Mobile broadband: What's it for?

Don't ask the operators

Put another way, the Vodafone position is that everybody may sink into a bog of broadband contention, but where everybody else is on foot, Voda is on horseback. They'll be the last to drown. But, says Hatton, drown they jolly well will:

"MNOs need to review their requirements for network capacity immediately in response to this rapid change in traffic composition," he wrote. "They will need to invest further in their RANs as well as the ongoing upgrade to HSPA. The demand for additional network capacity – from reallocation of GSM spectrum, the 2.6GHz expansion band and the digital dividend spectrum – will be substantial."

Analysys Mason believes that the amount of additional spectrum made available will be sufficient to support the predicted demand during the next 3–5 years. But that's not all: "MNOs will also need to increase their backhaul capacity, which is currently the most significant limiting factor in terms of the amount of available bandwidth."

Surely, the mobile operators must know what they are doing, though? You wouldn't get into a market for broadband, competing with ADSL carriers, if you couldn't make money on this, right?

"To be honest, I doubt if any of them have been able to look that far ahead," said Bransfield-Garth.

The problem in September last year, when the market was blown open by Hutchison 3G and its flat rate broadband deal, was that they had masses of unused 3G capacity, and voice users weren't taking it up. BT's head of mobile broadband at the time told me that "as little as 3 per cent of the capacity for mobile data, is actually used; there's not the slightest chance we could over-sell it".

Well, was he right? Many observers think not. They say that the operators simply had to do something, anything, to increase data traffic; and any sales at any margin would do. "When they say 'we can't run out of capacity' what they really mean is: 'Over the next two years, if we grow at twice the rate we think we can, we'll still have spare capacity'. But they honestly haven't looked any further than the next six months," said my anonymous source.

The availability of a bit of network software to analyse what sort of data traffic they are generating will be really handy, of course. It would show whether this traffic is premium data, or throwaway traffic. If it's highly-critical business, time-premium based, then putting up prices will just increase margins. But if users are only using mobile because it's cheaper than their ISP can do it over BT ADSL, then putting up the price will kill the business stone dead.

The smart money says it's not mission-critical stuff. As Hatton says, "As well as increasing capacity, MNOs will need to keep a limit on costs because mobile broadband traffic will be less profitable than traditional voice and SMS traffic." And judging by the detail in his report, this isn't guesswork.

Another estimate suggests that current data rate charges work out at as little as one-twentieth the price per bit of voice traffic.

So, are current mobile broadband users watching re-runs of Doctor Who? Or is it sweaty-faced financial directors scanning the red ink on Bloomberg in real time, and logging onto Euronews streaming? If it's the latter, the future for mobile data looks hot. If it's Doctor Who and Deal Or No Deal, then people will switch to Sky and Slingboxen just as soon as the price rises above Sky subscription rates, or as soon as the data caps drop below three DVDs a month.

And if people genuinely want HD video, but only if they can get it at flat rate TalkTalk prices, then no amount of fudging and data rate capping can save the mobile broadband business.

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