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Mobile misery: My need for speed

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:54 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

I want to make a confession about an embarrassing obsession which dogs me wherever I go, an addiction that I just can't shake off: I need to be connected to the internet and when I can't get online I get testy and nervous. Colleagues travelling with me sigh wearily as I exclaim, "yes, I've got a 3G signal," then moan, "100k - call that broadband?"



On my trip to Dundee and Belfast I've made sure I'm well equipped to be online 24/7. I have a laptop, an iPad, two mobile broadband MiFi units on different networks and a smartphone. But guess what? It's still a struggle.

W-ifi should be my greatest friend, but in airports, hotels and other public places, I find it both expensive and unreliable. What's more, having already paid for a lot of mobile broadband data, I'm determined to use as much of it as I can.

So far, my experience of getting online via 3G networks has been distinctly patchy. In a hotel in Dundee, I ran speed tests on the three different networks I've got with me. Vodafone barely got to 0.5 Mbps, while both Three and O2 struggled to get above 0.1Mbps.

In the city centre, I seemed to be getting a better signal so when I took a call from 5 Live asking me to do a live radio spot, I offered to make the most of my technology by broadcasting over the internet. Then, when I called in, the Skype connection was so shaky that I headed for the security of the BBC studio with its dedicated line to London.

In a hotel near Edinburgh airport last night, things looked a lot better. Determined not to pay £5 an hour for wi-fi, I ran tests on my 3G dongles and found better news. Both Vodafone and Three were offering a healthy 1Mbps, although the O2 network on my phone still barely delivered 0.2Mbps.

I settled down to watch Spooks on the iPlayer via 3G. It worked pretty well at first, but just as the episode reached its breathless dénouement, the screen froze as the network apparently stuttered to a halt. Foiled again. (Ironic really as the Spooks agents never seem to have any troubles having live video conversations with Harry back at HQ.)

Now you might say my sad obsession with getting connected is of no great concern to anyone else. But I say you're wrong. If the UK is to punch its weight as a high-tech, connected, nation then our infrastructure needs to be a lot better, especially when it comes to mobile broadband. And I need to be able to find out what happened at the end of Spooks, wherever I am.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think you need professional help with your need for speed and internet obsession.

    If you are near a BBC dedicated line then you should use it as it is a paid for infrastructure. Hopefully there is also an engineer there to ensure the best sound quality which the listener finds important (well at least I do). Multi skilling is all part of dumbing down.

    Remember that Spooks have there own secret ultra broadband government communications network that is probably satellite based and secure against organised crime and friendly and otherwise foreign powers!

  • Comment number 2.

    It's very frustrating using mobile broadband as more often than not it does not work when you are actually moving!

  • Comment number 3.

    Part of the problem lies with the NIMBY's who don't want cell sites near th but expect perfect coverage every where else. Networks want to expand their coverage as that makes money, but you need new sites to do that.

  • Comment number 4.

    You're right, Rory. Streaming HD video wherever you are, without constant "buffering" notifications, should be the minimum service you expect, not dream of. How long, do you reckon, until we get there? Five years? A decade?

  • Comment number 5.

    Look at this map of 3G coverage in Wales.

    It's a complete joke. Most of the signal for the Aberystwyth area is in the sea...

  • Comment number 6.

    Mobile networks are simply not built for streaming video. That 1-2MBps speedtest will be an average of bursts that will run at up to 14.4MB/sec on some networks, then fall to zero for a few seconds as other users get their share, then back up to speed. The need to share scarce air-interface resource means that streaming quality video beyond the ability to locally buffer is not reliable. If you want to stream at an average of 1MBps, over a network that can average 1MBps, you'd need a stonkingly big buffer to store enough data to even out the peaks and troughs of the wireless throughput. iPlayer can't do it on DSL sometimes, so over 3G you have no hope ;-)

    Your gripes re WiFi prices are absolutely justified. Some enlightened hotels and conference centres are now using *free* WiFi as a lure to customers, instead of a gouging moneymaking scheme. The BBC should be booking you into 'free WiFi-only' hotels. Why not use your corporate muscle to get free WiFi from existing hotel vendors? Tell the manager you won't be back unless they pony up free 24hr passes.

  • Comment number 7.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "If the UK is to punch its weight as a high-tech, connected, nation then our infrastructure needs to be a lot better, especially when it comes to mobile broadband."

    exactly, and why does the government not fund a nation-wide implementation of cable? without cable we'll never get near the bandwidths taken for granted in the Far-Eastern societies (Gigabit is the norm in Hong Kong, apparently), without sufficient bandwidth the UK will never be able to play a significant role amongst the IT-based economies.

    everybody moans about cost but (a) a large-scale project would create loads of employment and (b) the infrastructure would pay for itself in a fairly short period of time as UK companies could remain competitive.

    and as for mobile, I think that the legislation that underlies this market is not suited well to real competition and I fear no real improvements will be seen (except for those perhaps who can afford the extortionate pricing).

  • Comment number 8.

