Many internet users in Vietnam have found themselves replugging their WiFi routers, trying to get a signal, before giving up and switching to their smartphone’s 3G. While tethering your laptop can be inconvenient — and expensive — will it be worth it when 4G finally arrives in Vietnam?
At present the nation’s connectivity continues to expand and improve. Vietnam’s average connection speed in the first quarter of 2016 was 5.0 megabytes per second (Mbps) according to the US-based Akami tech firm. Yet this is still below Thailand, which ranks at 10.8Mbps and South Korea, a whopping 29Mbps.
Mobile connection is also low at 2.6Mbps, ranking just below Syria’s 2.7Mbps.
Signs of progress abound — Vietnam’s mobile connectivity rose 30.8 per cent in the first quarter.
Viettel has reported it is already piloting 4G on a trial basis around the country. With potential speeds ten times that of 3G, is better wireless a viable replacement for spotty WiFi?
First, a disclaimer; 4G connections are only as fast as the infrastructure allows. If overburdened, 4G networks can actually be slower than 3G.
There are also trade-offs in ditching routers for SIM cards and dongles. Unlimited data plans are the exception worldwide rather than the rule for wireless.
At its maximum performance, however, 4G easily beats Vietnam’s typical WiFi speed.
The Myanmar Solution
Go to Myanmar to find an example of a country that has largely dumped WiFi for mobile networks, albeit in the 3G era, where WiFi connectivity averages 3.7 Mbps.
“I have sat in cafés that proudly advertise a WiFi connection, tethering my phone to my laptop to use 3G because the proudly advertised WiFi connection is either too weak to sustain a connection, or out altogether, or still aspirational,” says Eli Meixler, online editor at the Yangon-based Myanmar Times newspaper.
He adds that few people have WiFi routers, which cost hundreds of dollars to install thanks to a monopoly in the market. While he did have one provided by his employer at his former apartment, he said he’d usually forego WiFi in favour of 3G.
“It’s often easier or faster to just use a phone connected to 3G to send a quick email, post to social media, or check a reference resource, than it is to wait for a hard-lined connection to kick into gear,” he explains.
Meixler says he had so little faith in Myanmar’s connectivity that he had been ready to rely on a multitude of 3G services while uploading live updates during last November’s historic election.
He bought half a dozen SIM cards representing every telco in the country just in case his fibre-optic line failed, he adds.
Thanks to an influx of smartphones in recent years, Meixler says wireless connections make the most sense for Myanmar.
“I think that telco and wireless data networks are far better suited to meet Myanmar’s needs, from the perspective of consumers and in terms of technological infrastructure, than broadband connection, at least at this juncture,” he says.
Smartphones are the future
Vietnam isn’t Myanmar, where even regular SIM cards were virtually non-existent before 2013. But with even a cheap laptop still priced at a good chunk of personal income, the future of Vietnamese connectivity probably won’t be focused on broadband.
Anh-Minh Do, a Vietnamese-American tech blogger currently based in Singapore, says consumer sentiment is on the side of technology suitable for smartphones.
“I think it’s the trend because more people will be willing to buy a phone over a computer, especially in the countryside,” he explains. “It’s really just an issue of why would I get WiFi and a laptop when I can just have the internet in my pocket?”
Regardless of whether 4G is a solution to dysfunctional WiFi, market forces appear to be on the side of developing wireless.