4G in Ukraine – ready, steady, go!
The advent of 4G in Ukraine is no doubt a landmark event. The fourth generation of mobile network promises great prospects to all: governments, private companies, consumers. But they will become tangible only after Ukraine solves certain issues. These issues are many, and they accumulate.
3G and 4G: coverage
To understand the current situation with the Internet reach in Ukraine, all you have to do is looking through the data provided by major telephone operators. This, for instance, is how 3G and 4G coverage map looks like in Ukraine according to Vodafone Ukraine:
Almost the same picture can be seen if one compares the coverage maps of Kyivstar and lifecell — the two largest telecom operators in Ukraine. Vodafone’s coverage looks better when compared, say, with the Czech Republic.
The difference with 3G is not as striking as with 4G. Being not the most powerful European economy, this map shows a solid 4G coverage over the Czech Republic, not to mention it is provided only by a single mobile operator.
One can argue and justify this difference in distances considering the republic is almost eight times smaller than Ukraine. It goes without saying that providing proper coverage comes easier in smaller countries. This point, however, does not withstand any criticism if we take a look at the situation in other European countries such as Spain. Spain has an area of 505.9 thousand square kilometers (603.9 thousand — Ukraine), Vodafone’s coverage is represented as follows:
The difference is obvious. It is also a factor that 4G has been in Europe for about three years, and in Ukraine – only for a few. This difference exists because little time has passed? Not really.
Orange Telecoms (the France’s largest and one of the world’s leading) has published on their website information about the 4G coverage and extension capabilities. Initially, the company did business only in Paris, then a month later it covered 70 agglomerations (i.e. 500 settlements). In Ukraine it took two months to launch 4G, however, it became available only in a couple dozen of cities.
The situation is clear: Ukraine lags behind. The fact that both 3G and 4G were launched after almost every country in Europe (even after North Korea, as far as 3G is concerned).
Why did it happen?
The most obvious reason is the unreadiness of Ukrainian radio frequencies to new realities. Frequencies that suit 3G and 4G the best (850, 900, 1800 and 2100 MHz) are used for other purposes in our country. The first frequency – 850 MHz – was given to CDMA providers, and two others were allocated for GSM and cable TV, and 2100 MHz – for 3G.
4G in Ukraine works on 2600 MHz frequencies. This is a high-frequency range, which cannot secure wide coverage for that reason. To cover larger areas, it is necessary to install more base stations that transmit a signal to end-users. Which is costly and economically unfeasible for operators. Another point to bear in mind is that in some areas (remote settlements, highways, etc.), the construction of such base stations may never hit the breakeven due to the low number of subscribers. Which means no one is going to build them.
As of June, 4G is expected to be launched on an 1800 MHz frequency. For Ukraine, it is the optimum solution both from the technical and economic perspective. But even so, Ukraine cannot ensure a wide 4G coverage. It is still expensive and hard-hitting. Low frequencies such as 700-900 MHz frequencies are much more beneficial. Unlike the high-frequency ranges, they ensure a wider coverage and, thus, need little base stations to be installed. Europe, for example, has used low frequencies for 4G for nine years now.
For all intents and purposes, we cannot say that Ukrainian operators have completely no access to low frequencies. All three market leaders – Kyivstar, Vodafone, and lifecell – hold own ‘plots’ of 900 MHz frequencies but they are prohibited from using them for 3G or 4G. Yet even if the permit is granted, it would be of no use. Because at the moment, low frequencies are unevenly distributed among operators, which reduces their performance and backfires on the coverage quality.
To remedy the situation, the National Commission for the State Regulation of Communications and Informatization (NCSRCI) should arrange an equal allocation of 900 MHz radio frequencies for each mobile operator. It is a long and tedious process, which has its nuances. To achieve this uniformity, some companies will have to give their frequencies to competitors.
Besides, the reallocation process has to be additionally agreed with the special users. These special users, in addition to CDMA operators, including the military, who are often to be extremely cautious when it comes to innovations in radio frequencies. According to the Commission, some meaningful dialogue with the Ministry of Defense began only last year. It remains to be seen how it ends and when.
Politics and bureaucracy, always in the game
In Ukraine, one has to obtain many permits no matter what you do. Telecom operators are no exception. In contrast to European colleagues. In Europe, after operators obtain their segment of frequencies, they can use those at own discretion, whether it is to implement 4G networks, 3G networks, or to test their own developments. In Ukraine, there is no such an approach that would resemble a technological neutrality. Domestic companies operate on a complete dependence from state decisions. Attempts to change the situation in legislation have yielded no significant results yet.
Also, note that the law to adopt 4G was signed in 2015 by the President Poroshenko. The law specifies 2017 as the year to adopt the new generation of mobile communication. In practice, however, we see that it only happened in 2018. And the reason was not only the confusion in frequencies but disagreements among government officials.
For example, last year in June, amid preparation for the auction sale of 4G frequencies, the Ministry of Justice stirred up a scandal. The Ministry refused to register radio frequency tenders claiming the transparency was lacking. NCSRCI representatives back then tried to prove the opposite, and then the resultant dispute dragged on for several months. The Ministry of Justice conducted a registration only in September.
The last scandal with 4G happened in early spring. Deputy Oleh Liashko saying that the sales of 4G frequencies were underpriced in Ukraine called for a new auction. With no real evidence provided to prove his words, such a statement seemed rather doubtful. That being said, the State Prosecutor General’s Office has already promised to see to this problem. It remains to be seen if they have detected anything at all, however, they have quite some time before 4G is launched on 1800 MHz on June 1. Unfortunately, there is still a risk that works get suspended as a result of unexpected violations.
As we can see, 4G in Ukraine faces many challenges. The technology has to go through all the trials and tribulations to strike roots in our country. Forecasts say it will take two years before the Ukrainian territory is fully covered with 4G. That is upon a condition that government officials will not take efforts to obstruct the implementation.
What does this period of two years actually means? It means that the benefits of 4G do not come any time soon and that Ukraine is extremely far behind other countries in terms of the mobile & telecom technology. Not to mention that 5G is expected to fully appear in a couple of years.
This post is also available in: Russian