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So what can be done about this? Is mobile broadband doomed to be a turkey which gets ever more stale with each passing year? Thankfully no, and significant improvements could start happening as soon as 2010.
The major champion from which most hope hangs is LTE (Long Term Evolution) also known as 'Super 3G'. Often wrongly described as '4G', LTE is actually 3.9G - the last iteration of 3G - but it promises to bring us potentially game changing bandwidth. Whereas up to now we've seen 3G jump from 1.8Mbit/sec to 3.6Mbit/sec and 7.2Mbit/sec the first wave of LTE will increase this to a potential 160Mbit/sec (140Mbit/sec in some instances). Yes just like current 3G technology this bandwidth will have to be shared by all users at each particular cell tower, but it is a monumental jump nevertheless and should guarantee 2 to 5Mbit/sec rock solid network speeds at all times.
The first LTE commercial roll-out has already begun in Sweden and O2 LTE testing began last month with the aim of a 2010 UK launch. LTE will require new hardware, but by 2011 it is hoped its backwards compatible second generation will hit a remarkable 300Mbit/sec making the switch all the more worthwhile. At present power demands mean LTE will not be suitable for smartphones until 2011/12, but they should benefit anyway from the amount of laptop traffic which moves onto LTE freeing up HSDPA. For more on LTE read my extensive interview with standards body the UMTS Forum.
The other - though less likely - saviour on the horizon is WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access). Until now WiMAX deployment has been largely used in developing countries where it is cheaper to install than laying down the fixed infrastructure we already have in the UK. That said, WiFi hotspot providers are aware of the threat of LTE on their business models and WiMAX deployment could be an effective counteraction because it can take the limited range of a current WiFi hotspot (typically less than 50 metres) and throw it over an entire city.
Obviously huge bandwidth would be required, but WiMAX gets this from fixed line connections just like WiFi so there should be plenty of speed on tap. Wireless data access is also less of a battery drain on devices so LTE may not have everything its own way.
While I've finally hit upon a note of optimism it is worth pointing out how the structure of this feature changed radically from its original inception. I had initially intended to test the mobile broadband offerings of all five major networks (O2, Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and 3), but the sad fact was they all provided such erratic, so thoroughly underwhelming and so depressingly similar low performance that there proved little worth in such an angle. Furthermore, while I can't drive the length and breadth of the UK trying them all out it is impossible to give a fair and comprehensive picture of the nation. Certainly not up to the standard of the report already published by broadband-expert-co.uk which I referenced earlier.
Yes we're back in doom and gloom again, but the key message I want to get across is don't give up. While the implementation and advertising behind it leaves a lot to be desired mobile broadband is fundamentally far too good a technology to ignore. What's more, it is affordable, modern installation processes are virtually fool proof across the board and data allowances are generous. Roaming data charges are also on the way down with Vodafone a pioneer while even better news is that next generation technologies to bolster performance are just around the corner.
In the meantime I urge you to remember what Riyad stressed back in 2004 when testing the Vodafone Mobile Connect Card because it still rings true today: treat mobile broadband with a completely different mindset to fixed line and remember it remains a breakthrough technology which has and will continue to change the way we live and work forever.
See, there is a happy ending.
JD Power and Associates 2008 UK Mobile Broadband ISP Customer Satisfaction Study
Ofcom 3G Coverage Report
broadband-expert.co.uk Speed Poll
Orange Data Increase Press Release