Who stole my mobile broadband?

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).



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.