If you use the internet from a mobile device – whether that’s a phone or a laptop – from any of the mobile operators in the UK, you’ll probably know about speed.
Or rather, you’ll be exposed to a lot of information about speed – how fast you can browse the web, how many hundreds of emails you can retrieve, how quickly that MP3 track will download, etc.
In the UK, it’s one of the big selling points in the advertising and marketing messages put out by the mobile operators and comparison websites.
It’s also confusing and, I’d say possibly in some cases, misleading. More on that later.
Yesterday morning, I had a chance to hear what one mobile operator says about mobile broadband speeds.
A lot of interesting technical points discussed about the mobile internet. Plus I was able to contribute some points on my favourite topic concerning being online with a mobile device – pricing transparency.
I was invited to a breakfast briefing organized by 3, held in The Groucho Club in London. About 15 or so journalists there, plus one or two other bloggers, all gathered to hear some senior 3 executives offer their thoughts on a range of topics related to mobile networks and line rates/user rates.
Leading the technical conversation was Graham Baxter, 3’s Chief Technologist.
With contributions from his colleagues Jonathan Lutz, Head of Mobile Broadband, and Alan Doyle, Director of Integrated Communications, he had quite a bit to say about network capabilities, user rate dependencies, device capabilities, and more.
David Meyer at ZDNet has a good post with the detail on what Graham and his colleagues talked about in that regard.
What I found especially interesting was one particular comment from Graham:
Users are more interested in their perception of speed than what the actual speed is.
That’s exactly what I think.
Describing a service with terms like “up to 3.6 mbps” is pretty meaningless to most people.
Even hearing it described in terms of how many emails you can get, or how many videos you can watch is equally meaningless other than as a very rough guide which equates to an ideal connection environment that most people will rarely if ever experience.
What you want to know is what does that mean in terms of your actual online experience with a mobile device.
I liked the way Graham illustrated that with the example of accessing the BBC website – if the home page loads on your phone in, say, four or five seconds, you’re happy. It’s fast, in your perception. Longer than that, you feel things are a bit slow. If it takes 30 seconds or more, you’re not happy at all with the service.
It’s a tricky point, though, as much will depend on so many factors that can be different for different users depending on where you are physically, among many other things.
Yet such emotive focus on the user experience must be better than the ‘Mbps’ talk. Do normal people know or care what ‘Mbps’ means? (Here’s a definition if you do. It’s clear now, right?)
Speaking of Mbps, Hugh Davies, Director of Communications, mentioned that 3 has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about Vodafone’s advertising with claims of its 7.2 Mbps service as the “fastest mobile broadband service.”
Anne Morris’ post on Total Telecom includes a good commentary.
I think simplifying explanations about connection speed, etc, is great, and I hope 3 do communicate their offering in this context far more simply in future.
Related to that is clear communication about pricing. I’m not talking about the information you see on every operators’ website, including 3’s. Generally, that’s good and quite easy to understand.
What I’m talking about is knowing the actual cost of a mobile internet session before you go online, with the detail personalized to you.
After the public presentation and Q&A, I talked with a couple of 3’s technical team about pricing transparency.
[…] Iâ€™d like to see [the 3 modem manager] application show me what tariff Iâ€™m on, whether itâ€™s a contract or pay-as-you-go, and how much Iâ€™m paying (well, Iâ€™m not, but if I were a normal customer I would be).
It should also show me how much Iâ€™ve got left of my data allowance for the month, before surcharges kick in (and it should tell me how much those surcharges are).
A little multi-coloured bar graph would do the trick.
Maybe I could see all this stuff if I went online to 3â€™s website somewhere. But I want to see this kind of account information before I go online.
Even if the information comes with loads of disclaimers, thatâ€™s fine. I want some clue of where I stand with my account each time I load up the software.
When I connect, the software should check my account online and update the local account information before I disconnect.
And it should keep that data on the USB stick or on the inserted SIM card, not on the computer, so that I always have the account information to hand if I connect with another computer.
Security and data protection issues to consider, too, but how difficult can this all be to implement? Surely not that difficult?
It’s one major aspect of a mobile broadband service that’s missing. No mobile operator offers this as far as I can tell.
Add that to clearer communication about speed and you’d have a pretty compelling customer experience offering.
I’m optimistic that 3 will take such suggestions on board and seriously consider them. My experience with 3 so far is that this is a company who does listen.
So here’s my guess – expect something to happen on pricing transparency such as I’ve suggested, perhaps, along with clearer communication about speed, within a few months.
By early autumn, I’d say, if not sooner.
Finally, a quick aside. I found it amusingly ironic that 3 chose the Groucho Club for the briefing. The club’s rules include this delicious statement:
[…] The use within the Club of Mobile, Cellular, Portable or Microwave-controlled Telecommunication Instruments is an anathema, a curse, a horror, a dread and a deep unpleasantness and shall be prohibited in all locations save the Reception Area. Please be alert to the acknowledged misery of Ring Tones and silence all such mechanisms before entry into Club Rooms.
I kept my head well down as I plugged my 3 mobile broadband modem into my laptop. And put my N95 8GB into ‘meeting’ mode…