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The Mobile Con

I'm typing this on a train between Guildford (the wealthiest city in the UK) and London, 35 miles away. Mobile signals (forget 3G) drop out between 10 and 15 times during this popular 45 minute journey through mostly built-up areas. And when I am connected, I'm hanging onto 1 bar (did you know that means 1 bar for reception, not transmission). Where I live, in SW Surrey, we rarely get a mobile signal at all. So much for the UK being in the vanguard of technology. We're in the dark ages compared to most developed countries, and many more far less economically successful. Why?

Get used to it (notice the bars mean nothing)

There are four major mobile networks competing for our money in the UK (now that Orange and T-Mobile have combined). In 2000 the British government had a wheeze. 'Lets have an auction for the mobile 3G bandwidth'. So every company who wanted to provide a 3G service tried to outbid each other for a slice, and ended up paying billions of pounds to be allowed to spend countless billions more in marketing. The consequence of this 'free market' between these heavily levied corporations is that there's minimal money left for investment in infrastructure - that's coverage and signal strength to you and me. Actually the truth is that even if they had plenty of cash left over, they only had to spend the minimum they can each get away with to get a critical mass of subscribers for commercial viability. By ensuring there's little difference between them, switching networks is pointless. They know this and compete purely on price, not service. They all claim 99% phone coverage in the UK and between 80% and 93% 3G 'broadband' coverage. Bollocks! They lie and there's no-one with the skill or funds to check these self-evidently incorrect claims. We all get dropped calls (I estimate over half of the calls I make are corrupted or broken off in some way), and I am hardly ever able to get a good 3G signal (unless I'm in Portugal or Greece where signal strength and coverage are many time better than here - although that's maybe because no-one can afford a mobile there any more).

The muddle established by the government and OFCOM is compounded by each corporation having to build their own national network of repeaters. Had our genius politicians and regulators understood this is like a train service, they would have used the revenues raised by the auction to build one national infrastructure for every mobile licensee to use. Then they should have kept taxing them, sensibly, to constantly improve it. It's just like roads, rails, canals, postal services, water, electricity and every other utility. We've ended up with one of my favourite words - a kludge! Broadly speaking, it's a system that evolved rather being designed from the start. It sort of works despite itself. So what we've ended up with is hopelessly inefficient with massive duplication in some parts of the country, and nothing in sparsely populated areas (like Surrey!?). How mad is that? All 4 (originally 5) networks had to build exactly the same sets of masts and interconnects to the landline telcos, to each provide the bare minimum of service, aimed only at the same highly populated areas.

And then there's the usage overload problem. What was originally designed for relatively light infrastructure use per user minute (for voice, SMS and light data), has escalated into vast under-capacity for the sorts of things mobile users want to do these days -  like watch videos, use bandwidth hungry apps and access data rich mobile websites, quite apart from making calls where you can actually make out what the other person is saying (I've heard it claimed that the networks have downgraded telephony these days to free up bandwidth for data - that's why most calls sound like underwater baked bean tins linked with string). So each under-invested, over-worked, individual mobile network is close to meltdown. Had they combined resources to begin with, and with a little more foresight about what people were going to use them for, there would today not only be more than enough for everyone, but at far less cost per byte, covering every square inch of the UK, and easily scalable should demand hit capacity at particular times of day and in particular areas.

The world is going mad for more and more mobile traffic. The same madness that overwhelmed the 3G networks is about to be repeated with 4G - which the international telecom authorities have totally failed to standardise. They've been largely ignored in every market, so it's anyone's guess what 4G actually means. Anyway, UK iPads won't be able to use it, unless they're in the US. But most people probably won't notice much difference anyway since whatever speed gains the new standards offer will be instantly eaten up by ever hungrier apps and the like - and then only in the odd metro area.

Every company who relies on the web in one way or another is realising that mobiles offer another set of opportunities to tease money out of our pockets. Information, entertainment, shopping and countless other ways to extract revenue from us, or advertisers trying to reach us, can benefit from increased convenience, location-sensitivity, text and call integration, always on everywhere, and the closest thing yet invented to us being physically plugged into the net (watch eXistenZ).

Another example of short-term greed biting us in the long-term arse.


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