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Ofcom mobile broadband survey reveals coverage and contention issues

Photograph of Alastair BrydonI welcome Ofcom’s new report, published today, which provides excellent measurement data on the state of the mobile broadband market in the UK. This type of extensive measurement programme has been long overdue. At last, the industry and consumers have access to independent data. While the results may not be a surprise to the many mobile broadband users in the UK, they provide strong evidence that mobile broadband coverage and performance is patchy, affecting users in both rural areas and urban areas. I’m hoping that the results stimulate the UK mobile operators into action, just as previous mobile drive testing by Oftel encouraged UK operators to enhance the performance of their mobile networks.

The results published today are from a combination of static testing, drive testing and a consumer panel survey, and Ofcom and Epitiro are to be congratulated on the extensive data collection performed.  Over 4.2 million tests were carried out between September and December 2010.

Mobile broadband has become an important complement to fixed broadband services and, to some, mobile broadband is a direct substitute for fixed broadband. At the end of 2010, 7% of UK households used mobile broadband as their only means of Internet access, compared with 3% in the first quarter of 2009.

According to Ofcom, there were about 4.8 million active mobile broadband users in December 2010, representing an 85% increase over the previous two-year period.

Results from the consumer panel showed an average download speed of 1.5Mbps across all connections (2G, 3G and HSPA), with 6% of users receiving average download speeds in excess of 3Mbps, although 6% had average download speeds lower than 0.5Mbps. This compares with an average fixed broadband speed of 6.2Mbps. Mobile broadband services generally suffered from nearly double the amount of latency (delay) of fixed services. The average mobile latency was 192 milliseconds, with about one-third of users experiencing latency in excess of 200 milliseconds.

Static measurement of 3G/HSPA services results in higher average speeds than found from the consumer panel, with an average download speed of 2.1Mbps, and average latency of 117 milliseconds.

Of particular concern are the substantial differences in performance, from area to area. This is where mobile network operators have to work much harder.

In the drive testing, mobile broadband services in rural areas were generally significantly outperformed by those in urban areas. More than half of connections in the rural and semi-rural areas surveyed had speeds below 500kbps. Disappointingly, mobile broadband performance was found to be highly variable across the city measured (Birmingham).

In its report, Ofcom concluded that “geographical location is likely to be the largest single determinant of mobile broadband performance” with performance varying “significantly even within small geographic area”. No surprises here, and it’s really time to start improving mobile broadband coverage, particularly given that there are now more than 5 million mobile broadband users.

Coverage was not the only issue identified in the study, however. Service contention was also found to be a problem. Average mobile broadband speeds were found to vary significantly according to the time of the day. Download speeds were on average about 25% slower at peak periods (in the evening) than in off-peak periods (in the early hours of the morning).

I look forward to reading the next study, and hope to see some improvements.

Dr Alastair Brydon has worked in digital radio communications for over 25 years. He provides expert advice on 2G, 3G and 4G mobile systems and standards including GSM, UMTS and LTE. He has written over 40 reports on the development of wireless technologies and services and has acted as an expert witness in major patent disputes.

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