back to article Mobile broadband: not up to the job?

Mobile broadband has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame since it became widely available, with many mobile operators reporting triple digit growth year-on-year, and data usage surpassing mobile voice. Access to multimedia content and social networking sites from smartphones, and traffic to and from mobile broadband-based PCs, has …


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  1. Nigel Callaghan

    99% coverage?

    Very perceptive article - I keep thinking that these smartphones seem a pretty neat idea, but then I look at the 3G coverage maps of Wales - the only place with a signal in mid-wales is in a boat off Aberystwyth according to the maps. I don't even get a normal mobile signal in my house (we tend to live in cottages with 18in thick stone walls round here, not little boxes made of glass and plywood) - once the suppliers provide good 3G coverage for 99% of the land area of the UK then it'll be great, but until then I won't be wasting my dosh on a Judasphone.

    1. Eddie Edwards


      I live in Oswestry on the Welsh borders and 3G is available in town no problem (I'm on O2).

      I'll have to whip my iPhone out next time I'm in Wrexham. Find it hard to believe there's coverage in Oswestry with c. 40K people and none in Wrexham with c. 130K.

  2. Octoberon

    Broadband Britain My Arse.

    Where I live there is no ADSL availability at all and only one mobile carrier (Orange) who can provide a 3G setrvice. For a mere(!) £25 per month I get about 600-700Kb/s according to broadband speed testing sites.

    Except I don't. Half the time, for no reason I can fathom, I can't connect at all these days and the signal strength has dropped so much so I'm lucky to get half a megabit per second.

    No one knows or will admit what the problem is. No one has any inclination to fix it.

    Martha Lane-Fox, start your 'get Britain online' campaign with the telcos or you're on a hiding to nothing, love.

  3. Giles Jones Gold badge


    Should be called Mobile Internet. Since at times you won't get broadband speeds.

  4. Lee Dowling
    Thumb Up


    This is only a single anecdote but:

    I run the IT for a small school in London. I have two very IT-knowledgeable people directly above me - the head and the bursar. Our ADSL provider recently took it upon themselves to chop our business connections, without warning, because "We were using more than an average ADSL home connection". Negotiations were completely fruitless, with the bursar starting out by literally saying the words "How much do we have to pay you to put it back on?" and ending with threatening to take the children out to the playground, and photograph them pointing at a load of laptops, netbooks, etc. showing a 404 page and sending it to the local press.

    The ISP were complete idiots, no doubt, and lost a very reliable and well-paying customer for the sake of a few Gb (they also lost all our ordinary phone business because of their stupidity - that's only a dozen lines but it was one hell of a bill each month for the lot). They didn't understand the concept that 450 kids+staff use more bandwidth than a little grandma, and they knew we were a school from day 1 - they did the installation!

    We asked for our options and were told that the *only* thing we could do was get another line installed to share the bandwidth across (which we would have to setup!) and that would take two-three weeks to install - in the middle of the exam period for students. In the meantime we would be completely without Internet access because we were limited to only 128Kbps which barely lets us collect email school-wide, let alone do anything practical. They refused to "re-activate" it, or increase our bandwidth allowance no matter what package we signed up to.

    If we had to install another line, it might as well be with a more tolerant ISP who understands what "business line" means, so we severed the connection and instructed another ISP to initiate a dual-ADSL installation immediately. That left us with 2-3 weeks in which to cover ourselves for Internet access (when England were still in the World Cup, too, I might add!).

    I posited an emergency measure - 3G dongles. I had one of my own that I always carried on me and I had in the past plugged it into our systems as a test device. I knew they worked well enough if we were careful, and I demonstrated it to the head.

