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Rory Cellan-Jones

Mobile broadband - a spat over speed

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 21 Apr 08, 15:50 GMT

How fast can you go with one of those dongles that give you mobile broadband and which have had an extarordinary impact on the data flowing across mobile networks? A war of words has broken out over the speed issue, with one mobile network reporting another to the Advertising Standards Authority.

vodafonestick203.jpgThe row is over Vodafone's big promotion of its mobile broadband offering which promises speeds of "up to 7.2 Mbps". The complaint comes from 3 - a much smaller operator than Vodafone, but one even keener to flog its own wireless broadband offering.

3 says the ads give the impression that users can (and will) reach speeds of 7.2Mbps, whereas that is extremely rare - if not impossible. It says it's advising its own customers that they'll get 1-2Mbps on a 7.2Mbps dongle.

A quick call to Vodafone reveals that they agree that 7.2Mbps is very unlikely, though they claim that in exceptional circumstances users may get that speed in "momentary bursts". They claim that they offer a more solid and reliable service than their rivals - indeed they pointed me towards customer reviews which said the Vodfaone service was a lot faster than that offered by 3.

Their best guess for the speed customers will actually experience is "between 1 and 5Mbps", and they say users are happy about that. "We do manage expectations in our promotional material and at point of sale," a spokeswoman told me.

3dongle_207.jpgI popped into a Vodafone store for one of their brochures and could not find any of that "expectation management" apart from some very small print that says "subject to network coverage." So will the Advertising Standards Authority wave a big stick at Vodafone?

Unlikely in the extreme.

After all, when there was similar criticism of the way fixed broadband speeds were advertised, the ad watchdog batted the complaints back to the media regulator Ofcom. A spokeswoman at the ASA told me the issue was "very complicated", indicating it was well nigh impossible to work out a fair way of describing likely broadband speeds when there were so many variables.

gavindandstacey203.jpgMany of you may say that most customers are now so clued up that they will know that "up to 7.2Mbps" actually means around 2Mbps out there in the real world. Well, maybe, but the real problem is that the mobile operators are now beginning to market their offerings as a real alternative to fixed-line broadband.

So what those who are pondering giving up the fixed line really need to know is this - if I'm watch streaming video on my laptop at home, will a 7.2Mbps dongle give me something roughly similar to 8Mbps fixed broadband? Or will Gavin and Stacey freeze in mid-flow?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I think all customers need to be able to understand what speed they'll be getting, is a basic grasp of simple English. "Up to" - not exactly one of the most complicated phrases to understand.

    However, as is the case with all things technology-related, as soon as people see a computer, their level of intelligence seems to drop to previously unthought-of lows, and they can't think logically at all.

    I think a lot of this is due to fear of what people perceive as the 'unknown'. I get asked some hilariously simple questions, and most of the time at least people kick themselves when they learn how simple the answer is.

    It's something the industry needs to address - pursuading people that they don't need to be afraid of technology, so then people will hopefully stop switching their brain off before they've even tried to understand the issue!

    "Do you wish to save the changes you have just made to this document? YES / NO"

    "Err, which should I click?"

  • Comment number 2.

    Paul, the problem with up-to is that with almost every broadband provider (adsl/3g/cable) it is NEVER reached. Instead they really should be advertising average speeds.
    It's not a fear of technology which has caused this, but marketing men and their "mine is bigger than yours" talk.

  • Comment number 3.

    I agree with artesea - why not force broadband companies (both fixed-line and mobile) to only advertise the average speed?

    It would encourage operators to improve the speed of connections in order to really be able to say 'on average, the fastest broadband' rather than simply say 'up to 8/16/24/etc...' as you see now.

    Until we actually have fibre to our homes, distance from the exchange and line noise will always be a factor - why can't they just be honest about it?!

  • Comment number 4.

    A bigger issue than the average throughput is connectivity and the word "Mobile". My intention when using a 3 mobile broadband dongle was to increase productivity whilst away from work. I checked the connectivity map on the 3 website whilst in a 3 store and asked a question about connectivity on trains. I was mislead and mis-sold a broadband dongle as the answer to

    Q1) Is the connectivity affected when truly mobile?
    A1) No, there is no connectivity problems due to being mobile

    In actual fact the connectivity can drop out completely rendering the product useless.

