Vodafone, 3 play the speed game

UK mobile operator 3 has reported rival Vodafone to the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) for misleading consumers over the speeds offered by its mobile broadband service.

To date Vodafone's 7.2Mbps network has been available in London and airports only, but a national marketing campaign has highlighted how the speed of the service compared to its peers.

Meanwhile, Vodafone has announced an expansion of its 7.2Mbps HSPA coverage - and a revision in the way it sells mobile broadband. It will now highlight how long it takes to download content at typical user speeds, which work out at a more realistic 4Mbps for its '7.2' service.

The two announcements highlight the issues surrounding the role of speed in selling mobile broadband. From a marketing perspective, it's too tempting a story to resist. That one number (Vodafone's deployment of 7.2Mbps HSPA) is bigger than another (3's "average user rate" of 2.8Mbps) is a clear and simple differentiator for marketers to communicate and consumers to understand.

Therefore, we expect it to be a step on the marketing evolutionary roadmap. Nonetheless, an emphasis on speed will only spoil the mobile broadband party for everyone. Let's not forget the consumer disappointment after the marketing of "up to" speeds for both GPRS and WCDMA.

Mobile operators should learn from the fixed broadband space. Consumers are growing increasingly restless at the difference between advertised and actual speeds, which can only be damaging to the whole industry. And it is the issue of "maximum" speeds that has riled 3.

We agree with 3 that in an ideal world all operators would promote the average speed achieved by a user. There are simply too many variables downgrading the maximum theoretical speed, from the overhead defined in the standard, through to cell capacity and distance from the base station.

However, these same variables will also dictate how operators define "average speed". Unless a standard is agreed similar problems as today will arise, but based on a different definition.

We feel that there is potential for regulatory intervention, but to date the UK regulator, Ofcom, has remained silent. 3 is embarking on an educational campaign for the media, but as the UK's smallest mobile operator, its rivals will be able to make more noise and stifle its message if they so wish.

Vodafone's announcements show that it is becoming more strategic in its approach to mobile broadband and go some way towards deflecting 3's criticisms. Vodafone assured us that it will no longer be pushing speed as the primary message. We await with interest the first consumer marketing to see whether the temptation can be resisted.

So how important is speed for mobile broadband‾ As we discuss in our forthcoming report Mobile broadband operator strategies in Western Europe, speed should be avoided as a core marketing message as it will compare unfavorably with fixed broadband and mobile network variations make it a dangerous game to play.

Vodafone and 3's focus on what user experience the service can offer is far more useful. Those marketing around unrealistic speeds create a poor service perception for both themselves and mobile broadband as a whole.

Steven Hartley, Senior Analyst

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