Dongle broadband speeds fail to satisfy

O2, Vodafone and 3 have been labelled amongst the best for offering faster average mobile broadband download speeds.

However, T Mobile and Orange were found to be trailing behind in Ofcom’s first
research into the performance of mobile broadband across the UK, while the overall findings regarding this technology have been described by experts as “disappointing.”

The watchdog found that around 17 percent of us in the UK are using mobile broadband through a dongle, seven percent of which rely on this medium as their only access to the net, compared to the three percent in 2009.

However, the regulator did more than survey people, also testing around 4.2 million lines to get a measure of average speeds as well as to get an idea of what which areas were given better 3G coverage than others by the five mobile operators.

In cahoots with Epitiro, Ofcom found that the average download speed achieved by consumers in Ofcom’s consumer panel survey was 1.5Mbit/s and basic webpages took on average 8.5 seconds to download between September and December 2010.  

However, in good 3G coverage areas, Ofcom found that average mobile broadband speeds were 2.1Mbit/s, falling to an average of 1.7Mbit/s during the peak evening period of 8-10pm.

Here basic web pages took on average 2.2 seconds to download.

And of course some mobile providers were speedier than others with O2, Vodafone and 3 offering faster average download speeds than T-Mobile and Orange.

O2, came up trumps over the others and had a lower average latency than 3, Orange and Vodafone. For those who aren’t telecoms boffins latency is a measure of the responsiveness of a connection and is measured by the time it takes a single packet of data to travel from a user’s PC to a third-party server and back again.

And it seems there’s a bit of a postcode lottery when it comes to the speeds you can actually get. Ofcom proved this by testing speeds across Birmingham, in the M62 corridor between Manchester and Liverpool, in Swansea and the surrounding area, and in the rural and semi-rural areas of Herefordshire and Shropshire.

Unsurprisingly it found that urban areas had more coverage than rural areas, which was down to greater 3G availability.

However, performance was highly variable across urban areas, with no guarantee of good performance offered in a city centre location.

The regulator therefore said it was important that consumers checked with providers about how good coverage was in their area before parting with their hard earned cash. It also recommended that we use our noggin and think about what we needed mobile broadband for as well as if we wanted pay-as-you go or if we are willing to pay for a landline.

It also pointed out that it was important to note that mobile broadband offered slower download speeds and stronger data limits meaning heavy internet users might have a problem.
 
And before you start ripping out those fibre lines then it may also be worth noting that according to Ofcom mobile broadband performance is likely to remain significantly below fixed broadband performance until the rollout of additional spectrum for mobile services in the UK, which is expected to begin in 2013.

This was similar advice from Jonathan Leggett at Top10, who told Techeye: “Ofcom’s discovery that UK consumers’ average mobile broadband speed is 1.5MB is doubt empirically accurate and useful to the regulator and government. However, it’s questionable how relevant a nationwide figure is to consumers.

“With cities outperforming rural areas, users’ experience of the technology is actually incredibly variable.

“3G is now more reliable and faster than before. But the slow pace of improvements to the service, coupled with low usage allowances and the strain that the smartphone boom is putting on networks means that it remains a service that nine out of ten people see as complementary to their telecoms packages rather than a replacement for a fixed line connection.”

Ernest Doku, technology expert at uSwitch.com, however didn’t mince his words.He said:  “Ofcom’s mobile broadband findings make for disappointing reading, especially as seven percent use this method as their sole means of connecting to the web.

“The disparity between speeds in rural and urban areas is understandable given the similar issues for 3G reception on mobile phones. This should be no excuse as the portable nature of dongles and mobile broadband should require providers to offer a fast service irrespective of location.

“Opting for a dongle and being on a pay-as-you-surf service may be better value for the occasional user, but signing up to a long term broadband contract without knowing what coverage or speed is possible will be a difficult step to take. 

He agreed with Ofcom, advising that consumers need to make sure they do their research on the mobile broadband package they want to pick.

“I’d recommend checking out providers’ 3G coverage maps of the UK to get an idea of where you will be covered on the move,” he said.

“Most mobile broadband packages also have strict usage limits, so ensure the deal closely matches your average monthly consumption, and do consider the option of a fixed line service if you consider yourself a heavy user of the web.”