The Bandwidth Problem

In short what we are talking about is bandwidth. Currently the fastest theoretical download speed in the UK is 7.2Mbit HSDPA. For those with poor home broadband connections this may sound extremely fast, but the issue is a) this speed is never reached in reality, and b) it is split between every user currently accessing it at the base station (local distribution point) of their particular network. It only takes one user to start streaming YouTube clips or uploading pictures to Facebook or Twitter to bring everything to a standstill.

Worse still, unlike coverage, there is no single body that can be blamed. Carriers try to fit as many base stations as possible (there are 10s of 1000s across the UK), but the UK is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Meanwhile smartphones are bought in ever greater quantities and their apps consume ever more data. The irony shouldn't be lost that the greatest of them all is the BBC's own iPlayer web app.


So the obvious solution is more bandwidth at each base station. This can be done through LTE (Long Term Evolution), the final iteration of 3G data services (technically it is 3.9G, but will be marketed as 4G). LTE bumps base station bandwidth from a maximum of 7.2Mbit to a whopping 160Mbit and that is only in its first iteration. It can scale to 300Mbit using only software updates. Better still LTE is a real world technology which has already rolled out in many countries around the world with LTE dongles and compatible handsets, such as the HTC Evo 4G (below) widely available.

Carriers are moving too. O2 was the first carrier to deploy an LTE trial in the UK way back in 2009, while in May BT and Everything Everywhere announced their LTE trials will start in September. So we have reason to celebrate? Not yet.


There are two primary reasons why. Firstly the carriers don't yet own the spectrum required to distribute LTE. In fact Ofcom only began its consultation process into how best to sell off the licences in March. Secondly carriers themselves aren't as motivated as they were to launch 3G. This is because the astronomical sums they paid for the 3G spectrum at the start of the decade have still yet to be recouped and cash reserves set aside for LTE bidding are much lower.

So what does the future hold? Until there is widespread distribution of LTE (unlikely before 2013-2014), the continued proliferation of smartphones and their increasingly data heavy services mean the situation will only get worse. Congestion will continue to affect both voice and data services (regardless of coverage or signal strength) and the UK will fall behind leading nations, having previously been near the forefront of mobile development.

The good news is the situation will eventually resolve itself. The bad news is many continue to look for solutions by asking the wrong questions.

David Horn

July 21, 2011, 5:40 pm

Bit unfair, really, to point the finger at the BBC iPlayer app for 3G network congestion when you consider that it will only stream on a WiFi connection.

Luan Bach

July 21, 2011, 10:16 pm

You can stream iPlayer on a connection from 3.


July 22, 2011, 5:24 am

I disagree that coverage is not important. It is very important. When you step off a train in an area you haven't been to before, and maps won't load, that's a problem.

Hans Gruber

July 22, 2011, 5:43 am

"[F]or the majority the real issue is not coverage but congestion."

Agreed in principle but how do you effectively measure that other than repeated bandwidth testing that would consume an awful lot more data?

I don't know but isn't the 3G part of the radio frequency spectrum (2100MHz) more hindered by physical obstacles like walls and so on due to its shorter wavelength and lesser ability to travel distances compared to longer 2G wavelengths?

Having no real idea about this and turning up practically zero useful info on the issue, I'll point out I could have things completely back to front but if correct, the point is one reason 3G coverage is lessened (even in densely populated urban areas) is owing to degradation of signal strength the further away you are from the base unit and due to weakening of that signal by physical barriers (house walls, hills, emi etc). This would explain why many (like myself) can get 3G only in part of their home whilst in other parts the signal will either often drop out or be completely absent. So surely there is even a flaw in the availability of a 3G signal here even if it becomes rather moot in the greater picture of mobile operator differences.

It's interesting to see your figures for current 3G coverage split by operator but aren't there still domestic 'roaming agreements' still in place with some mobile providers like 3 sharing Orange's (now Ev-Everywhere) masts when out of range? Or is that restricted to 2G coverage only or what? It's all very complicated...

For what it's worth and because I like social enterprises for the greater good, I've already installed the app (as flawed as it is and borked on release). Glad to say they've fixed the always on GPS issue when allowing location services access to GPS. Not a great way to start. Anyway, my own stats are currently 86%:14%:0% (lucky me). And I live in NW5 north London. To tell the truth I haven't been that far away from home at all and 3G is always getting lost when on the bus in the TCR area so that figure is only going to go down!


July 22, 2011, 6:07 am

As Luan mentions iPlayer streams on 3. In fact it streams on numerous UK networks. That said there is a bigger point being made here.

Hans Gruber

July 22, 2011, 6:27 am

Actually (and sorry to post my waffle a second time), the comments section for the original bbc article you linked in your first article (link provided below) made some good points like mast sharing agreements, handset antenna performance affecting results, re-farming of lower frequency bands (not that I understand that) and so on. As Susan Ma (of The Apprentice) famously said, to see better informed and more knowledgeable people thinking along the same lines of me, "maybe I'm not such an idiot after all."

I've just downloaded Open Signal Maps Android app which is hugely more informative both on an individual user level (it shows you which direction your nearest mast is etc) but already provide a usable online coverage map linked below (linked from the BBC article also).

Tony Walker

July 22, 2011, 7:25 am

The BBC have it correct. Lack of coverage IS still the major issue. Both for complete blackspots and places who people would kill for congested 3G, where they are stuch with 2G (not even 2.5G).

I live less than 12 miles east of Manchester and there is only one of the carriers covering our village (thankfully with a nice strong 3G signal). The rest of the carriers are virtually non-existant (you can get marginal signals in some spots around the village).

A way to reduce congestion on the networks in built-up areas would be for the networks to encourage businesses (offices, shops) to install femtocells. Though given the complete lack of availability to home users in marginal areas, I wouldn't hold my breath for them to think in such an intelligent fashion.

And on a lighter note, 3G reception where I work is both fast and lightly used (that's on 3) so nyaaaa, nyaaaa


July 22, 2011, 10:14 am

Streaming happily on 3 here - it does a decent job too. TVcatchup also works well. In fact, come to think of it, I'm one of those people ruining everyone else's 3G experience. Sorry.


July 22, 2011, 6:58 pm

Then you misunderstand Williamn. I'm not saying it isn't important I'm saying that with 99% 2G and 80-97% 3G coverage it now is no longer the primary issue. The focus needs to shift to performance.


July 22, 2011, 7:00 pm

That's a different point. You're correct 3G signal strength has problems penetrating walls - which is why you run into problems in basement flats, for example. But usability of that 3G signal is now becoming the primary issue.


July 22, 2011, 7:05 pm

For those without a signal it IS a major issue, but that is increasingly in the minority. The scenario you explain is common: one provider invests in an area and the others no longer deem it necessary and concede that territory. That does still mean it is covered, though.

You are right about femtocells, but the key to their popularity is being able to install one and make it compatible with all networks. Sadly networks lock them to their own specific signal meaning a household could need 3-4 femtocells unless everyone is going to move onto the same network. Furthermore carriers currently charge users for the data they use on femtocells against their monthly allowance when the data is from the users' own broadband connection. It's scandalous.

PS - lucky *carefully chooses words* so and so ;)

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