The 3G traffic jam: Where next?
My post earlier this week asking for your experiences with 3G phone networks got an amazing response. The message came through loud and clear - the networks aren't providing decent coverage, and the problem isn't restricted to London, as O2 has claimed.
I've been speaking to a number of telecoms analysts about the issue and I think I've got a better idea of what has gone wrong. Nearly 10 years after five operators paid a total of £22.5 billion for 3G licences, they have now built networks which give pretty good coverage across the UK, and in some cases at good speeds. Mind you, they were pretty slow off the mark, perhaps because after shelling out so much for licences there was little left in the kitty to roll out the networks.
What appears to be the problem is that while the coverage is quite good - and you can compare the networks with these Ofcom maps [667KB PDF] - the networks simply don't have enough capacity to deal with the flood of data that has suddenly arrived, first from the introduction of mobile broadband dongles and then from smartphones, in particular the iPhone.
It's as if they had built a national road network made up of single track lanes - and then found coachloads of holidaymakers all trying to head down the same track at once. One problem, according to my analyst friends, is that mobile operators know very little about marketing or consumer behaviour - so their early attempts to interest customers in using the mobile web were a bit of a flop. (Remember those adverts for 3G video calls?)
Then along came Apple, with the iPhone and the Apps Store, and both O2 in the UK and AT&T in the US suddenly found customers did want to update their Facebook, check out sports results, or play online games on the move. And if a lot of them were all doing it in one cell, the result was a traffic jam.
We discussed this issue this morning on Radio 4's Today programme, and Professor Peter Cochrane, the former BT chief scientist who's now a futurologist, came up with two possible solutions. First, femtocells - those unattractively named devices which function as a 3G booster in your own home. The industry loves this idea - after all it means getting your customers to improve the networks at their own expense. But so far, the operators have proved as inept at marketing femtocells as they were at selling 3G a decade ago.
Professor Cochrane's other idea - that the operators should share their networks - looks a more attractive solution. A number have already gone down that track - and of course T-Mobile and Orange are planning a complete merger. However, the competition authorities may not look too kindly though on the idea of one centralised 3G network.
But it's clear from your responses that the quality of an operator's network is becoming a key factor in choosing a mobile phone. The iPhone is now on three networks - O2, Orange and Vodafone - so we've got a live test of their capabilities. Prepare for battle...
UPDATE 1342: O2 have been in touch to point out that they are already sharing networks with Vodafone, following an agreement signed last March. Which begs another couple of questions - should O2 iPhone users put part of the blame for their problems on Vodafone, and what is the point of switching to Vodafone if you're unhappy with O2?
I put this to Vodafone - and here's what a spokesman told me:
"We share the physical infrastructure, not the clever stuff behind it which is used to adjust capacity. We don't have as wide coverage on 3G - we concentrate on building capacity where we see most smartphone use. We go for what we call the deep-pan approach rather than the thin and crispy service."
So it's not just about how many masts you have - it's about the software and systems used to manage the networks.