    Q2) Is the coverage map on the website accurately reflecting the connectivity of mobile broadband or the 3 network generally in the UK?
    A2) No, the connectivity for mobile broadband is correctly reflected in the coverage map.

    In actual fact the map does not consider the geographical facts leading to reduced, if not no connectivity.

    I have found this out painfully, sometimes I get throughput of mere kilobits per second. Having worked in the mobile industry for over 10 years I asked the correct questions and was directly lied to by over eager sales staff. This is a much more damning situation than misleading advertising which we are all subjected to every day and in everyway!

  • Comment number 5.

    You'd never have thought we were talking about a regulated industry. Sharp practice will prevail only as long as there is nothing to prevent it.

    If OfCOM were to publish (monthly or quarterly) ratings based on snapshot tests and the operators were compelled to print these actual speeds achieved next to claimed speeds, the buyer would be better informed.

    Of course once 3 become big enough to join the cartel they will soon stop making noises about voda.

    If I was buying I'd give it a good road test and if I didn't get an acceptable "actual speed" I'd cancel within my cooling off period. Then, when the industry sees this it might decided to properly "manage expectations"

    Customers should not be afriad of their rights as much as they should not be afraid of technology.

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree with sweetfunnyguy - that would be a much better system, that of advertising the average speed.

    Perhaps put that as the main item of prominence, and if they want they can always put "... which will be up to x.y Mbps" afterwards.

    Anyone wanting truly mobile broadband should steer away from 3's network, as just like it is for voice/SMS... it's awful! Nothing but complaints with 3. But then you always get the odd person who says they've never had any problems - computers eh.

    In my experience of these, T-mobile ones seem to be the best. And no I don't work for t-mob ;)

  • Comment number 7.

    Sorry to see that Storriek feels he has experienced too much enthusiasm from our sales staff. They are enthusiastic because they love the product and it's flying off the shelves. I'm enthusistic because I am able to use my dongle -- as I am now -- pretty much anywhere I want to. I've just had a call from a friend who spotted this and so am able to log on right now, even though I'm away from my PC and see if I can help out. We really don't want people to have a rough ride so if you are struggling because you are working / living in area that doesn't get the level of coverage that allows you to benefit effectively from the product, please do get in touch and we'll see what we can do to help out. Thanks, Hugh Davies @ 3 (Rory has my details)

  • Comment number 8.

    While I'm at it ... Paul ... do you realise that increasingly from now onwards 3 and T-Mobile will have effectively the same radio network? We agreed to share radio networks in December last year to enable us both to bring much wider coverage to areas of the UK for mobile broadband (3G). This means that over the next two years, we will move from our current 90 per cent population coverage to be able to rely on the biggest and best mobile broadband network in the country, with near total population coverage. True it was tough building a totally new network from scratch ... and true there will always be areas that are hard to reach for any radio network, but the experience today is totally different. And yes ... I do work for 3. Cheers, Hugh

  • Comment number 9.

    The problem with the Vodafone product is not speed per se, but the annoying irritation of the software they provide that deliberately reduces website quality.

    All images are compressed to about a quarter of the intended quality designed by the host, which has an enormous effect on how sites look and feel.

    I've had my Vodafone dongle for about seven weeks now and I've had nothing but technical problems because of it.

    The really daft thing is that all of the issues are a direct consequence of Vodafone being cheapskates and deliberately providing an inferior service to their customers in the hope that most of them are completely stupid and won't complain.

    And then there's their technical problems with Content Control, where about once every day their system glitches and you get treated as if you're a child who's prevented from seeing adult content. This wouldn't be so bad if they could distinguish between an explicit adult site and a completely innocent one about internal combustion engine design using the 'suck, squeeze, bang, blow' 4-stroke methodology.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hugh - that's fair enough and I'm glad to see 3 moving forward in this way. If I'm honest, I've experienced a lot less negativity about 3 in the last few months or so (I wouldn't be able to pin-point a time such as December, but it's better than it used to be) and I look foward to your collaboration with t-mobile to make the 3 service a really competitive one.

