Ghana: 3G signals on handsets, real or deception? – I

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Social media has become so powerful that lately, individuals,
businesses and even governments place high premium on what people post
on social media. So it is perfectly acceptable to recap a few true life
stories some Ghanaians posted on Facebook about their respective
frustrations with internet access on their mobile handsets.

It was a discussion on whether 3G is real in Ghana, and whether the
internet reception signals such as “E” (2G EDGE – Exchanged Data rate
for GSM Evolution), “3G” (third generation), “H” (3G-HSDPA – high speed
downlink packet access), and “H+” (3.5G/3.75G HSPA+: high speed packet
access plus), which usually appear on the top right corner of handsets’
screens, are real.

Godwin Martey was
confused whether there is load shedding on telecom internet signals. He
wrote; “in my bedroom MTN gives me “H”, Tigo gives me “E”, in my living
room they both give me “E”, in the laundry room, Tigo is very very fast
with amazing download speed, but MTN will say “NO INTERNET CONNECTION”.
When you step out to the main compound they both turn off completely
except [when] you walk a little distance to the road. I ask myself, is
there load shedding too on the Network Signals?”

Godwin continued; “Charley the thing is not funny at all, I end up
being at a certain part of the house depending on what I want to do; for
instance when I want to download something urgently I have to go to the
laundry room. If I need a good signal to place a long and important
call I have to go to the bedroom, no matter how important what I’m doing
in the living room is. Now can you imagine how a telco’s abysmal
service can decide where you will be in your own house at any point in
time? You got the word, it’s a Maze!”

Later on that day, the online editor of Adomonline, Frank Agyei-Twum
told this writer “I share Godwin’s frustration – if I want to
communicate on Viber I go into my toilet, and if I want to do Tango I
end up right behind my wall. Meanwhile, I have either “H” or “H+”
showing on my phone.”

At least three other persons, Jerry, Bob and Rasell also said they
have 4G permanently showing on their handsets with MTN, Vodafone and
Airtel SIMs respectively. None of the mobile cellular networks has 4G
license, so the three gentlemen are confused how MTN, Vodafone and
Airtel’s mobile internet services would signal 4G reception on their

Those were just a few of many real stories that tell the confusion
and frustration people go through on a daily basis with the advertised
3G and 3.75G services of the various telecoms service providers in the
country. Another confusion is why at least two telcos, Airtel and MTN
claim they have 3.75G networks but that never shows on the reception
signal people receive on their handset. It is usually “E”, which is 2G,
or “H”, “H+” and 3G, all of which are essentially 3G.

Moreover, in spite of the 3G signals that show on handsets, consumers
complain of very slow download and upload speeds or a feedback message
that says “No internet connection”. The argument is that 3G, H and H+
reception signals are supposed to offer high download/upload speeds
characteristic of 3G networks. But consumers say more often than not the
download/upload speed is low despite what the signal says.

IT Consultant and Social Media Strategists Maximus Amertogoh believes
“the signals that show on our phones are deceptive because the kind of
speeds we get are not anywhere near 3G.” He asked on his Facebook
timeline “is 3G reception a deception in Ghana – how many of the telcos
even have a Coverage Checker on their website?”

He then went on to state, “forget about what is showing on your
handset. It can show 3G but without internet connectivity. What is the
minimum speed on a 3G network?”

Coverage Checker Maps

An internet coverage checker map showing where there is 2G, 3G, 4G LTE coverage and speeds to be expected

Maximus asks a very important question: why don’t the telcos have
Coverage Checker Maps on their websites? A Coverage Checker is a map
that shows the areas that each telco has data coverage (2G and 3G), and
it shows what kind of coverage is available at each location. So that
when a customer is in a particular location, he/she could check from the
website, what the general data signal is, as opposed to what is showing
on the individual’s handset, which usually differ from handset to
handset even within the same location.

Some telcos like Orange and Vodafone in the UK have Coverage Checker
maps on their websites. But even though Vodafone also operates in Ghana,
it does not have a similar map for the Ghana market; and its customers
are getting misled by what shows on their handsets, which does not
reflect their experiences.

