Mobile communication has led development of cellular networks to a completely new level. Today, while the development of 3G networks in our country is still ongoing, operators are also working to improve their 4G networks. The term LTE stands for Long Term Evolution. LTE networks are based on IP- technologies and differ from the standard 3G in high speed of data transfer. From technical point of view, major difference between 4G and 3G networks is that the former is fully based on package data protocols, while 3G networks include both package and channel commutation. The main point in LTE networks, as well as in 3G, is a coding technology and OFDM-MIMO data transmission. OFDM technology determines the direction of the signal from the base station to the mobile phone. In order to ensure LTE communication meets network requirements, availability of only OFDM technology is not sufficient. It is necessary to have SC-FDMA which is used to reverse signals, from the telephone to the base station. An expensive high-profile transmitter is required for high-quality transmission of such signals.
The first and largest LTE (4G) network in Azerbaijan is owned by Azercell. The company has a great sense for the growing demand for high-speed mobile internet, and therefore, Azercell specialists installed 220 new LTE-stations in Baku and Absheron peninsula only in the first half of 2016. Now, the total number of 4G stations in the mentioned area has reached 480, while 4G coverage rate was 79%. Subscribers using the service were able to use the internet at speeds up to 100 Mbit / s. Georgios Chatzis, Head of Retail Businesses Department and Khaver Babazade, Head of Technology Department at Azercell, discussed additional benefits of new technologies to consumers and further development of 4G network by the company.
- What are the plans of Azercell in terms of improvement of 4G network quality and its development outside the Absheron peninsula?
Georgios Chatzis: - We have achieved excellent results in 4G coverage in Baku and Absheron peninsula. And based on comments we have received so far, we can conclude with confidence that the development of network is going in the right direction, which enables us to think carefully about the future opportunities. The next task is the expansion of 4G coverage. In particular, we plan to introduce the new standard in large regional centers of the Republic of Azerbaijan, such as Sumgait, Ganja, Guba, Gabala, Lankaran, etc. in 2017. Introduction of 4G network in the regions will also serve to reduce the "digital inequality" between the capital city and regional centers.
Khaver Babazade: - During the development of the network, we are mainly focused on the level of demand of the subscribers for the new format. In the case of expansion of the 4G network in the regions, it will be factors such as the level of use of 3G services and the capacity of the existing telecommunications infrastructure in the region. First of all, the new standard will appear in the regions and cities where there is no well-developed fixed-line communication and people are experiencing an acute shortage for high-quality data traffic and related services.
- And how many subscribers are registered at Azercell’s 4G network today?
Georgios Chatzis: - This figure is close to 130 thousand connections. As for the number of sold SIM-cards supporting 4G, it exceeds 1.1 million. Therefore, we expect a steep growth in the number of 4G service users, especially since Azercell is making all efforts to promote the service. Our intention to increase the penetration of smartphones with support of 4G is already reflected in the launched campaigns, which allowed customers to obtain iPhone 6S and Samsung S6 Edge on very favorable terms within the tariff “Hedsiz”. Unfortunately, not all subscribers outside Baku can afford buying such expensive devices supporting 4G standard. For example, it costs about AZN 600 and above to buy a top smartphone. Therefore, before starting the expansion of 4G networks in the regions, our task is to find a good and affordable devices costing in the range of AZN 100 so that potential customers can buy them with our 4G tariff packages. By the way, even an organization such as the GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, says the main problem in the market is the absence of low-cost smartphones operating in 4G networks.
So I’d like to stress out again that we are working on the advancement of devices that support 4G network, taking into account financial status of any subscriber. Azercell will announce the launch of several campaigns related to 4G progress in the nearest future. We tell customers that our 4G is free. We do not charge extra for access to 4G service. The only thing the user is required to do is to replace the SIM-card and enjoy the 4G speed for the same price. And this is a good advantage. We are not trying to sell or advertise something for which the subscriber will have to pay extra, although Azercell investment in 4G this year alone amounted to AZN 8 million. 4G service upgrade we carry out for the subscribers is absolutely free.