    It'll be a tough job changing a bad reputation and pursuading new customers that 3 will give a good service, but once the quality is up, I'll be happy to recommend 3 I suppose :) Any plans to come up with some clever way to get a 3 SIM to work in a normal, unlocked phone without lots of horrible extra software preinstalled?

  • Comment number 11.

    Yes, of course Gavin and Stacey will freeze. Because sometimes you get OMbps.

    There is only so much bandwidth available and the internet packets are given the lowest priority.

    So you will be surfing away quite happily and someone makes a video call on the same cell. Bang the bandwith that you were using goes to them. And you are left wondering where the nearest Wifi access point is.

    Until I can buy a service with a specified minimum speed then my money is staying in my pocket.

  • Comment number 12.

    I've been using 3 for about 3 months now, and while at the start I was happy, over the last few weeks the service has deteriorated remarkably to the point where some nights it's totally unusable with constant timeouts and DNS failures. I suspect that 3 has oversold their capacity, or rather the cell tower I live near doesn't have the capacity to cope with the number of users in the area. At work during the day it's fine.

    My mates Vodafone dongle on the other hand is noticably faster and more reliable, except at work where you need to be near a window for it to even connect.

    It's basically a lottery based on local geography, network coverage, and how many other people are connected.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'm afraid that it is yet another case of mis-representing the service to customers.
    The ASA should act on it. The operators have also been willing to tout "unlimited" data tariffs which again, in the small print, are actually limited to just a few Gigabytes.
    It's time for transparency!

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    i am surprised to read the coments on this page due to my long experience of the internet.

    the supposed speeds when using a mobile usb dongle are no where possible as they are worse than ADSL which itself states it can get up-to 8+mbps which is dependent on a BT line which can only sustain a max speed of 2mb (download speed 200kbps).

    the only bb provider who supplies what they advertise is virgin media CABLE bb (not the ADSL) as i have a 20mb connection and have no download cap and a constant download speed of 2mbps.

  • Comment number 16.

    in addition i think ofcom should be allowed to fine isp's who provide what i would deem as false advertising by stating speeds at which their network is unable to provide

  • Comment number 17.

    I spent a weekend in Malham in the Yorkshire Dales recently, and was quite looking forward to a weekend without technology, in a cottage where there was even no Digital TV. After a while I started to get anxious with no mobile signals on my O2 mobile, my Vodafone usb "Broadband" card, or any of the Virgin phones the kids had. There were some brief periods when my O2 phone got a signal, and in one of these I managed to check my emails and discovered a really important message that needed a prompt reply. This necessitated a 10-mile drive to somewhere the Vodafone card could pick up a GPRS signal. Talking to the neighbours later, they said that eveyone in the village uses Orange as it gets a strong signal there.

    It is obvious from this forum that 3 and T-mobile at least are sharing their radio networks. I wish they all could do the same. Ironically, when clearing the car out on arrival home, I found an old Orange PAYG SIM in the glove compartment, so perhaps we could have had a signal after all.

    On of the interesting things was that the kids (10 and 13) found it really difficult to understand why there was no Digital TV and no Internet, two things they take for granted as essentials of life!

    By the way, I use my Vodafone card on trains a lot, and it generally works most of the time, although there are always moments when the signal drops out, as there are when you use a mobile phone on the train. It is worse on Virgin and Cross Country trains where the thickness of the windows blocks some of the signal.

  • Comment number 18.

    I don't think forcing providers to advertise an average speed would work either. The best way I can think of is to give the customer an estimate of speed based on their line when they sign up. Oddly, one of the providers I have the lowest regard for does this on their website, TalkTalk.
    BT used to have a speed checker on their site that allowed you to get a rough idea of line speed for your phone number, but that vanished a year or so ago. These at least give you a realistic expectation.
    As well as line quality/distance, you can't account for other users.

    The "up to" is all that's need in advertising, as it is possible, I've even experienced consistant download speeds above the stated maximum with one provider.


    The same goes for the mobile broadband, though signal is even more variable, and I'm not sure the network has the capacity yet for a really major uptake, but we'll see.

