The Truth About Mobile Broadband - The Backlash

Gordon Kelly

By Gordon Kelly




"Consumers are falling out of love with mobile broadband, ditching their 'dongles' and returning to fixed-line services," said The Guardian just one month ago.

"We get a sense that the mobile broadband thing has peaked. We are seeing some of those people begin to realise that the bandwidth you get on mobile is so much less than you get on a fixed line," admitted Carphone Warehouse CEO Charles Dunstone. "Mobile broadband is increasingly a supplementary rather than a substitutional thing, and an increasing proportion of Carphone sales are of pre-pay dongles."

Neither of these statements is an exaggeration. An October survey from specialist site showed that a whopping 76 per cent of 770 respondents said they were unhappy with their UK mobile broadband speeds. A further nine per cent were unsure with just 14 per cent feeling satisfied. On top of this 60 per cent described their experience of UK mobile broadband coverage as 'poor' with 30 per cent saying it was 'adequate' and just three per cent convinced it was 'excellent'. These results do not come through ignorance either with 75 per cent of respondents aware of what their monthly mobile broadband data allowances were.

We were not always this unhappy. Just back in February the results for the JD Power and Associates 2008 UK Mobile Broadband ISP Customer Satisfaction Study revealed O2 to be users' most favoured network with an overall score of 712 on a 1,000 point scale - essentially 7.1 out of 10. T-Mobile and Vodafone ranked second and third with scores of 683 and 655 respectively, a still healthy 6.9 and 6.6 out of 10. This shows a drastic fall has occurred over the last 12 months, a confusing situation when technological evolution is only ever meant to get better and faster.

It isn't just consumers sticking the boot in either. In July industry regulator Ofcom issued a damning report on UK 3G data coverage. In a complete about turn O2 came out particularly badly with the purple patches of recognised 3G signal sporadic at best and virtually nonexistent outside of major city centres. Of the rest Orange was ahead overall, but even then the vast gaps in its service were nothing of which to be proud. So how do networks regularly claim 90 per cent and greater 3G coverage? Because these figures refer to population coverage not area - not a great measure given the key word in 'mobile broadband' is mobile.

Of course it must be remembered that 3G is a tricky beast. It uses a data wavelength that is notoriously bad at penetrating walls and water. In fact, so bad is it at the latter that even trees can disrupt signal because of the high water content in their leaves! That said, this isn't our problem we are the paying customer, it is for the networks to figure out and clearly they aren't doing a good enough job.

If this wasn't bad enough in late September comparison site announced the results of an extensive and prolonged test into real world mobile broadband speeds and the figures were nothing short of appalling. Between 1 March and 31 August 3,342 mobile broadband connections were tested around the UK and revealed consumers receive just one quarter of networks' advertised speeds on average.

This time Vodafone came out on top, but it was a dubious win with its 7.2Mbit HSDPA service averaging just 1.3Mbit/sec - that's a mere 18.1 per cent of its promoted speed. 3 was second at 1.2Mbit/sec - 33 per cent of its advertised 3.6Mbit speed - but everyone was largely lumped together with T-Mobile, the slowest of the five major networks, bringing up the rear at 0.9Mbit/sec. With the web a vastly more complex and data intensive animal than it was back in 2004 at the time of the first Vodafone Mobile Connect Card it becomes easy to see why our perception of mobile broadband performance hasn't really moved on.

Customers, comparison sites and even the industry regulator are angry and so they should be.

Paul Nicolson

November 16, 2009, 5:41 am

Im with 3g and the service is very poor. I pay £7.50 a month for 5gb of traffic. I would never get close as I use it now only a few days a month. I would rather log on to wifi as the service is poor. If I get more than 128k I have done well. If this is the future is is a sad one. Then again my 3g on my Iphone is rubbish as well on o2. Im in cambridgeshire.


November 16, 2009, 7:27 am

That was a brilliant read, really well written and laid out. Cheers.

It still annoys me when the Telco's say in their defence 'we never expected or foresaw the demand for so much data'...Rollocks! The writing was on the wall for years and each year they've been drip feeding their networks with minimum investment as contention ratios went through the roof, waiting to see who would blink first.

Sadly I'm beginning to get the feeling that LTE will turn out to be as obsolete as USB3 will be when it eventually launches...3 years too late.


November 16, 2009, 7:43 am

Surely the biggest improvement to mobile broadband woes will be the refarming of the 900MHz spectrum. As far as I can tell, the mobile operators are holding back at the moment until they can start to deploy 3.5G (and 4G) down there where some people might actually be able to make use of it. 2100MHz has been a total curse.


November 16, 2009, 7:54 am

@lifethroughalens - many thanks! And yes, the problem is 140-160Mbit/sec LTE will come at a time when so many of use are smashing into 7.2Mbit connections that they will soon fill up LTE. It's similar to how motorways are built to ease congestion, but fill up almost as soon as they open. That said, a reliable 2-5Mbit/sec connection would be heaven sent and capable enough for almost any task including streaming HD (720p anyway - good enough for laptop screens). So hopefully it will give us some breathing space, especially with HSDPA cut some more slack as a result.

