There is a lot of trust placed in mobile broadband. It’s understandable, what the service promotes is fundamentally appealing: fast, 24/7 access to the Internet from your laptop or netbook wherever you may be. So why are so many users angry and frustrated about a technological revolution that should set them free? And perhaps more importantly: what can be done about it?
I’ve been writing about mobile broadband for five years now, watching it evolve, seeing our expectations grow and I’m familiar with all the major providers, their arguments, what they have planned and I think I have some answers for you. So find your favourite comfy chair and sit tight because no-one is going to get an easy ride. Networks look away now.
There’s only one place to start…
Everything started so well. Let’s cast our minds back to the first mobile broadband product to hit the UK. It was the Vodafone Mobile Connect Card (pictured) which our editor Riyad reviewed way back in 2004. As with many new first generation technologies it was expensive and performance was limited.
How expensive? Try an entry price of £11.75pm for a data allowance of ”five megabytes per month”! Outside of this every additional megabyte was £2.35 and the Connect Card (only coming in the PC Card form factor) was bulky, often required the use of an additional aerial and cost £199. From here you could pay £23.50, £53 or £88.13 per month for an allowance of 75MB, 450MB or 1GB and speeds were restricted to 384Kbit/sec downstream and maximum uploads of 64Kbit/sec.
And yet Riyad loved it, in fact we all loved it. Why? Firstly, because here was a product which transformed the way we could work and play. It freed you from wireless hotspots and took productivity to new levels. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, because we knew how to treat it. Here are some particularly relevant Riyad quotes:
”Once in a while something comes along that restores my faith in cutting edge technology, a product that works so well that it makes me wonder how I ever managed to survive without it”
”I’d probably go for the Medium User plan, where £23.50 buys you 75MB of downloadable data. Now this might not seem like a lot, but I wouldn’t be using the Mobile Connect for downloading files, I could wait until I was in the office or at home for that. I’d probably limit my usage to email and necessary Web browsing, not to mention uploading stories to TrustedReviews. You’d need to regularly click the Usage button to make sure that you don’t stray too far over your quota and end up with a huge bill though.”
Of course these statements may sound horribly antiquated, but they make two key points which are relevant still today: that this was indeed the dawn of a new way of computing and it should be treated differently than you would a home broadband connection. In the five years that have passed, we’ve rather forgotten about both of these. And who do I blame? No, not us. I blame the networks.
”’THE CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS”’
As of November 2009 mobile broadband has never been cheaper, data allowances have never been larger and 3G coverage has never been more widespread.
Take 3, for example. Right now £10pm will give you a free USB dongle and 1GB of data allowance. Step outside of this and the additional megabyte charge is 10p… ”10p”! Need more? Then a £15pm 18 month contract will give you a free dongle and 15 gigabytes of monthly data. Even Vodafone – traditionally a more expensive network – will take just £15 of your hard earned cash per month for 3GB of data per month. Likewise Orange has launched a 500MB per month deal with prices starting from just £5pm. The contract phobic can benefit too with pre-pay, daily, weekly and rolling monthly deals all available.
Truth be told there is now a greater variety of mobile broadband packages on the market than we are given for our mobile phones. It’s a very different world from where we began.
It’s not just pricing that has evolved beyond all recognition though, 3G technology itself has made quantum leaps. Whereas the Vodafone Mobile Connect Card that Riyad tested maxed out at 384Kbit/sec downstream and uploads of 64Kbit/sec (neither of which you could realistically get near) we have moved onto HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) which has jumped from 1.8Mbit/sec to 3.6Mbit/sec and now 7.2Mbit/sec (14Mbit/sec is its potential limit). This did little for upload speeds though so along came HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access) which provides all the download performance of HSDPA and boost uploads to a potential 5.76Mbit/sec.
Even when a 3G connection isn’t available 2G GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) signals have been bolstered by the introduction of EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution) which turbo charges the 60Kbit/sec download and 40Kbit/sec upload maximums to near early 3G performance of 236Kbit/sec download and 118.4Kbit/sec upload. It all sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?
Here suddenly is a technology which on paper seems like it will replace your fixed line home Internet connection. After all, most users consume under 15GB of data per month on their desktops, let alone their laptops. So ditch your BT/Orange/O2/Virgin/Sky/TalkTalk home phone with its monthly service charge, grab yourself a mobile broadband dongle and take your Internet connection wherever you go. It sounds more convenient, more progressive and certainly much cheaper. Customers up and down the country should be thrilled, the future is here and we should be grateful for it.
The problem is it isn’t, we aren’t and – if anything – we’re getting more angry with each passing month.
“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 ThinkBroadband.com 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 broadband-expert.co.uk 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.
”’WHY HAS THIS HAPPENED?”’
So we have seen what has gone wrong with Mobile Broadband, but perhaps a more important question is ”Who is responsible?” I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: I blame the networks.
Their failure is essentially two pronged. Firstly, mobile broadband is a victim of its own success. Whereas previously price had deterred widespread adoption, today dirty cheap packages have led to a flood of new customers who use their ever growing data allowances to ”hammer” networks to within an inch of their lives. Every cell tower only has a limited amount of bandwidth so it doesn’t matter if you have a full 7.2Mbit HSDPA signal because if mobile broadband usage is high in the area then there simply isn’t enough room in the data pipe to give everyone acceptable performance. The unpleasant side effect is some of the most central locations and core business areas suffer worse than anywhere else.
This is a situation which is doubly hampered by the emergence of the smartphone, a category whose web ready development has rapidly improved over the last few years and it competes directly with mobile broadband dongles for the bandwidth on tap. Telcos have certainly tried to expand and increase the speed of their networks, but they haven’t kept up with the expansion of data consuming customers and their requirements.
To put this in some perspective Orange has announced mobile data usage on its network has increased by 4,125 per cent in the past 12 months. O2 quotes even greater consumption thanks to the runaway success of disproportionate data usage on the iPhone, a handset which has brought the previously inscrutable network to its knees (watch out Orange and Vodafone!).
The second prong is even worse than the first: wilful mis-selling. Flaws start with the name itself ‘Mobile Broadband’ which immediately suggests a) speed and b) the same service we have at home to be available on the move. This is compounded by the reluctance of networks to come clean about real world performance. Notably Vodafone has used its 7.2Mbit HSDPA network as an asset with which to promote its service over the 3.6Mbit networks of other providers and yet – as we have seen – it provides little benefit. Sure, the term ‘up to’ is now widely in use, but customers have yet to realise just how far away they can expect their actual speeds to be.
Another part of such mis-selling is use of the dreaded term ‘unlimited’. Thankfully, unlike its callous omnipresence in the smartphone sector, most mobile broadband contracts do now list their monthly data allowance, but this corrective measure has still to fully register. For example, in the previously mentioned ThinkBroadband.com user poll when asked “Do you know your mobile broadband usage limit?” 18 per cent of respondents (almost one in five) answered “unlimited/unrestricted” when they are anything but.
Such misunderstanding has resulted in a number of high profile occurrences of bills running into the tens of thousands of pounds, especially when roaming since users continue to believe ‘mobile broadband’ is just like what they have at home. With pricing often in excess of £5 ”per megabyte” it’s a hugely dangerous mistake to make.
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
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