How the mobile network got chatty

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

Image caption,
iPhones have caused data explosions on 3G networks

When 3G hit the headlines in 2000 it wasn't the network that was garnering column inches but the extraordinary amount - £22bn - that the mobile operators were prepared to pay for it.

Surely with this price tag it was going to be the technological equivalent of alchemical gold, turning the internet as we knew it then into a magical, fast, and, most importantly, a mobile experience?

Anyone who remembers WAP (Wireless Application Protocol or Worthless Application Protocol as it became known to its detractors) would probably say it turned out to be a very base metal indeed.

3G has spent the last 10 years quietly clawing back its reputation and this year, for the first time, data exceeded voice on mobile networks.

Now mobile firms cope with around five million smartphones running on their network everyday, and data traffic that doubles every six months.

Network collapse

According to ONS figures, 31% of internet users connected to the web via a mobile phone in 2010.

The popularity of iPhones and their equivalents mean that the networks have struggled to cope with a 20-fold increase in data demand in the last year alone.

Three claims to deal with 100 terabytes of data a day.

Gavin Sheldon, head of networks at 02, explained the impact of the new generation of smartphones.

"Watching one YouTube video on an iPhone can be the network equivalent of sending 500,000 text messages," he said.

Some predict that, as demands grow, the mobile networks will fail to cope.

"The doom-mongers who say that networks will fall over assume operators will do nothing to improve their networks but of course they will," said Steven Hartley, principal analyst at research firm Ovum.

Chatty apps

Tim Smith, director of the access network at Orange says it is spending "millions and millions of pounds on capacity".

He is keeping a particularly close eye on the exploding apps market.

"The apps industry is quite diverse and each app has slightly different needs. It is important that developers consider the network," he said.

Facebook and Twitter are known in the industry as "chatty apps" because they generate multiple requests as often as once every eight seconds to the network.

To meet that level of demand, network operators have to constantly increase network capacity.

Mr Hartley said that there were "101 solutions" to alleviate congestion.

In Belgium, for example, Huawei has overhauled Belgacom's 3G network with brand new kit, adding new capacity and easing the way into next-generation mobile technologies such as LTE.

Data limits

Consumers are not particularly interested in how the network works as long as it works but they may ultimately pay the price for ever bigger pipes needed to keep up with their demands.

Mr Hartley predicts that the drive to provide ever more efficient networks will mean an increase in tiered packages for light and heavy users, in the same vein as those offered by the fixed line operators.

Image caption,
Will consumers pay a heavy price for greater data consumption?

02 has introduced three new data and pricing tiers - 500MB, 750MB or 1GB, which took effect at the beginning of this month.

"Mobile pricing was designed for the old world of voice and text consumption, not for video and app users," said Mr Sheldon.

O2 customers will be sent text messages telling them how much data they have used and will then be able to buy bolt-ons if they need them.

Three has also dropped its "unlimited data" tag and predicts further changes.

"In a year's time I imagine there will be peak and off-peak tariffs for data," said Marc Allera, sales and marketing director at Three.

Shaun Collins, an analyst with CCS Insight, thinks there will be even greater level of detail in pricing models in the search for ever greater data efficiency.

"Operators may even start to charge by device, forcing those that are data-hungry - iPhone and Android handsets - to reconsider their data footprint," he said.

It could see a return to the bad, old day of complicated mobile tariffs although the mobile firms stress that the charges will be kept simple for the end user.

The thing that consumers care most about is coverage and it can be difficult to assess which operator does best on this.

No signal

All offer users the chance to check coverage within their postcode but most are using different metrics to measure it, making it hard for consumers to compare like for like.

"The whole area of mobile coverage is a much guarded secret by mobile phone and broadband providers," said Michael Phillips of consumer website BroadbandChoices.

Three, confident its coverage is better than its rivals, is leading the call for change.

"We've challenged our competitors to come up with a common measurement," said a Three spokesman.

Ofcom did map coverage last year but it relied on information sent by the mobile firms and it was criticised for publishing out-of-date data.

It means that, currently "there is no method of making a sensible geographic comparison of providers and packages", said Mr Phillips.

Ofcom has now appointed net measurement firm Epitiro to analyse coverage across the UK and the results are expected in January.

It will have to compare a complex set of metrics.

"It is not just about getting a signal but getting a strong signal. Even in urban areas there is poor coverage and there are a lot of factors which affect it, such as how many people are on the network, how many buildings are in the way, how the base station is set up," said Ovum's Hartley.

In San Francisco the annoyance over the number of mobile notspots has spilled into a media campaign to map the so-called dead zones in the San Francisco Bay area.

The campaign, co-ordinated by The San Francisco Business Times has plenty of anecdotal evidence about users finding signal strength varying on a street-by-street basis that users in the UK may recognise.

O2 is responding to coverage issues by building 1,550 new sites across the UK by the end of 2010 and Orange and T-Mobile are merging their networks completely.

Three has just announced an expansion to its network, with 12,400 base stations across the UK - compared to 7,800 in 2008.

But operators need to prepare for the next challenge, thinks Mr Allera.

"Tablets will be an amazing growth area for operators and there is a fascinating trend with consumers having more and more devices that carry data. Operators will have to start responding to this," he said.

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