The trouble with mobile broadband offerings

Moving to a new residence is a daunting undertaking for most people. Nowadays, in addition to the hassle of packing, moving, then unpacking, a further headache is the almost certain prospect of having to wait anywhere up to 4 weeks before broadband is piped into the new property.

Recently, I found myself in this position, but for me being without the life-blood of broadband for any extended period of time (by extended I mean more than an hour) was not an option. So, armed with two 3G data cards - one from T-Mobile and the other from Vodafone - and a 3G handset from Orange, I was determined not become victim to the digital solitary confinement which so often accompanies moving to a new home. Mobile broadband would be my saviour - or so I thought.

Over the past 18 months, operators in many developed markets have been aggressively pushing their "˜mobile broadband' offering, allowing consumers to connect their laptops and PCs to the 3G cellular network using a PC card or USB dongle.

In the UK, all five operators are now promoting this service, and while the pitch to the consumer varies slightly from operator to operator, the service is fundamentally being hyped as an alternative to fixed broadband. For example, as a key differentiator, operators are focusing on the immediacy of mobile broadband; consumers get online instantly once they sign-up and don't have to wait the several weeks it takes fixed broadband to arrive.

I have used mobile broadband data cards for almost two years and my experience has been generally good. However, the context within which I've always used the service has been while on the move - on my laptop at such places like train stations, airports and coffee shops. This is the market that mobile broadband was originally meant to serve.

Up until two weeks ago, the context within which I'd never used mobile broadband was sitting in my living-room on a PC. This, I've now learned, is an entirely different context. On-the-move data consumption is all about checking emails, light web browsing and IM. Living-room consumption is about heavy web browsing, downloads and media streaming.

Operators continue to be under intense pressure to boost ARPU and start pushing more data traffic through their networks. Mobile broadband allows them to do both. With tariffs typically ranging from US$20 (€12.67) to US$50 (€31.67) a month, but without any expensive handset subsidy, signing a new mobile broadband customer is almost like adding a new phone subscriber.

The good news for operators is that their mobile broadband strategies have started paying dividends. Forget about revenues from ringtones, content downloads and advertising; I'm aware of at least two European operators for which mobile broadband now represent their largest revenue segment after voice and SMS.

However, from my experience over the past two weeks since moving apartment, it is clear that mobile broadband is fundamentally not a substitute for fixed broadband. Firstly, the connection is temperamental - after random periods of time (sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes two hours) the connection will drop and I'll have to manually re-connect.

I've noticed that sometimes this happens if the machine has been idle for a prolonged period, leaving me to wonder if the connection software (or the network itself) is programmed to drop the idle connection so it's not using valuable network resources.

 

This might be a good idea from a network management perspective but, with fixed broadband, I'm accustomed to remaining logged into my IM and having new emails waiting for me even if I leave my machine for several hours.

Secondly, the connection speed is extremely irregular. With both the T-Mobile and Vodafone cards I've achieved download speeds of more than 1Mbps, but more often than not speeds are down at the sub-200Kbps level. I understand that network operators can invoke some cool bandwidth throttling techniques and that HSDPA can provide speed bursts to individual clients with high demand but this means nothing to me as an end-user if all I notice are web pages that download super-fast one minute and painfully slow the next.

And don't get me started on media streaming. It's an incredibly painful experience. My simple recommendation to anyone with mobile broadband is not to attempt it or, if you really must, first remove all sharp objects from the vicinity. (As I'm writing this piece, I've just noticed that, for some reason, my T-Mobile service has dropped from 3G down to GPRS - oh joy!)

Finally, and perhaps my biggest gripe, is the way, without exception, mobile broadband seems to handle web images. Naturally, photos and images within a webpage are the bottlenecks which dictate how quickly the page will download. Since web browsing is perhaps the most common online activity, compression of images can tremendously boost download speeds and, from the web pages viewed when connected to a mobile broadband network it is clear that operators are employing such compression.

The problem is that the algorithms operators appear to be using are not so much providing compression as distortion. There are times (I suppose depending on how aggressive the algorithms have been) when graphics look an absolute mess. Viewing photo thumbnails in Facebook, human figures look like amorphous blobs. Viewing the full-size photo shows intense blurring, banding and dithering - the hallmarks of heavy compression.

Such a negative mobile broadband experience has left me counting the days for my fixed broadband to be activated. The harsh reality is that, for the foreseeable future, fixed broadband will continue to offer a far superior internet experience. WiMAX .16e will be an improvement and so will LTE, but improvements in copper/cable also continue to take place. In the office, we have 24Mbps ADSL, providing an actual throughput of 18Mbps! When will wireless be able to achieve this on a per user level‾

Far from charging a premium for mobility, operators have priced mobile broadband to undercut fixed broadband. However, as a mass market offering, they have no choice - the mass market simply does not value mobility when it comes to computing devices. In the UK, all five operators now in the market have almost identical offerings the inevitable is happening - price competition and erosion. How long before we see a US$9.99 (€6.33) a month price point‾

Well, we're actually already there. That's how much I'm paying for my T-Mobile service. That is not a typo. I'm paying less than $10 a month for an unlimited 3G mobile broadband data service. That's the price of two regular Starbucks skinny mochas. Did I hear someone say "˜bitpipe'‾

I should add a caveat to this review by saying that my experience may simply be an unfortunate result of my local environment.

 

However, it is unusual that my experience has been so consistently poor across three of the five UK operators. It is also unlikely that network coverage is an issue since, according to Ofcom's sitefinder there is a Vodafone base station literally 200m down the road from where I live and there are virtually no buildings above three-stories.

More importantly, the key point is that the mobile broadband performance I've observed over the past two weeks has not really been much different from the performance experienced over the past year. It's just that the change in my context (from "˜on the move' to "˜at home') has altered my requirements for the service.

Don't get me wrong, if you live in a poorly-served area or are so far from the exchange that the internet runs out of breath before it reaches your home then, yes, mobile broadband is a good (and perhaps the only) option. However, when my fixed provider finally gets its act together, I will be getting a 16Mbps fixed service for the same cost as my Vodafone mobile broadband.

True, 16Mb is the theoretically maximum, but even if I only end up getting a throughput of 12, 10 or even 8Mbps, that'll be at least 20 times faster than what I've been achieving with mobile broadband. When that happens, I'll go back to using mobile broadband for what it's really meant for - casual data consumption on the move.

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