    Immediately, the bursar whipped down to Argos and bought a shed-load of T-Mobile 3G dongles with 2Gb allowance / month on each (and then they limit you, not charge you). We topped them all up with some cash, plugged them all into our Linux firewall/router, I wrote some scripts to automate things a little (e.g. switch between dongles that had already used up their monthly allowance etc.) and hey-presto - several 2-3Mb connections school-wide that I could load-balance and switch between in order to balance demand, speed, bandwidth usage, top-up-credit, etc. As far as anyone else on the network was concerned things just started working again, Internet-wise.

    It cost us about one-tenth of what our up-to-8Mb ADSL package was costing us, it gave us similar speeds, much better upload, greater reliability, and seamless Internet access across the school without having to buy any extra hardware except the dongles (which we've since redeployed to staff for school trips, home VPN access, etc.). It worked perfectly for 2 weeks, then our up-to-24Mbps ADSL came online and we only kept a couple of them plugged into the router for emergencies.

    Now consider that this was done by plugging in a handful of cheap 3G consumer dongles into the various USB ports available on a Linux PC that acts as a router/firewall, with some of them basically sandwiched in between two others because of the proximity of the ports. Consider that the room this was in is some way inside the school and had tons of copper running through it (including network cabinets, the phone system, servers, etc). Consider that it was in the middle of a school, filled with staff using mobile phones, in the middle of a London town, surrounded by houses and main roads and just a few hundred yards from the main shopping road.

    The dongles didn't even sniff at it - they just got 3G connections each (not maximum theoretical, obviously, but each good enough to use it happily without noticing slow-downs), and worked flawlessly all day and night. We scripted overnight shutdowns for them in order to reduce bandwidth but each morning they came back online like a champ, and ran an entire school sometimes on just one or two when we were initially testing. It felt slow with only one, but nobody complained - they had "usable" Internet that was a damn-sight faster than our limited ADSL. Windows updates, anti-virus updates, web browsing, Java games, Facebook uploads, clipart browsing in Office as an entire class - you name it, it occurred during that time and worked perfectly. I was downloading a new copy of OpenOffice at the time, too.

    We *did* ban any streaming of the world cup - we felt that was taking the piss slightly, so instead we streamed matches over the network from a DVB-T stick using VLC. Otherwise, 3G saved our arse. Our other alternatives were literally things like asking the neighbouring houses if we could tap into their wireless or run a cable into their house, or pointing a wifi antenna at a local OpenZone hotspot.

    This was obviously only a static setup, but I think that's pretty much a worst-case scenario - a pack of 3G dongles all touching each other, all connecting at the same time, all from "unique" customers, all on the same base-station, all trying to get the maximum out of their connections simultaneously with real, varied traffic, within the borders of Greater London, near main roads, shops, houses, etc. It worked damn well, better than we ever expected, and I'd do it again in a trice if it was necessary.

    Oh, the bursar complained because his office is in the next room and *his* own personal 3G dongle (which he used when uploading anything critical) occasionally went from 3G to HSDPA when we did this.

    3G works. T-Mobile did a fantastic job, even if we were abusing their services a little. The mobile network worked better than I ever would have imagined. If anyone ever says that 3G is shit, or isn't capable of things like that, it can *only* be under-investment at the mobile carriers end. In our case, everything just worked. Best £20 I ever spent, buying my own 3G dongle.

    1. 2FishInATank
      Thumb Up

      Hurrah for the dongles, but...

      ...please name the guilty ISP who acted like bureaucratic morons!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward



    2. Andy Livingstone

      No comparison

      A much better read all round than the original article.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      That is utterly awesome and is a solution that is Made of win!.

      I have to say that never would have occured to me.

      I can see that in a city or town that would be a fantastic backup network solution!

      However, being in Yorkshire (About 6 mile out from Halifax), my 3g reception is pretty spotty.

      Where i live, i have never got a speed greater than about 2k/s and it usually falls back to 2g

      The best 3G reception i have ever got was wierdly in a field near derby, which was just about good enough to use youtube.

