Guest post - UK broadband goes mobile

UK mobile broadband infrastructure

The UK was among the first countries in Europe to receive a consumer level 3G network, launched by the mobile wing of British Telecom in 2003. Up until that point we had, like everywhere else, struggled along with a 2G service - fine for voice and texts but internet access could be painful even compared to dial-up.

It wasn’t until 3G went live that mobile broadband became a real possibility, and it’s proven popular: the UK telecoms regular Ofcom estimated in 2012 that 13% of adults in the UK had a mobile broadband connection.

Mobile broadband not-spots

Despite the enthusiasm with which UK net surfers have taken to mobile internet access, coverage and performance remains an issue. The UK is not a big country and we’ve had 3G for ten years so it would be reasonable to expect almost complete saturation of mobile network signal, but in fact many gaps remain.

In towns and cities you can generally rely on access to 3G, but it’s still not uncommon to find ‘not-spots’ where the signal falls back to 2G or drops out entirely. And once you’re out into the countryside the coverage becomes very patchy.

The network operators claim to offer in excess of 90% coverage. In 2011 the BBC conducted a crowd-sourced experiment to explore mobile signal throughout the UK and discovered that when a data connection was available users were only able to get 3G around 75% of the time. The resulting map revealed a large number of not-spots throughout the country.

That was two years ago of course, but our own testing confirms that mobile broadband still has a long way to go. In May we conducted our annual mobile broadband Road Trip, travelling from London to Edinburgh while recording the performance of all major network providers.

With speed tests, downloads and uploads and media streaming we were able to see how mobile broadband handled practical tasks in a real situation.

Several networks - notably Three, EE and T-Mobile - completed a large number of tests and returned some excellent speed test results, some as high as 8Mb.

However several networks failed to perform to a reasonable standard, with the weakest managing to complete just 13% of the tasks. All the networks struggled with streaming media, particularly video, none of them managing more than half of the attempts.

This adds up to a frustratingly inconsistent experience when using mobile internet on the move. Provided the signal is available the connection can be incredibly fast, particularly with the latest DC-HSDPA 3G networks providing 20Mb or more, but all too often you’ll wander into an area with no connectivity and it will cease to function.

The next generation

We are hopeful this situation will improve, however, thanks to the recent introduction of next-generation 4G mobile broadband.

The first 4G network was launched by EE in October 2012 and is still fairly limited, but the spectrum auction which doled out 4G frequency to the remaining providers came with a requirement: they must commit to providing indoor coverage to 98% of the population

This should mean that within the next couple of years we’ll see a significant improvement in mobile broadband performance as the networks compete to offer the best mobile internet. Not only will 4G bring much faster speeds but this caveat to offer a minimum level of service will help reduce not-spots.

And Britain’s Rural areas - currently poorly served by both fixed and mobile broadband - may see the benefits too as mobile internet fills the gaps left by our ageing telephone network.

Author Bio: Matt Powell is the editor for the UK broadband comparison site Broadband Genie, where he blogs on the latest broadband and mobile broadband topics.