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Who stole my mobile broadband?

July 13th, 2009 |  Published in Wireless Connectivity  |  4 Comments

Earlier this month OFCOM – the UK’s regulatory body, published a set of maps showing coverage for the five UK networks with a 3G license.  If you’re one of those people who believe the network’s claims about almost universal coverage, they will come as quite a shock.  Rather than a ruddy red glow of national coverage, they make the operators look more akin to a teenager in the first flushes of acne.

They come as a worrying dose of reality given the promises of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report.  Whilst 3 can claim to have something approaching the start of coverage (and I’d stress that it’s only the start of coverage), the efforts of the other four, and in particular O2 is nothing less than shameful.

There are a couple of things that make this even more concerning.  The first is that the results are essentially theoretical, based on an agreed propagation model; OFCOM has yet to validate them on a large scale by checking actual reception.  The report mentions that where a comparison was made with test drive data it resulted in an 8dB correction, but they don’t mention in which direction, or whether it is reflected in the maps.  The second concern is that this is presumably the coverage for voice.  If we look at mobile data, we know two things:  a much better link budget is required to achieve decent data rates as edge effects drastically limit the effective size of the cell when multiple handsets are using it (See my earlier post and Moray Rumney’s excellent article).  If these are applied to the coverage maps, the prospect for national mobile broadband looks like a pipedream.

The question is whether publication of this data will shame the networks into improving their coverage.

The prospect is not good.  It probably comes as a surprise to most users that 3 has the best 3G network within the UK, as most people’s experience of coverage is better for the other four networks.  However, that conceals the fact that the other networks also have long established 2G networks running at 900 MHz and 1800MHz.  All of the handsets that they ship are dual mode, switching automatically between the 2G and 3G networks.  As most of our experience is with voice calls, we tend not to notice the poor 3G coverage, as the handset compensates by switching to 2G.  Which lets the other four networks get away with a relatively poor 3G network.  (If you want to experience true 3G coverage on your phone, go to the network setting and set your phone to 3G/UMTS only.  Then try to make a call).

o2coverage

 

O2’s 3G coverage seems to be all at sea.  From the OFCOM maps it looks as if you’re more likely to get a signal if you’re sailing aroudn the coast than if your’re firmly rooted on terra firma.

One way to extend 3G coverage is to “refarm” the existing 900 MHz and 1800 MHz spectrum for use as a 3G network.  The rationale for doing this is that 3G networks provide greater capacity and we end up with more efficient use of the spectrum.  OFCOM has proposed this and the networks have resisted it.  Looking at the coverage maps it’s easy to understand why.

However, unless they bite the bullet, the prospect for mobile broadband is dire.  OFCOM’s maps indicate how much of the time users are unknowingly relying on the existing 2G networks with data applications running on GPRS and EDGE.  Neither technology offers the capacity to support any significant expansion of usage.  Which is worrying given the desirability of the iPhone and its coming trance of competitors, such as the Android and Palm handsets.  If they come with data intensive applications the networks will grind to a halt.  In the US, a number of disgruntled iPhone users are taking action against Apple.  If UK users take the same route, the OFCOM report is probably all of the evidence they need.

Ten years ago, when WAP first emerged onto the market, the networks excitedly promoted it as Mobile Internet, disappointing customers who believed them.  This time around the technology is capable, but the promise of mobile Broadband looks as if it will be equally empty, due to an inability to provide the infrastructure to support it.  While Lord Carter dreams of a future of mobile broadband, he might be better going out and buying a big boot.

4 comments ↓

#1 David Doherty on 07.14.09 at 9:39 am

Whilst I’d be the last to say there isn’t room for improvement from personal experience i’d discount these maps.

A lot of areas show no coverage yet if you’re there actually on the ground you can get perfectly good reception. For example I am currently in a area that apparently has no Vodafone 3G network coverage (according to the Vodafone Ireland website https://www.vodafone.ie/coverage/) yet i’m getting some very good 3G speeds.

I guess it might be operators under reporting their coverage to avoid over promising customers and to ensure the regulators don’t start thinking that the 3G investment/roll out period is over.

#2 Nick on 07.14.09 at 11:50 am

I have to say that I tend to agree with the OFCOM view. Last year, when I was with Vodafone I set my handset to 3G only (not dual mode) for a while, as for some reason it had overheated in Phoenix when it was running in dual mode and a Nokia guru suggested this might solve the problem – which it did. When I got back to the UK and forgot to switch it back, I was staggered at how poor the coverage on 3G was. I drive from London to Cambridge on a regular basis and with 2G the phone would keep the call up throughout the drive (using handsfree). On 3G the call dropped every few miles and there were considerable areas with no coverage at all. Pop it back to dual mode and everything was wonderful.

This year I moved to 3 (the network), and although the experience is better than the Vodafone 3G experience, I have had to regress to expecting that a call will drop if I’m travelling – something I’d largely forgotten about for the last five years.

My real concern is what the current coverage will do as more users turn to data? The networks are starting their second “mobile internet offensive”, after the abject failure of WAP. It may be OK for the first few users in areas with coverage, but if they don’t do something about thier coverage, it may all fall over. And if they disappoint twice, I wonder whether the public will give them a third chance?

#3 David Doherty on 07.15.09 at 2:34 pm

I remain a cynic as I can find very little evidence to support your claim that the “networks have resisted” refarming of 2G spectrum… in fact Pyramid Research have produced a report detailing the benefits for network operators… http://www.3g.co.uk/PR/July2009/Europes-Spectrum-Refarming-for-3G-will-Help-Operators-3G.html

I can’t see why operators would want to resist… no new sites/local planning issues, a need for handset replacements/customer lock in, avoids new market entrants etc etc

I completely agree that the handover on the Three 3G network is terrible but surely this is just a case of the operator needing to do more testing on the ground? i also find the Vodafone 3G network to be much better (and I regularly put both of these networks to good test when i take the train across Ireland).

#4 Nick on 07.15.09 at 3:20 pm

It interesting to compare the upbeat PR message from Pyramid where they’re trying to sell their report, and their analysis of the status of the network operators which they published a few months earlier, in which they state that “Vodafone and Telefonica O2 are vehemently opposed to any changes in the existing spectrum allocation”. Maybe that’s the difference between wanting to be heard and wanting to sell something.

We won’t know how vehement that opposition is until OFCOM publish the report of their current consultation on the “Application of spectrum liberalisation and trading to the mobile sector”, which closed for comment on 1st May. I’ve heard that the networks were less than positive in their response to OFCOM, but until we see the submission we won’t know.

I do agree that refarming would be to the benefit of all in the long term. The problem the networks have is the short term cost of infrastructure.

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About Creative Connectivity

Creative Connectivity is Nick Hunn's blog on aspects and applications of wireless connectivity. Having worked with wireless for over twenty years I've seen the best and worst of it and despair at how little of its potential is exploited.

I hope that's about to change, as the demands of healthcare, energy and transport apply pressure to use wireless more intelligently for consumer health devices, smart metering and telematics. These are my views on the subject - please let me know yours.

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