    If people didn't use 3G to watch video on the iPlayer, etc, or were throttled by an un-neutral-net 3G policy, then using the connection for less intense uses, such as Skype, would be faster and more reliable. Should the 3G net be neutral?

  • Comment number 9.

    I am moving house soon and will be without broadband for a couple of weeks while it is closed down and set up again. My first thought was, "that's OK - I will use our 3G dongle (Vodafone). Then I woke up and remembered that people in rural devon only get 2G/GPRS. Although we are moving to a small town (well, the rest of you would think of it as a large village) in Dartmoor, there's not a sniff of 3G until you get to the larger towns like Exeter and Torquay. One day maybe ....

  • Comment number 10.

    May I suggest that you stop clogging up the networks with running speed tests and watching the iPlayer? Maybe then we can all get better speeds?

  • Comment number 11.

    @geekygirl, 3G coverage is quite good up in Barnstaple and Bideford too. Its more central Devon where coverage is an issue. I barely even get 2G signal most of the time I'm on the train from Exeter to Barnstaple.

    @nwdls, Agreed. Its even awful in south east wales where the networks say they have good 3g coverage.

  • Comment number 12.

    One of the biggest problems mobile networks are finding now is cell congestion as they have not improved the backhaul from base stations back to the core network with some still running on ADSL connections or 10mb leased lines to nearest BT exchange. This was fine 2 years ago when it was just data dongles really using bandwith but with the recent explosion of data hungry android phones and I phones there is lots more strain and use of the network and they simply have not upgraded and invested enough in the networks. A prime example of this is the business area of Canary Wharf if you use the Vodafone network before 7am or at the weekend you will get a good 1.8-2.5mb connection after that time weedays the speed drops to 30kb which is not even GPRS speeds but yet devices are still showing 3G connections its just the Vodafone network can not cope but due to costs of increasing bandwith and the wayleave required to lay new fibre Vodafone have said this is not going to be improved any time soon. Which is soon going to start hitting profits as organisations and employees of business in this area are moving away from Vodafone in large numbers because of this.

  • Comment number 13.

    Forget the internet just try to get consistent mobile phone communication across the UK. It is garbage.

    While government is spending our money bigging up Internet speeds perhaps they would do better to push all the Mobile operators, Everthing Nowhere, O2, Three, and Vodaphone to share mast infrastructure and deliver a full national service.

    This has the benefit Rory of meeting your obsession and delivering the base infrastructure for Wide Area Radio newtorks without digging up the roads!! When will they ever learn!!

  • Comment number 14.


    despite being called a 'technology' blog I am sorry to say you seem to have only a slight grasp of technology. You get taken in by the marketing hype and don't ask the basic questions, or for an exposition of the basic physics underlying the technology which shows its fundamental limitations.

    The fact is that when you most need a mobile phone, even for voice, there are too many other people needing it too and you can't get through, or as with the London Bombings the service is switched off.

    3G was always a myth and the products that the marketing people used to market the product to their boards were myths too. Universal internet on the move is beyond the maximum data carrying capabilities of any of the systems if you have to share your cell with more than a few others. This is a fact of physics. Get used to it or become very frustrated!

    PS I wonder how many people will be able to use their phones on the tube - we ought to be told! Ask Boris, (if the understands the question)!

  • Comment number 15.

    Pah! You are lucky!

    Just try travelling the world as I do, and keeping online via mobile networks!

    I have a tin box full of sim cards, and a sixth sense to sniff out the best deals regardless of language barriers. (And the occasional unsecured wi-fi!) Roaming with a UK sim is a no-no, even despite the recent EU directive to curb the rapacious daylight robbery of international data roaming.

    Online video is virtually impossible, regardless of network, either because of slow network, or high tariff.

    GPRS is the norm, and surprisingly usable. Coverage is amazingly good, I rarely don't have some sort of signal. GPRS EDGE can usually support an audio only Skype, but not always. 3G is only 3G in commercial or populated areas, the rest of the time it's sort of 2.25G.

    My favourite (hah!) experience was in the western on Gmail, make a cup of tea, click on inbox, have breakfast, wash pots, then read email!! I've had ping values of more than 5 seconds!

    Right now I'm in the Ukraine, EDGE only, and it's amazingly usable.

    The problem with 1st world countries is that the networks are greedy capitalist robber barons. They must have teams of nerds interbred with finance people who carefully collude to provide the minimum service versus minumum customer churn.

    Another reason is that BT insist on 12 month landline contracts, which is ludicrous. It forces students and flat renters onto the mobile networks. The industry seriously needs to get its act together.

    That said, I can read the news, keep in touch, and even the occasional Youtube, for an average cost of about £30 a month, anywhere in the world.

    I love Spooks.....I just have to buy the DVD's when home.

  • Comment number 16.


    Yes, you're absolutely right: I certainly don't want a 40ft mast in my back garden... but if the networks could reduce this to something TV arial sized, then everyone would have one on their roof, and coverage would be seamless.


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