Kick the speed habit

I wasn't going to write about the Hong Kong Mobile Broadband Feud this issue, as I've commented on it elsewhere in the Questex ecosystem. But it's worth bringing up again because I've had a number of people approach me - a few of them employed Hong Kong cellcos that are not involved in the feud - and ask me, in essence, "What the hell was that all about?"

So, to recap (for those of you tuning in late), Hong Kong media were treated to a juicy publicity stunt in July when SmarTone-Vodafone chief Douglas Li held a press conference apparently for the purpose of demonstrating that the Express 21 HSPA modem offered by rival cellco CSL - which launched the city's first HSPA+ network four months earlier - did not in fact deliver the 21-Mbps download speeds claimed in its marketing materials. Cue CSL outrage and a reported investigation by local regulator OFTA into CSL's advertising claims.

What makes this whole business so peculiar - and why I think the topic is worth revisiting in this space - is that while it might serve as a cautionary tale of the risks of using theoretical peak data rates to sell wireless broadband services, the fact of the matter is that it's standard practice.

Look at any press release from any vendor announcement or cellco service launch, and odds are the first data speed you see - probably in the headline - will be the theoretical peak rate that those of us in this business know you will only get if you're the only person online and standing next to the base station.

On a B2B level, this is arguably no big deal because - since everyone does it - everyone knows the difference between peak rates and average throughput. The same cannot be said for the average consumer, however, so sticking peak rates in your advertising could be regarded with a suspicious eye by regulators (and typically will be if they get enough complaints).

On the other hand, it's also worth pointing out that the average user doesn't really care about throughput rates - not in the way industry insiders tend to think about them. Yes, consumers understand that 21 Mbps is higher than 7.2 Mbps, and associate the higher numbers with faster downloads.

However, most of them aren't going to launch a speed-checker app to clock their connection to see if they're getting the speeds they were promised - not until the network seems noticeably slower than it ought to be.

As such, the key benchmark that's going to drive consumer dissatisfaction with wireless broadband won't be speed so much as the user experience.

I've seen enough wireless broadband demos on live networks to conclude that the vast majority of "killer apps" for such services purr along just fine at throughput rates of between 3 Mbps and 5 Mbps. It's only when they stop purring that the customer is likely to complain, regardless of the throughput they're getting - which is going to vary under different conditions anyway.

That's not to say we don't need faster wireless data networks. And there is a correlation between throughput speeds and QoE.

But that's for the engineers to sort out. At the customer level, peak speeds might be a hook, but it's the network's ability to deliver within their expectations (regardless of the actual throughput necessary to deliver it) that will have greater impact on churn rates.
Mind you, I have no idea how to cram that into a 30-second TV commercial.

Admittedly, speed is easier to sell. And since I could fill this entire page with a discussion on the merits of consumer-level wireless broadband SLAs, suffice to say for now that if it were that easy, most 3G operators would be offering them by now. In any case, the SmarTone/CSL feud is as good an argument as any for cellcos to stop crowing about how fast their networks are and focus more on promoting an awesome user experience.