Mobile broadband: not just about where people live but about where people go

As Britain enters the traditional school summer holiday season, hundreds of thousands of people will travel to the coast, to our national parks, to beautiful areas of the countryside. After the inevitable traffic chaos will come the cries from teenagers who can’t get on the Internet. And from one or two adults too.

This summer, my holidays will be in Swanage, where I can get a decent 3G signal (probably 4G too – I haven’t been down for a while) but, outside our towns and cities, the likelihood of getting a mobile broadband connection (if indeed any broadband connection) is pretty slim.  I’m not going to get started on the rural broadband/fibre to the home or cabinet discussion but mobile broadband is supposed to fill the gaps. Unfortunately that’s a long way from reality.

Rural idyll and technological isolation

Last half-term, my family stayed in the South Hams, in Devon. It’s a beautiful part of the country where even A roads are barely wide enough for buses and small trucks to traverse and the pace of life is delightfully laid back.  Our holiday home didn’t have broadband, but we had three smartphones with us – one on Giffgaff (O2), one on Vodafone, one on EE. None could pick up any more than a GPRS signal.

In the past, it’s been good for me to disconnect from the ‘net on holiday, to switch off from social media, to escape from email. This time though, I noticed a change in the way that tourist attractions are marketed. The leaflets and pamphlets no longer provide all the information you need to book a trip and access to a website is assumed. After all, this is 2015 not 1975. Whilst planning a circular tour from Dartmouth by boat to Totnes, bus to Paignton and steam train back to Kingswear (a short ferry ride from our origin at Dartmouth) I was directed to use the website to check which services to use (as the river is tidal and the times can vary accordingly) but I couldn’t use the ‘net – I had no connection.

To find the information I needed, I used another function on my phone – making a telephone call – whilst for other online requirements I drove to Dartmouth or Kingsbridge. I even picked up a 4G connection in Kingsbridge, downloading my podcasts in seconds – what a contrast just 8 miles (and a 45 minute round trip!) makes.

A new communications role for the village pub

Public houses have always been an important link in rural connectivity (physically, geographically, socially) and Wi-Fi is now providing a technological angle to the pub’s role in the community. From my perspective, a pint whilst perusing the ‘net is not a bad thing. Both the village pubs in Slapton had Wi-Fi (I’ll admit standing outside one of them before opening hours to get on the Internet one day!) and whilst visiting Hope Cove I was borrowed pub Wi-Fi to tweet to Joe Baguley, who I knew visits often (by chance, he was there too!).

Indeed, it was a tweet from Joe, spotted when I got home, that inspired me to write this post:

No better in the Home Counties

It’s not just on holiday though… I live in a small market town close to where Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire (OK, Milton Keynes) meet. Despite living on a hill, and my house being of 1990s construction (so no thick walls here), EE won’t even let me reliably make a phone call. This is from the network which markets itself as the

“the UK’s biggest, fastest and most reliable mobile network today”

3G is available in parts of town if some microwaves stretch to us from a neighbouring cell but consider that we’re only 58 miles from London. This is not the back of beyond…

Then think about travelling by train. On my commute from Bedford or Milton Keynes to London there is no Wi-Fi, patchy 3G, and it’s impossible to work. The longer-distance journeys I used to make to Manchester were better as I could use the on-train Wi-Fi, but that comes at a cost.

Broadband is part of our national infrastructure, just like telephone networks, roads and railways. Fibre is slowly reaching out and increasing access speeds in people’s homes but mobile broadband is increasingly important in our daily lives. Understandably, the private enterprises that operate the mobile networks focus on the major towns and cities (where most people live). But they also need to think about the devices we use – the mobile devices – and consider how to address requirements outside those cities, in the places where the people go.

What exactly is a 4G mobile data network?

I’m not a telecoms expert but, every now and again, new technologies come along that cross over into my world. One of those is the evolution of mobile telecommunications networks and there’s a lot of talk right now about “4G”. So what is it all about? Well, I’m sure there are a lot of detailed technical references available on the ‘net but I recently heard Ben Roome from Nokia-Siemens Networks being interviewed on the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast and he gave a quick overview, which I’ve reproduced here:

  • First generation mobile networks were analogue – that is to say that the signal could vary, a bit like tuning in to get a (broadcast) radio signal.
  • Second generation (2G) networks came on stream in the 1990s and used digital signals for communication.
  • There were various “interim” generations (2.5G for example) to try and squeeze more data over networks but the advent of 3G allowed mobile broadband data access, although many 3G handsets still use 2G for voice communications (modern radio networks can handle 2G, 3G and 4G using the same hardware – all that is required is a software update).
  • There are different standards for each generation of network, and 4G networks use LTE (Long Term Evolution) or WiMax (since the ITU relaxed standards to allow other technologies than LTE Advanced as LTE was not originally considered a fourth generation network technology but is now regarded as a sufficient improvement over 3G to be called 4G). To achieve duplex transmissions (i.e. send and receive at the same time) channels may be divided by time or spectrum (frequency) – WiMax uses time division (as do some LTE variants) and was effectively an interim 4G technology that was good for fixed wireless access (i.e. wireless connections, to a fixed location, cf. mobile networks). 4G networks have the potential to offer big improvements in latency (round trip speed between asking for something and getting a response delivered) but high speeds also need a high speed backhaul between cell towers (i.e. the core network). Most backhaul is microwave, but the core architecture does makes a difference and LTE networks are “flatter” (all IP from handset to cloud and back again) so they have simpler routes and improved management (hence improved latency).

Commercial 4G networks are in operation in Germany, with trials in UK. Broadband is a huge driver of economies and society so coverage requirements may be greater (i.e. 98% in place of 95%) when the UK governement auctions the radio spectrum next May as 4G is a technology that can genuinely offer universal access. The UK 4G trial in Cornwall is intended to see if 4G offers an alternative to fixed line broadband. Fixed lines currently averages 6.4Mbps, with 3G offering 1.6Mpbs – so the question is “can 4G beat offerings and offer a solution for people in areas with poor copper infrastructure.

Whilst the increased coverage requirements may mean that less money is raised by the spectrum auction, Ben Roome commented that those countries who are leading the world in this area make the most of the infrastructure with “beauty contests” for spectrum rather than charging. The UK has gone down the charging route – hopefully that doesn’t mean that we’ll all have to pay too much in years to come for something that people really value.