Ofcom has published its first research into the performance of mobile broadband across the UK.
Ofcom consumer research shows that 17 per cent of UK households are using mobile broadband to access online services, with 7 per cent using it as their only means of internet access, compared to 3 per cent in 2009.
The research involved over 4.2 million tests and measured average speeds as well as the performance of the five mobile operators in areas of good 3G network coverage.
The Ofcom report looks specifically at the performance of mobile networks using dongles and datacards and does not consider smartphones. Ofcom is planning to undertake further research into mobile broadband, including the performance of smartphones.
The research, conducted between September and December 2010 in partnership with broadband monitoring specialists Epitiro, 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.
This compares with the average fixed broadband speed of 6.2Mbit/s (Nov/Dec 2010), and average web page download times on fixed broadband networks of less than 0.5 seconds.
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. Basic web pages took on average 2.2 seconds to download.
The research found some differences between the performance of operators’ 3G networks. O2, Vodafone and 3 offered faster average download speeds than T-Mobile and Orange.
O2, on average, delivered web pages faster than the other four operators and had lower average latency than 3, Orange and Vodafone. Latency is a measure of the responsiveness of a connection (it 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).
The slower speed of web page downloading on mobile broadband compared to fixed broadband is largely the result of higher levels of latency. In addition to increasing the time for web page downloads, high latency may make connections less suitable for some online games and VoIP.
The research also looked at how performance varied by location, 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.
Urban areas outperformed rural areas, primarily due 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 most important factor affecting mobile broadband performance is coverage, and consumers should check with their provider how good the coverage is likely to be before buying a service.
Consumers should also consider what they most want to use mobile broadband for. As well as being able to use it in different locations, mobile broadband may also be less expensive for some consumers as it does not require a landline, and pay-as-you-go tariffs are available.
However, slower download speeds and data limits may make it unsuitable for heavy users and some broadband services may not be suitable for applications which require a high level of responsiveness, such as some online gaming.
Ofcom has published a guide for consumers with advice on what to think about when choosing a mobile broadband service.
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. The new spectrum will provide much needed capacity for the fourth generation (4G) of mobile technology, set to deliver significantly faster mobile broadband services.
Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards, said: “This research gives consumers a clearer picture of the performance of mobile broadband dongle and datacards as consumers use these services to complement fixed-line services or sometimes as their principal means of accessing online services.
“The research is another important step in Ofcom’s efforts to ensure that consumers have the information they need to exercise their choice effectively and to make the most of competition in the market.”
Richard Stone, mobile specialist at mobile and website performance firm Compuware commented, “As the report essentially highlights there can be huge variations in the performance of mobile broadband, consumers are still playing a guessing game around which network to choose. In fact, in our own tests we’ve found there can actually be performance problems with the website someone is accessing over a mobile network, the device being used, or anywhere in between in this complex application delivery chain.
Unfortunately, regardless of who is to blame, the mobile operator will often be the one who is held to task. The only real way to address the issue is to have an insight into exactly where the problem lies, but right now this is something the vast majority of mobile networks lack.”