      Saying that, my mobile internet mostly comes with me for camping trips, which by definition, are out in the sticks a bit, so i dont expect miracles. If i ever take my netbook in a major urban area, i would expect it to perform a bit better.

    4. Chemist

      Re : Well

      Surely you must be mistaken. Linux can't cope with most hardware - everyone KNOWS that.

      Just kidding of course. Nice example

      1. Lee Dowling


        One of the dongles I had to install USB Mode Switch for! I was disgusted! I actually had to have a udev rule to kick it from being a "I'll pretend to be a driver CD" to "I'm a modem!" operation. God, Linux driver compatibility these days is just terrible! :-)

        The rest was just wvdial running PPP (dialling *99# as normal), and iptables / iproute magickery, with scripts on a cron schedule.

        Basic setup with a single dongle took two minutes and a handful of commands (wvdial, changing default route), the advanced config took a few hours to knock up in between other things. I've seen devices advertised for £100's that do something similar with a single dongle and an ADSL connection. Ours cost the price of a PAYG dongle (£12 or something, I think they cost us), a bit of Top-Up credit and nothing else. Oh, a £1.25 USB2 hub. I kid you not.

    5. Rogerborg

      Well, duh, of course 3G works "in London"

      That's where the Telcos are headquartered. You'll also get good coverage in the Surrey Stockbroker Belt where the company limos pick up and drop off their execs. The rest of us can fight over the scraps.

      1. Lee Dowling

        "in London"

        We're talking about hovering on the very edge of M25 here. In Central London, yeah, nothing surprising (though I hear the building reflections, business with similar setups, and even Wifi around there is a nightmare).

        When can say that Barking, Dagenham, Redbridge, Romford, Theydon Bois etc. are all "in London" too, it sounds a bit more of an achievement. No doubt those places have better 3G reception than some hill in Scotland but it's not the London you're thinking of most probably, and the proof of the pudding and the point of the article is that even WITH all those millions of people using 3G in a small area, it still just works. The technology is fine. The politics of the mobile operators is what makes 3G suck elsewhere.

  5. Harry

    Ignore the signal strength ...

    In my experience (with Three), pinging the service's nameserver is more likely to indicate whether you can actually transfer any data.

    A strong signal, yet inability to transfer data, surely means that I have a decent connection to my nearest mast -- but that the mast currently lacks any connectivity back to the internet.

    Curiously, when I can't transfer data, I can often disconnect, reconnect getting a *weaker* signal, but can then actually transfer some data. I'm guessing, but maybe that means I've connected to a different mast -- one that's weaker, but which actually has some spare network connectivity.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    who says they don't give priority to business users?

    last year I was happily using my personal t-mobile dongle, when I started getting really bad speeds. after about 20 minutes I found I could barely get 9.6k... I assumed my him card was playing up and swapped my 'business' sim from my phone into the dongle. no more problems could happily even watch movies online. after an hour I swapped the sims back so I could make a call.. again the personal 3g was really slow. I called t-mobile to ask for a replacement and was told it was due to high demand in my area, and it would be ok after the football had finished... sure enough the personal 3g returned to the same speed as the business 3g an hour or 2 later...

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cloud it

    All devices should become part of the net instead of nodes attached to it.

    Make the phones talk to each other directly and then they can hop several devices till they reach either their destination or a net connection.

    You only then need to be in the range of someone who is in range of someone [...] who has a net connection.

    Sure it'll drop people's battery life so it should be able to be turned off, but how many users would even know it's there or what it is to bother.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    That masked USAnian was dead right

    "Mobile operators have no incentive to improve a service that generates a large cash flow for a mediocre service" is a remarkably apt summary of the entire problem.

  9. Number6

    You've got mobile broadband

    I'm lucky to get a decent 2G signal at home, no sign of 3G. One has to drive some distance before a decent 3G signal appears.