A telecom Executive, who used to work with Airtel told this writer
“Coverage Checker Maps was a boardroom discussion while I was at Airtel.
Now I have left and it has still not become a reality.” Obviously the
telcos have questions to answer on why no coverage checker maps on their

The telcos have largely remained silent on the question of coverage
maps on their websites. But an executive of Airtel admitted they
discussed the subject in the past but cost was major hindrance. “It
costs US$1million and that is too much,” he said. He however assured
that the matter has not been shelved completely as it is an important
customer service tool. Indeed, if a telco failed on any licensing
requirement and the regulator fines them a million dollars, the telco
would find money and pay. So investing a million dollars in a customer
service tool could not be bad investment.

MTN did not give any official response to why they do not have a
coverage checker map on their website for their “valued customers”. But a
reliable source at MTN told this writer they are feverishly working
one, and it will be ready soon. “Once you enter a particular zone you
will get a message on your phone what kind of coverage you have in that
area,” the source said.

Meanwhile, one of three 4G LTE players, Surfline, which is due to
launch commercial service in the whole of Accra next week, has done an
elaborate coverage checker map, ready to be uploaded on their new
website before the launch. It is just for Accra, where they have
coverage, but industry watchers laud that as a good start for a company
serious about being transparent to the customer.

So why the misleading signals

On the question of why handsets signal 3G, H, H+ or even 4G, and yet
the customer experience in terms of download and upload speed is nowhere
near what is characteristic of 3G or 4G, one telecom executive noted
that the signal on the handset could be attributed to two thing; a last
mile communication between the cell site serving that handset at a given
time, and secondly, the handset’s own interpretation of the signals
from the cell site, based on technological specifications the
manufacturer put in that handset.

He explained, for instance, that some handsets like the Samsung
Galaxy S4 and others, are 4G ready so they often read certain ranges of
3G signals as 4G, even though in fact the service is nowhere near 4G.
Indeed, an official of Airtel said in a mail to this writer “certain
handsets interpret our 3.75G signals as 4G depending on the location of
the customer.”

To put this in perspective, all things being equal, the highest speed
on a 3G (HSPA+) is up to 21Megabits per second. But ordinary 4G
promises up to 100Megabits/second under same conditions, and 4G LTE
promises 3.5Gegabits/second under same conditions. Currently, real life
speed on one of Ghana’s 4G LTE networks, Surfline, is showing a minimum
of 24.5Mbps, which is just about a quarter of what 4G promises ceteris
paribus, but it superfast in terms of customer experience and better
than the non-practical 3G maximum speed of 21Mbps. So the 3G service
providers showing 4G on a handset at the speeds customers experience is
relatively a big joke.

The expert also explained that with the question of speed, when a
customer is very close to a cell site serving his/her handset, he/she is
likely to get speeds close to the maximum speeds the 3G network offers.
But even that depends on how many other devices that cell site might be
serving at that particular point in time.

“If that cell site is serving only one device or just a few devices,
the speeds are likely to be high for each user, but if it is serving
loads of devices, which is usually the case, then there is automatically
shared speed and that would mean each individual’s experience would not
be as great as when there are no other devices on that cell site,” he

Indeed, there are other factors such as what website the customer is
browsing – whether that website is hosted locally or overseas and how
many more people (usually hundreds of thousands to millions) are
browsing that website at any point in time, and what activities they are
doing online (whether just browsing, live streaming or downloading).
Things like movement, being indoors and other factors, also affect
actually experience even though the checker on the handset may indicate
any of the 3G ranges.

One other expert explained “you know there is a timer on every
website for opening new webpages, so if you try to open a webpage and
the time runs out while the page is not yet opened, your handset may
give you a feedback like ‘No internet connectivity’, but it does not
mean you do not have 3G, because very often, while it says ‘No internet
connectivity’ for a particular webpage, it opens another page easily
without any stress.

“Sometimes too, there may be activities on the background on your
device; once one of such activities is timed out the handset may
interpret it as ‘No internet connectivity’ and give you that feedback
but it does not mean there is really no service,” the expert said.

The second part of this article touches on whether there is indeed a
minimum speed for 3G, what the 3G spectrum bands in Ghana are right now,
more on what affects actual customer experience, and what the coming 4G
LTE promises in Ghana.

CREDIT: Ghana|Adom Business|Samuel Nii Narku Dowuona

Kofi Oppong Kyekyeku

I am a Ghanaian Broadcast Journalist/Writer who has an interest in General News, Sports, Entertainment, Health, Lifestyle and many more.

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