O2 Blackout: Mobile Networks Are Damaging Tech Innovation

Gordon KellyI want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get

up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and


-Howard Beale, Network


hours. 1500 minutes. 90,000 seconds. Whichever ever way you divide it

this was the time O2 customers screamed blue murder and national

newspapers, radio and TV made the network’s one day outage headline

news. With it came the same old quips about taking a moment to look up

from our phone screens and enjoy the world around us, but few spotted

the bigger issue: the future of technology is built upon horrendously

weak foundations.

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Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel, Sony, Nokia, HTC, ARM, Dropbox,

Spotify, Sky, the BBC… all of these companies and many, many more have

astoundingly ambitious plans for technology over the coming years and

yet ”every single one” will require a reliable, ultra-fast Internet

connection to fully enjoy it. In 25 years this has yet to happen widely

on the ground and – as O2 has so strongly reminded us – it is an utter

mess in the air. Isn’t the future supposed to be mobile?

And what

of the future? In the UK LTE, the successor to 3G, has become as well

known for its delayed arrival as its potential speed advances. Whereas

other countries like Sweden and Norway and even geographic monsters such

as the US and India have managed to get LTE networks up and running, Britain believes 2015 is a more realistic date for its widespread rollout. We

were told LTE should initially provide a reliable 2-4Mbit connection,

but what will be our data demands then?

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signs aren’t good. Ofcom claims the average home broadband user now

downloads 17GB of data each month, a seven fold increase in just the

last five years. It sounds a huge amount given the 1GB monthly cap

imposed by most mobile network’s data packages, but 17GB translates to

just 12 hours streaming HD content from BBC iPlayer. Interestingly

increased speed only feeds our hunger with Virgin Media

admitting each month its 10Mbit customers typically consume 19GB while its

100Mbit customers go through 130GB.

Having smaller screens on our

mobile devices may stem some of the tide in this video revolution, but

networks shouldn’t rejoice. The new emphasis on super high resolution

displays pushes for HD content to do them justice. Furthermore over 50

per cent of all phones sold are now smartphones and

research shows potentially data heavy activities like web surfing,

social networking, gaming and listening to music have all become more

popular than making calls.

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course these five activities are just the start. It was an interesting

side-effect of the O2 blackout that the London Barclays Cycle Hire

scheme was hit hard because its terminals use the network to process

customer payments. The happy brigade who tell us to relax and look up

from our screens and perhaps go for a bike ride don’t realise networks

are also now interwoven with such seemingly simple pleasures. As Cloud

computing and

digital wallets gain momentum our documents, media and even money will

be subject to their whims as well. World changing ideas are left waiting for networks to catch up.

The problem is, having fallen behind catching up will be nearly impossible.

Ofcom’s 2011 communications report found 37 per cent of UK adults admit

to being ‘highly’ addicted to their smartphones, but amongst teenagers that figure rises to 60. Meanwhile in Europe just days before the O2 outage 26 million France Telecom customers were left without service for

10 hours after an overload in networking equipment. We face a global crisis and one that is deepening with every generation of stronger tech enthusiasts.

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England the next immediate hurdle for networks will be the London

Olympics. Record numbers of tourists, both foreign and domestic, are

expected to besiege the capital for three weeks and test the

infrastructure to breaking point. The concern is the networks will reap what their lethargy has sown. They will need a miracle to stay up throughout and none more so than O2: it has been subcontracted to provide all

mobile services within the Olympic village…

Gordon Kelly is former News Editor for TrustedReviews and now writes for BBC Focus, BBC Future, Wired and The Scotsman newspaper amongst others.