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Mobile broadband: not up to the job?

What we learned

Workshop Mobile broadband has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame since it became widely available, with many mobile operators reporting triple digit growth year-on-year, and data usage surpassing mobile voice. Access to multimedia content and social networking sites from smartphones, and traffic to and from mobile broadband-based PCs, has contributed to this growth.

This rapid escalation of demand has apparently caught some operators by surprise, and the underlying network is increasingly struggling to cope under the extra demand.

Consumer and business users alike have not changed their expectations of consistent performance and anytime, anywhere access however; and so the decrease in quality they have experienced is now starting to filter through as widescale user dissatisfaction.

To be fair, there is always the possibility, in any comms service, of disruption. But the impact of disruption on data connectivity is arguably much greater than for voice. When a voice call drops, it is inconvenient and annoying, but you can always call back. Data connections, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish. For example, a dropped connection can result in a download needing to be restarted, or even, in extreme cases, lost data.

When we wrote recently about mobile data quality, we suspected that things still weren’t all that great. The feedback from Reg readers, however, suggested that the problems were possibly worse than we had originally thought. A comment from one Reg reader based in the US, where, ironically, data service quality is often perceived to be much better than Europe, was in line with many of the responses:

You've only got to look at a map of coverage in the US to see the root of the problem - mobile networks want customers so they cover large population centres where there are lots of people, and the roads connecting large population centres.

Since they are looking to sign up customers, all they have to do is provide a mediocre service that works most of the time ... some signal strength is better than none but there's no real pressure to do more than provide some signal. This strategy works fine most of the time, but you can see it fall apart when large groups of people come together suddenly - sports events or disasters like Katrina where the mobile phone service in Baton Rouge collapsed overnight (and remained down for weeks) when 60,000 people with mobile phones moved into Baton Rouge from New Orleans overnight.

Mobile operators have no incentive to improve a service that generates a large cash flow for a mediocre service. Since mobile phones are rapidly replacing land lines we are - in effect - moving society’s ability to communicate in the event of a disaster back to that of the 50's.

There was also a sense that all operators were in this together, and there was no single culprit. As one reader wrote:

Mobile data is a race to the bottom. Cheapest provider wins. It's much like DSL but at least with that there are business quality providers if you're prepared to pay a bit more. With mobile there's no choice.

I like to do the 'spotify test'. If an (allegedly) 7.2Mbps connection can't reliably stream a 96kbps low quality spotify stream it fails. This isn't a hard test - I'm expecting them to be able to provide a mere 1/75th of their advertised bandwidth.

Where I am, there is only one provider that hasn’t consistently failed this test. Coincidentally, it is the most expensive. And it’s not exactly stunning either.

Maybe by the time LTE is rolled out 96kbps will be achievable

Comments like this are not so surprising, when we consider that the mobile data speeds advertised by mobile operators are rarely achieved in practice. For example, some recent, albeit small-scale, tests across mobile operators in the UK showed achieved data transfer speeds to be, on average, about a quarter of the rates touted as available. One director of a small UK-based business shared his thoughts about mobile broadband:

It's highly variable in my experience. Mobile broadband outperformed our home ADSL until we recently upgraded the ADSL. Even now it has 4 times the uplink speed. But then you can be sitting there with 6 bars of signal in Waterloo station and getting really dire speeds.

The downturn in quality is clearly taking its toll on the patience of users, and there is increasing pressure for mobile operators to address the problem. This is no quick-and-easy fix, however, as it will require significant investment. Somewhere along the line, there will be a need to recoup this, which translates to increased tariffs - always contentious for users. At this point, a premium tariff for businesses which are willing to pay more, to guarantee a given level of service will, maybe, become viable. This quote from one reader suggests that this whole area should be opened up for debate:

The real problem for mobile data quality is for the types of business roles that mean you could be at any location in the UK at any time. You simply cannot rely on the connection to be available (even for a telephone call never mind data). Given that, we have had to work around connectivity problems by transferring data whilst travelling or at a stronger connection location, but trying to hunt for those can be an issue on its own. Is 99% reasonable coverage possible at an acceptable cost to the providers? I don't have that answer, but if there could be a promissory that big clients will pay for the service they want to rely on, then it could be a good thing.

Our dependence on - and appetite for - mobile broadband is unlikely to dissipate over time. And unless there are viable alternatives, then the problem of mobile data quality will continue, and no doubt crop up time and again. Have you given up mobile broadband as a lost cause, or does your service deliver? Would you be prepared to pay more for better service, or do you think the mobile operators need to sort out their problems themselves, and not pass the bill onto users? ®

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