    O2 have been caught out as their 3G service (no HSDPA so it's a maximum of 384Kbps) is throttled to 128Kbps. That's nothing to do with signal or other users, that's the provider who are being dishonest.

    I use T-Mobile through a Sony Ericsson K850i as a modem and I've had very few problems with connection, even using it on the train.

  • Comment number 19.

    Well I have to say in 3's defence, i've had their mobile broadband dongle for about 3 months now, and have no reson to complain. It works very well, and only every so often does the connection time out. On Sunday I travelled from Glasgow to Edinburgh in the car, (not driving), and had full use of the internett for the lengh of the journey. It just goes to show that its not all bad. I'm personally very happy with my service , and more importantly the overall service from 3.

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    Intersting to see that Mobile Broadband only averages around 1.5Mb according to this blog article http://www.broadband-expert.co.uk/blog/vodafone-mobile-broadband/mobile-broadband-customers%e2%80%99-average-speed-is-146mb/

    I personally get anything from 0.5Mb to over 4Mb dependent on where I am with Vodafone.

  • Comment number 22.

    3 should put their own house in order before complaining about Vodaphone’s advertising. With a full strength signal I only get around 400kbps from 3 Mobile’s 3.6Mbps offering, and that's not counting the frequent occasions when speed drops to zero. Uploads are a pathetic 56kbps against 3’s advertised 384. As 'broadband' speed is understood to be at least 500kbps in the UK and now 768kbps in the USA, is my service truly broadband?

    I would have understood if I could get 1-2Mbps, but when I asked, 3's sales and customer services staff both stated categorically that not only should I get the full 3.6Mbps but that the speed would not be affected by network conditions. In my opinion that is misrepresentation.

    Since Trading Standards and the ASA just pass the parcel we must hope that Ofcom will do something about broadband advertising. As Which? suggests, things might change if dissatisfied customers start taking legal action.

  • Comment number 23.

    3 should put their own house in order before complaining about Vodaphone’s advertising. With a full strength signal I only get around 400kbps from 3 Mobile’s 3.6Mbps offering, and that's not counting the frequent occasions when speed drops to zero. Uploads are a pathetic 56kbps against 3's advertised 384. As 'broadband' speed is understood to be at least 500kbps in the UK and now 768kbps in the USA, is my service truly broadband?

    I would have understood if I could get 1-2Mbps, but when I asked, 3's sales and customer services staff both stated categorically that not only should I get the full 3.6Mbps but that the speed would not be affected by network conditions. In my opinion that is misrepresentation.

    Since Trading Standards and the ASA just pass the parcel we must hope that Ofcom will do something about broadband advertising. As Which? suggests, things might change if dissatisfied customers start taking legal action.

  • Comment number 24.

    3 should put their own house in order before complaining about Vodaphone's advertising. With a full strength signal I only get around 400kbps from 3 Mobile's 3.6Mbps offering, and that's not counting the frequent occasions when speed drops to zero. Uploads are a pathetic 56kbps against 3's advertised 384. As 'broadband' speed is understood to be at least 500kbps in the UK and now 768kbps in the USA, is my service truly broadband?

    I would have understood if I could get 1-2Mbps, but when I asked, 3's sales and customer services staff both stated categorically that not only should I get the full 3.6Mbps but that the speed would not be affected by network conditions. In my opinion that is misrepresentation.

    Since Trading Standards and the ASA just pass the parcel we must hope that Ofcom will do something about broadband advertising. As Which? suggests, things might change if dissatisfied customers start taking legal action.

  • Comment number 25.

    The advertising of broadband is a disgrace. I have been using the 3-Mobile USB modem for a few months. For the first few weeks it was OK with speeds of 3-400 kbps (although still way off the 1-1.5 Mbps they say I should expect). Since May 2008 the speed has been shocking. Although I am in the middle of a "turbo" area and get a strong signal the speed is usually around 20-30 kbps (slower than dial-up) and sometimes is just zero (the modem connects to the internet but no web pages will load). How companies get away with fraudulent advertising and selling services that are not fit for purpose amazes me.

 

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