    I did have a telco sales droid call and try to sell me a 3G dongle, which I turned down because (a) I have a smart phone that does most of what I want and (b) their data coverage is crap and not worthy of spending money. Hopefully the feedback was passed up the line but I doubt it, he probably just moved on to the next call and forgot about me.

  10. John A Blackley

    The missing link

    Whether mobile or fixed, the one paramter that's missing from all the ISP data is lowest speed.

    Any crook can promise that I'll get speeds "up to" so many GBps. I'll continue looking for the one that tells me I'll enjoy speeds of "at least". Until then, ISP promises are just that - and woth about as much as politicians' promises.

  11. Adam Salisbury

    Telcos accept your responsibility FFS

    Lay in your own bed, eat your own dog food and so forth! Just like domestic broadband the ISPs have far oversold services and now they're feeling the cruinch, while they could've been doing the right thing an using their enormous profits to upgrade their infrastructure they've propbably squandered it on themselves.

    This is the fault of the telcos and ISPs alone and they should foot the bill, period.

  12. Harry

    I'll continue looking ...

    "I'll continue looking for the one that tells me I'll enjoy speeds of "at least"."

    And I'll keep defaming OfCom, ASA and OFT until one of them manages to employ somebody with the elementary common sense to insist that is precisely how *all* products have to be advertised.

  13. JeffyPooh

    Report from Canada

    My iPhone plan allows 6GB a month. The local 3G connection is so good that I tend to use it even at home, ignoring our WiFi hotspot. The 3G connection is generally better than our 1Mbps DSL that feeds our WiFi, and the WiFi is of course shared with everyone in the house. And the 3G is good enough to watch high quality videos.

  14. Adrian Bridgett

    train coverage

    I think it's disgraceful that I'm paying for a service and yet in common use - train from Hampshire to Waterloo, train to Manchester, or just random locations (in the countryside or in the middle of large towns an cities, it's common for it to be next to worthless.

    I'd swap provider in an instant to one who provided connectivity when and where I wanted it, rather than just occasionally.

  15. Adam Williamson 1

    Mixed bag

    I live in Canada but travel to the UK. Last time I was there I brought a 2100-band capable phone and got a Tesco Mobile (so, O2, I believe) SIM.

    There's certainly a wider variety of pretty reasonable pricing options in the UK - it is basically impossible to get any reasonable data package on PAYG from most providers in Canada or the US, you just can't do it - but I found the service substantially worse than the one I have in Canada. I'm on Telus' newish HSPA network, in Vancouver.

    I travel around the Greater Vancouver area quite a bit and find the mobile data consistently fast and reliable, I don't recall ever being dropped to GPRS. I get speeds around 4Mb/sec everywhere I go. I had a similar experience travelling around Toronto. Of course, if you go outside major population centres in Canada it gets pretty hard, due to the gigantic amount of space there is to cover (Telus still had an analog network up till a couple of years ago, since it had better range in remote places).

    In the UK, I found that even on a Virgin train from London to Manchester - which has to be one of the most well-travelled routes on a pretty damn small island - I frequently got switched between GPRS and HSPA, and there's a half hour chunk or so of the journey where there's just no HSPA coverage at all, it's all GPRS. Which is, of course, unusably slow. My family's house in the UK, in a pretty affluent suburb close to a major city, doesn't get reliable HSPA coverage - I get one bar of HSPA in some rooms, but in other rooms I'm dropped to GPRS. There were even places in London I wound up on GPRS, somehow, and often the HSPA performance was pretty crap.

    I've heard other networks are better, but my experience was certainly that, although mobile data seems more popular and more reasonably/flexibly priced in the UK, the performance and coverage is pretty crap.

  16. Justabloke 1


    I've only just got involved with the mobile internet stuff, never having been willing to pay stupid money for it.

    When I re-negotiated my pay monthly contract with Orange recently, they threw in "unlimited" mobile internet.... if I had been paying for this "service" I'd probably be pretty annoyed because the several times I could have actually done with it, its been carp.

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