- What about the frequencies used by Azercell in 4G network?
Khaver Babazade: - Our 4G network is deployed in the most popular frequency of 1800 MHz, but in the future so-called Carrier Aggregation will emerge in 4G technologies, which allows the simultaneous use of various frequency bands, including frequency range of 700 MHz which is not so popular here. Due to this, the base stations will have a very high bandwidth. This technology is already being used in the test mode and gradually implemented by some operators. Azercell also plans to shift to Carrier Aggregation technology, but it largely depends on preparedness of subscriber devices, which are increasing in number every year. At that time, the line between popular and unpopular frequencies will eventually disappear.
- What infrastructure equipment do you use to build 4G networks? And how is the situation with the voice in 4G networks?
Khaver Babazade: - We use Ericsson equipment for our network. On choosing a vendor, we consider not only price, but also a range of other indicators. In the next stage, which involves the expansion of 4G network in the regions, we will also choose the hardware vendor or supplier based on Azercell’s desire to bring the best to the country. The project is planned to commence early 2017 so that subscribers receive quality services at a level corresponding to the Azercell’s reputation throughout the year.
I’d also like to note that according to a study on assessment of the quality of mobile networks conducted by Global Wireless Solutions at the invitation of the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Azercell network demonstrates the best results among all mobile operators in many aspects in the country. According to the study of international companies such as Opensignal and Testmy.net, dealing with the quality of radio signals for network diagnostics, the best quality and reliable mobile network and the fastest mobile internet in Azerbaijan is provided by Azercell.
As for your second question, we use the function, when the subscriber switches to 3G network on receiving a call and continues to chat there. Tests in this technology show that 99% of such shifts are carried out without any problems and communication takes place without any problems. Also, according to the statistics collected in the system, the percentage is also very good.
- Baku hosted the European Grand Prix for Formula 1 in June. How did the flow of visitors and the increase in the use of mobile data traffic affect on the 4G network operator?
Georgios Chatzis: - As we did during the first European Games Baku-2015 in the luggage claim area in the Heydar Aliyev International Airport, we offered tourists SIM-card of Azercell. As a bonus, everyone got a city map from the tourist itinerary. During the Formula 1, all Azercell staff was in standby mode. We even invited specialists from the company Ericsson for unexpected cases. However, the experience from European Games helped us to spend this time well and to prove that all network operators can work well even during unexpected peaks. Traffic simply "exploded" during those three days. Mass photos were placed on Instagram and Facebook, especially from the point with the concentration of people, where we were previously instructed to install additional mobile base stations to expand the network bandwidth. And 4G network was running smoothly in all of these areas. As an example, I can note that during the Formula 1 races in Baku the average download speed of Azercell’s 4G network reached 42 Mbit /s, which is quite a good indicator.
- What are the main advantages that Azercell's subscribers receive in respect of content services by using 4G service?
Georgios Chatzis: - Due to its overwhelming speed, 4G makes it more comfortable to use a mobile TV, video conferencing, online games and applications – that is, everything the modern Internet offers. The speed will be enough for all. For example, with 4G you can easily download large files or watch movies in high definition. Azercell has a very good network coverage, which certainly affects the speed of content services in 4G application. Another great advantage of our company is customer service center. Azercell Express is ready to help with the solution to any problem - replace SIM-card, provide information on 4G, etc. So, the three main benefits of Azercell are the speed, coverage and service, which make the operator attractive for the users.
- Do you continue to upgrade the existing 3G networks amid this development?
Khaver Babazade: - We continue to improve 3G networks. Since the beginning of 2016 we have installed more than 100 stations for 3G network and more of them have appeared in the regions of Azerbaijan. By the way, the new equipment supports 4G standards and in the future with the addition of only one module, the base station device can be transformed into a new format. Generally, Azercell has a special radio network modernization program, within which the base stations of outdated standards will gradually be replaced by modern equipment over the next few years. This program will be implemented in stages. As for the current stations, all of them are supported by the vendor.
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