@Ben - you could be right, but how it will pan out in real world terms is still unclear. Hopefully it will follow in LTE and provide further help. Heaven knows, we need it!


November 16, 2009, 11:26 am

Great article indeed, thanks.

I recently got a new office and considered getting mobile broadband instead of a landline (I have a full broadband at home), but apart from the weak performance (500kbps on my 3G laptop and 200kbps on my 3G phone with T-Mob), the real reason I didn't is the one you don't mention and which is nevertheless a huge problem: no skype allowed (unless you pay twice the monthly amount).

When will Telcos accept they are nothing more than a tube, and will stop overcharging for everything, namely skype and roaming?

In the end I didn't subscribe to a monthly broadband, I kept a PAYG sim in my laptop for when I'm on the go (not often), I use my phone as a modem daily to check my email and do limited web browsing from the laptop (keeping big downloads for home), and I will get a landline and proper broadband if I feel I need more (primirily for skype and slingbox pro streaming).


November 16, 2009, 1:13 pm

Having worked for one of the major UK networks, I could see this coming years ago. It's all about hiking up the average revenue per customer (as the sales bods would tell me). More and more data cards/dongles were sold and no investment was made to upgrade the network infrastructure. It doesn't help when the likes of other companies like Virgin Mobile piggy back on your network either!

The company I work for at the moment uses Vodafone's 3G dongles, considering I am in North London, is it acceptable for 3G to be flaky here? Is it acceptable for the connection to constantly drop to 2G? Of course not! It's ridiculous.

Other issue I have found is browsing the internet on my phone. This is an example of how it's all going so wrong:

I am an Arsenal season ticket holder, I used to be able to browse the web in the stadium (I used to check the scores through all the leagues at half-time and the results at full-time, everything was flawless). Now everyone is murdering the networks with their iPhones, Blackberry etc etc etc - the networks simply cannot cope! Approaching kick off, I can forget about browsing the web, it won't connect. I can forget about sending an MMS 30 mins before kick off and until I am on the train and out the area after the game and even bloody phone calls are an issue because I often get "network unavailable" when trying to make a call (due to the numbers of the people in the area all trying to do the same).

You would think that the networks would upgrade their gear around stadiums at least! It would pay for itself with all the people in the area wanting to send MMS's etc.


November 16, 2009, 2:35 pm

Re: the wavelengths in use, specifically: "it is for the networks to figure out and clearly they aren't doing a good enough job."

It is actually OFCOM who mandated that the well-penetrating 2G frequencies must be restricted to 2G. Now that EU have stepped in and un-restricted them, I hope we'll be seeing a massive spread of 3G availability into 2G areas (something O2 in particular need, as their 2G signal, IMHO, is second to none and it might catapult them to the top of the 3G table).


November 16, 2009, 2:42 pm

Have you noticed how it is the country areas where there are problems with fixed line broadband show themselves; & therefore one might think 3G was an answer! Except the country areas are the white spaces on the maps above.

It is also the country areas that might benefit most with high quality broadband, because they are the areas that find ordering stuff from a shop difficult (the shops are miles away), they should be able to open rural business where jobs are needed, but they suffer poor services & poor broadband, & frankly which company is going to look kindly at areas where the population is scattered..

We may live in idylic surroundings, but there is a hefty downside which many do not see, until the move here!


November 16, 2009, 2:55 pm

@Steve, that's very poor re: your observations at the stadium. Very dense, predictable populations should surely be easy and profitable enough to cover properly.

At least with the Vodafone Access Gateway I can take control of coverage in my own home, as ridiculous as the concept of providing our own network coverage is.


November 16, 2009, 3:51 pm

Gordon, a great article which I enjoyed reading. I guess I am however one of the 14 per cent satisfied because I get a great service from both Orange (smart phone) and Virgin Media (netbook) mobile broadband. However you made a point which really hit home. With the dredded iphone hitting Orange, I guess I can look forward to terrible service on par with O2 in the coming months until Orange sort their bandwidth. I never previously considered this!! O2 were taking one for the team with their exclusivity agreement and anyone who avoids iphone mania like the plague did right to avoid O2....not anymore!!


November 16, 2009, 4:24 pm

@Ataripower - appreciate the kind words and good luck, up until now you've definitely been one of the lucky ones! Long may it continue :)


November 16, 2009, 4:39 pm

I am rather satisfied with my 3 mobile broadband, especially when it's £7.50 for 5gb.

Not quite so with my T-mobile one though! It's crap!!


November 16, 2009, 4:56 pm


I find my personal broadband with T-Mobile is excellent most of the time. I get great coverage in and around London as you'd expect seeing as London was a key site for the old One2One company so the network is fairly solid.

Can't say the same about Vodafone though. And lets not even go there with O2!


November 16, 2009, 5:54 pm

I was in the T-Mobile shop in Chichester and I couldn't work out how they got an excellent connection on the WiFi dongle they had connected to a demonstration laptop when the connection to my Smartphone was dreadful. (I am a T-Mobile customer.) I then saw that the cheeky scamps that connected the laptop up, actually had it connecting to a wifi router in the shop. I couldn't be bothered to remonstrate with the worker drones so I disconnected the WiFi and deleted the connection details.

