s no doubt that 4G services are, and will be, far better in terms of speed and coverage than the mobile broadband most of us are used to.
But, as the 3G roll out showed us clearly, a better service won’t save users from disappointment.
And, as consumers use mobile internet more and for more complex, data-hungry tasks, technically better doesn’t always equal a better experience in any case.
So, leaving technical aspects of the service aside, how can 4G providers give consumers enough inducement to switch without overselling? How can they harness their own hype?
Lessons from 3G
When 3G was launched, the way speeds were advertised promised a comparable experience to home broadband.
“We are building a completely new kind of consumer experience… 3G is more like having a broadband internet connection in the palm of your hand,” one 3 ad read in 2003.
Our site published ‘up to’ speeds for mobile broadband, first credulously then alongside an ever-growing list of disclaimers and warnings.
Finally, like the networks, we more or less removed them altogether.
Data allowances were also a problem. Networks advertised ‘unlimited’ but with a fair use amount of just a few GBs.
In both cases, marketing led, actually pretty much inevitably, to disappointment: the networks were writing cheques they couldn’t cash.
Of 2,000 smartphone users interviewed recently by Virgin Media business, 90% said they wouldn’t switch provider for 4G. The majority, 61%, said they would be unwilling to pay extra for 4G.
Perhaps that’s not all that unusual for a new product but it does illustrate that 4G will be made or broken based on the experiences of early adopters. At best, many consumers currently have a ‘wait and see’ attitude.
Walking the tightrope
Having said that, 4G is launching into a market where more and more consumers are open to being persuaded that a good connection is valuable.
In 2012, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 32% of adults went online on their mobile phone every day and between 2010 and 2012 mobile internet use more than doubled to 51%.
The most recent Ofcom figures show that the average UK mobile broadband user gets through 424MB of data a month.
If the home broadband market is any guide, faster and more reliable connections will dramatically increase data use as users take advantage of video and VoIP and simply view more pages.
If satisfied early 4G users are going to persuade the ‘waiters’ it’ll be by doing more useful stuff easily and quickly.
Even accounting for hiccups 4G connections should take care of the quick part.
For ease, however, providers will really need to address data allowance flexibility.
Some of the first 4G packages have fairly small – 500MB – allowances with long tie-ins and, since providers have already said they’ll price the new service very close to 3G, that looks set to continue.
In their own defense these providers have argued that average use justifies low allowances but these are early adopters we’re talking about and those statistics come from slower technology.
If larger allowances are unpalatable or unsustainable for all users, consumers at least need to be assured that they’ll be offered flexibility should their allowance not prove adequate: not be charged or cut off.