The Great British network squeeze

Our appetite for broadband - whether fixed or mobile - continues to grow. But it's putting a huge strain on our networks, as Mike Jennings discovers.

networks

If you're reading this then chances are you carry a smartphone or laptop - and chances are that you work on the move, with modern devices able to fulfill virtually every business task available - as long as you've got a decent mobile broadband connection, that is.

That sounds like a formality in a country that's obsessed with technology but, sadly, regular users will know the pain of a patchy connection, as well as the dent it can put in productivity.

The cause of patchy signal, poor data rates and much hassle is, ironically, the UK's explosion in smartphone and mobile broadband popularity. Service regulator Ofcom's own research has found that 17 per cent of British households use mobile broadband services, with more data being used thanks to streaming music and video services and more powerful apps.

It's not going to get any better, either. Research firm Ovum has predicted the worldwide market for mobile broadband will be worth $223 billion within four years, and 3 said it sees a whopping 137TB of data pass through its network daily - with that figure only set to increase.

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Congestion problems

Sebastien Lahtinen, head of www.thinkbroadband.com, has seen first-hand the problems such popularity can cause. "It's quite common in busy cities to see congestion over 3G networks," he explains, with businesses likely to see problems "when richer applications are rolled out that require more capacity."

Paul Ockenden, the mobile and networks expert for IT Pro's sister title PC Pro, echoes Lahtinen's sentiments. "In the middle of a busy city you might get five-bar signal but poor performance because of congestion," he said.

The impact on businesses is clear. Ockenden explained that "a few minutes every day waiting for emails to download will eat up any savings you make by choosing a cheaper supplier," and it's easily possible for businesses to lose customers thanks to a dodgy connection.

This anecdotal evidence is backed up by research. Iain Wood is head of marketing at Epitiro, a research firm that polled 44,000 users to put together the BBC's mobile broadband map in August. "Our studies showed rural areas lacked coverage and even cities had cells that provided predominantly 2G coverage," Wood said, claiming testers only receive a 3G signal 75 per cent of the time.

Further research suggests that British businesses are losing money due to bad broadband. A study conducted on behalf of auction site eBay found one-third of its customers had lost out on potential purchases due to poor connections, with rural areas worst affected. "There's whole swathes of the country where you won't get signal," says Ockenden.

The networks are bullish. 3 confirmed that "the amount of data [on its network] is growing each month." But he's sure the network - which handles 40 per cent of the UK's mobile broadband traffic - can cope. "3 has made huge improvements over the past few years and [it's] aiming to upgrade 80 per cent of its network to HSPA+ by the end of 2011," the operator explained.

Orange is similarly enthused about the future, claiming that its network-sharing deal with T-Mobile - they're now part of the same company, Everything Everywhere - ensures better signal for all of its users. Ockenden isn't so sure, though, explaining that "with Orange and T-Mobile merging, and 3 sharing its masts, many masts are being decommissioned."

4G or not 4G?

Many argue that a switch to 4G networks would solve Britain's broadband woes, but that's a long way off. The improved network will allow four networks to provide minimum levels of coverage across the UK, but the auction to decide who gets to occupy this bandwidth has been delayed numerous times, with the latest reports suggesting it'll now be taking place in the second half of 2012, with any rollout waiting until 2013.

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Ofcom says the delays are caused by the "complexity" of the technical and competitive concerns around the auction, but network squabbles reveal a different story. O2 has previously dubbed the plans "illegal," Vodafone has advocated a delay to the auction, while 3 has said any further delays could hurt plans to improve services in rural areas.

Outside of Ofcom and its arguing networks, there's unanimous agreement that Britain's being left behind. "Britain will become one of the last countries in Europe to benefit," says Lahtinen. "Networks are being held back, even though they've been partly responsible [for delays to the auction]."

With 4G services beginning to launch in the US and "potential speeds of over 30Mbps in Finland," according to Epitiro's Wood, it's clear that this next-generation technology will need to arrive soon.

The 4G network - when it arrives - is undoubtedly the future, with O2 and Orange already running trials in limited areas. In the meantime, though, there's still plenty of room for improvement. "The major challenge is keeping up with demand," says Lahtinen, who would like to see "networks drastically reducing charges for mobile internet, as some are prohibitively expensive."

Ockenden reckons the 3G network is at its limit, but Ofcom is still trying to improve services. Its Infrastructure Report, published earlier this month, revealed it's conducting testing into coverage on major UK roads, and in October the Treasury announced it will make 150 million available to improve mobile coverage with the intention of improving UK coverage from 95 to 99 per cent, with rural areas targeted. It's been well-received with William Worsley, president of the Country Land and Business Association, saying that the funds illustrate that "the Government is taking the countryside, and the rural economy, seriously."

The Government has recently invested more cash into the UK's broadband development, with chancellor George Osborne announcing an injection of 100 million to create 10 "super-connected" cities, with 80-100Mbps fixed-line broadband and "high speed" mobile connections promised for London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff and six more cities to be announced in 2012. Rural users were also promised help from a 20 million Rural Community Broadband Fund, with a promise of more funding if the initial scheme "proved successful."

Ockenden, meanwhile, reckons that taking matters into your own hands is the best way to ensure a better connection. "Carry a load of pay-as-you-go SIMs and choose the best one or use an overseas SIM" if you're willing to pay more," he added.

Laptop users would be wise to check which chips they're using, too: "I've found that Dells, high-end Sony VAIOs and Lenovo machines tend to be really good." Ockenden says. "But I've seen Samsungs and HPs with very poor mobile performance."

It's a damning evaluation of the UK's mobile broadband when experts advise customers to take such steps to improve their connections but, thanks to increased 3G demand and the delayed 4G auction, it looks like it's going to get worse before it improves. If you're a business owner concerned about connections, it seems there are few options - so we'd suggest you invest in a fixed connection instead.

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