I'm rather hoping it caused the cheating bastards at least some small amount of distress.


November 16, 2009, 5:56 pm

@Vivid - love it! I also think this falls squarely under my argument of networks mis-selling ;)


November 16, 2009, 6:01 pm

@Manni: '3' allow Skype. In fact I can't think of anything they don't allow at the moment. I've come across stories of T-Mobile blocking YouTube, Orange blocking certain ports and of course the iPhone on O2 not allowing Skype or iPlayer use through 3G.

I've had an E71 on 3 for over a year now and use Skype, iPlayer, YouTube and Mobbler ( apps over 3G just fine. Granted the iPlayer does tend to re-buffer if the signal is bad, but I've found I actually have the best 3G signal when sat in the office. I'm eagerly awaiting Spotify on S60 to try that out, especially since Orb is very slow for some reason (even when I fiddle around with the quality settings).

Whilst not "over-the-moon" happy, I'd say I'm satisfied as I get 1GB"unlimited" for £5 a month with 3. I haven't tried 'Mobile Broadband' on a laptop yet, but my consumption would be greater and no doubt slow things down.

@Gordon: I'd actually like to add one other thing to blame - the websites themselves. While many sites started to offer mobile versions (Amazon and eBay still have good ones for example), a lot of people are still forced to browse their favourite sites' "desktop" version on a mobile phone. We don't really think about it when on a PC, but since I can see the download size I know that some of my favourite websites take 4MB to load a page. This is of course due to the abundance of ads, Flash content, etc. Anyone else remember when the average web page was under 100k? (well, unless you were waiting for pictures on a porn site to download, but I guess the end result was worth the wait!)

Anyway, good article, or nice rant rather. In the end, as mentioned, technology is too often a victim of its own success.


November 16, 2009, 6:06 pm

My wife took her iPhone on a 3 day trip to NYC. All it did was download emails (she didn't know how to switch this off). o2 Charged £132 @ £6 / MB. And you only really find out about the charges after the fact, which feeds the impression that these charges are ripoffs for the unwary.


November 16, 2009, 7:10 pm

Despite the negative attitude towards the reality of mobile broadband presented here, I have been using it for my sole home internet connection for the past two years. Through data cards or the dial-up connection of my mobile phones I can sympathise with the experiences of all on here.

It's by no means perfect but for the majority of tasks I perform, it's cheaper and sufficient. Bring on LTE!


November 16, 2009, 7:22 pm

Gordon, I just think I need to point out something that your article failed to mention (not a criticism when I say failed more an observation. Even if LTE takes off and provides speeds we don't currently receive, then as well as the size and breadth of the network it is the back-haul (the bandwidth at the back end of the network) which I think has caused most of the issues.

If and when a cell sites go down it can be any number of issues. It could be hardware, software or the fibre optics from that site back into the main network. Now virtually all networks are dependent on one player to provide the extensive coverage for that namely BT. From a customer perceptive all that is irrelevant and in some cases all well and nonsense even but it needs to be considered in the context of the ability to improves network speeds when the cost of getting this back end bandwidth has to come from somewhere and current and and only provider is not cheap. Inevitably the customer pays whether that be in terms of service or lack of, as is experienced now. Or in price which may come with increased speeds I mean have we not seen similar business practices from the fixed line broadband brigade?


November 16, 2009, 7:28 pm

@V.E - that's a fair point and I do wish telcos would introduce some form of traffic prioritisation. That way users would be able to pay more to guarantee a certain level of service.


November 16, 2009, 7:40 pm

Does true 4G exist as a standard yet? and is it only the cost and the power consumption of the mobile devices that is stopping the deployment? cause my thinking is that they should just invest in the fastest possible then maintain it rather than upgrading every couple of years.


November 16, 2009, 8:05 pm

@Jay - no, it's all theory. I discuss it in my UTMS Forum interview, but here's the extract:

"How do you think LTE will be marketed? 3G is a household name and '4G' would be an easy sell.

JPB "As a trade body we need to be careful. We are promoters but we must not create false hype. We need to name things by their real names. We don't want to over promise. Neither LTE or WiMax is 4G, they are extensions of 3G. The Japanese have found the real term, that is 'Super 3G' and that is what it represents. It is the ultimate form of 3G. They call it 3G 3.9"

CS "Whatever 4G will be it is not set but it will be very different because 3G is at its peak. 4G is looking at 100Mbit in full mobility and one gigabit when stationary. It's a hugely ambition plan but it little more than writing on the back of a napkin."


November 16, 2009, 8:16 pm

Is the speed really a problem? 140KB/s isn't exactly slow.


November 16, 2009, 8:46 pm

@Gordon - actually it is. Today web pages can be many megabytes in size and we tend to skip quickly between different pages all the while other programmes/services on our laptops are stealing that bandwidth.


November 16, 2009, 8:47 pm


I remember trying to do a demo to a client in the mid '80s using an acoustic coupler (a mounting that you put the handset of your phone into) running at about 300B/s... - even our fixed lines ran at about 4800B/s (yes, that really is Bytes per second, not Kilobytes).

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