Mobile broadband: It’s not just about speed


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.

This could be along the lines of my suggestion last month relating to my trialling 3’s mobile broadband service (at no cost to me, thanks to 3 and 3mobilebuzz):

[…] I’d like to see [the 3 modem manager] application show me what tariff I’m on, whether it’s a contract or pay-as-you-go, and how much I’m paying (well, I’m not, but if I were a normal customer I would be).

It should also show me how much I’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 3’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, that’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…

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Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Tony Molloy

    Hi Neville,

    An interesting post, thanks.

    I agree with you that trying to define the quantity of service you’re going to get in terms of ‘how many emails’, etc is fairly meaningless. I can understand why vendors use these sort of measures, as there isn’t perhaps any other simple, comprehendable measure that could easily be applied. There’s no equivalent of ‘pages per minute’ as you have with printers (though that measure in itself could be considered questionable – what is a ‘page’?).

    I think the difficulty with these mobile broadband packages is that you’re simply buying a fixed volume of data that you can transfer, which you have to use up over a fixed period. This isn’t like wired broadband where essentially the delivery rate is determined by the size of the ‘pipe’ that you’re connecting through and you don’t generally have any kind of ‘total volume over a period’ limit (though that may come as ISPs struggle to meet constantly growing demand).

    I suspect that the only way that you can predict how suitable one mobile volume ‘package’ is going to be for you is to try it out and carefully monitor your usage on a regular basis, perhaps every day and see how much you’ve used and try and judge if it will last for the period you’ve got it available for.

    This is certainly something that I think you could reasonably expect the service provider to do for you, perhaps by the mechanisms you suggest with the mobile unit doing the calculation and presentation of this information.

    I’m currently trying out the PAYG version of the 3 mobile service, with the 3Gb package. I’m ‘budgeting’ my use each day at 100Mb, to see how that works out. I’ve been using the service for 8 days now and have used 870Mb before connecting up this evening, so I’m resaonably on target. I’m just using it for web browsing, email, twittering, fetching RSS and some small-ish downloads (like episode 344). My experience so far is that it performs perfectly acceptably for these uses, response times are fine with only the occasional longer delay (which could be a congestion issue elsewhere).

    The only aspects of this PAYG service that I would like to see changed is for it to work in the same way as the phone PAYG service does, in that you can top up whenever you want and there isn’t really any time limit of usage. At present, if I use up my 3Gb in 20 days I have to wait a further 10 days before I can purchase another 1/3/7 Gb package to apply. If I do top up during those 10 days the data usage is charged at the standard non-package rate, which is considerably higher. Conversely, if I don’t use up all my quota within 30 days I lose the unused portion. I’d be interested to hear 3’s justifications for applying these limits to the PAYG broadband service.

    For the Linux users out there, I’m using the unit on my OpenSuse 10.3 machine and it’s working happily.

    You don’t get all the onscreen usage info that you do under Windows, but the website gives you sufficent information to monitor usage.



  2. Sarah

    Hi Neville,

    Interestingly for you my other half has a Vodafone USB 3G dongle. This came with some installer software which does monitor your usage and has limits set on amount of data used. In this you can set your own limits so you then know that you are say 1gb away from your download limit for this month. (I think it did this on a month by month basis… but would have to check)

    This in itself is a useful tool to stop you from hitting limits. The only problem is that when you first get it the limit is set to 512mb… yep you heard that right! Crazy huh… many people will use this device and suddenly under normal usage it will hit that limit and you won’t be able to do anything! No internet! Shock horror! So in that sense Vodafone are a bit cheeky. Many people wouldn’t know that it’s the management software doing this or even where to go to change the settings.

    Personally I don’t much like this approach and yes open information on what people are really getting rather than theoretical max would be great!

  3. neville

    A good assessment, Tony, thanks.

    If the only way that you can predict how suitable one mobile volume ‘package’ is going to be is to try it out and carefully monitor your usage on a regular basis, then that just illustrates what needs improving. Why would you have to do that kind of activity when it would be better for the customer if the tool did that for you?

    Looks like Vodafone is one step ahead as Sarah notes. I didn’t know Vodafone already provided the means to see your account status, rudimentary and half-baked it might currently be. (I actually asked two friends who have Vodafone mobile broadband sticks about such information, and they weren’t aware of it!)

    Everyone needs to do far better.

  4. Jimmy

    I have just bought a 3 mobile broadband pay as you gp dongle. The top-up options are £10=1GB, £15=3GB and £25=7GB. I got good speeds when i first tried it today around 2pm.

    At 6pm i tried to have a online chat with web cam and it kept getting disconected from messanger. I ran a speed test and i was getting 30kbs download. it has now been at the same speed since then, even though i have a full signal showing on my 3 usb program interface.

    The reason i got this product was so that i could keep in contact with my family (web cams) and with the advertised speeds i thought this product would be the answer to my communication problems…….but looks like i was wrong. Its not like i live out in the countryside. I live in the centre of a city.

    I feel cheated and dissapointed!!!

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