Increased network congestion requires fresh thinking from operators

Embarrassing network failures happen--as Research In Motion and its BlackBerry subscribers are well aware.

While this particular breakdown was due, apparently, to a core switch failure, many others have been caused by hardware failures, software hackers and increasingly the theft of high-value equipment and cabling. Operators can normally blame an external party of this interruption to service, issue a brief apology, and say all will be back to normal within a few hours.

However, this "normal" state of affairs is undergoing a change as network congestion becomes a growing problem due to the runaway success of smartphones and the resulting boom in data traffic.

The latest to suffer from this network overload issue is O2 Germany, where city-centre users are complaining of connection difficulties. The company has now acknowledged that parts of its network have been overwhelmed by data traffic due, largely, to its sales channels selling increasing numbers of smartphones.

Altogether, this is a self-inflicted problem that falls squarely on O2's management to accept blame. Interestingly, while O2 Germany has adopted an open approach to this network problem, online forum activity has played an important role in highlighting the matter and gaining wider support.

A recent review conducted by the market research firm Current Analysis claims that social networks and end-user forums have been instrumental in identifying network issues and prompting operators to take action.

Current Analysis believes that customers were first to make online reports of recent network problems experienced with both Orange UK and Vodafone UK, Norway's Telenor and now O2 Germany. This end-user activity is being noticed by the mainstream press, with the complaints then becoming a public relations issue that requires more than a standard apology.

O2 Germany is said to have trained some of its customer support staff to assess the impact of the network failures on individual subscribers, and award some form of credits on a discretionary basis. The operator remains secretive on the level of these awards, but cannot stop recipients from publishing them online.

This acknowledgement of problems and the offer of compensation is a shift in sensitivity for operators--perhaps one where smartphones are forcing a fresh approach to customer service.--Paul