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The Data Capacity Crunch: Are we still in it?

It has now been almost exactly a year since I published the Data Capacity Crunch video series (kindly supported by Amdocs). I produced the series in conjunction with the team at Mobile Entertainment. We interviewed a number of leading executives from around the industry discussing the issue of the ‘data capacity crunch’.

Broadly speaking, it wasn’t good news back then.

365 days later, how much has changed?

I’d go so far as to say things have got worse.

If anything, I suspect our tolerance for poor network speeds has increased. Am I right in saying that in the UK at least, we tend to put up with poor network speed now? There’s not much you can do in terms of recourse, beyond calling up and demanding a bit of credit from your operator.

It’s a given that you’ll often encounter stupid-slow connectivity, especially in heavily congested areas of key metropolitan areas. Indeed, I feel it’s more likely that I’ll get faster service in the wilds of the countryside provided I’m reasonably near the cell tower.

I’m astonished that, as an industry, nothing much seems to have been done. Emphasis on seems, obviously. Anecdotally it feels worse. What’s the real story?

And what’s the future going to look like across the next few years? I do wonder. In the UK at least, we’ve generations of people upgrading to smartphone technology now. Is it really going to get better before it gets worse?

I still see people streaming videos via their operator connections when they clearly shouldn’t be. I almost have to grimace when I witness it. Last week I saw one chap trying to stream what looked like iPlayer on his iPhone on the train. It was obviously stopping-and-starting every 30 seconds and, I can only imagine, hosing the network capacity in each cell.

Perhaps, though, the ridiculously low data allowances now routinely sold with contracts are encouraging users to ration their data usage? I hope not. Well, I hope it’s had some effect. But the last thing we need — as an industry — is to breed legions of users who, afraid of billshock, simply avoid using data, period.

I’m afraid all I’ve got at the moment is anecdotal evidence though. I don’t think anything’s got better. I don’t feel like the networks have improved anything. If anything I feel they’ve gone backwards. Has anyone implemented traffic shaping to speed Youtube videos to my handset? If so I’ve not noticed a better service. Bad news or good news?

I can’t help but think we’re still at the start of this capacity crunch.

So I’ve decided to do a bit more research. Some of it will appear here, some of it will just help me to be better informed. I would like to meet and hear from anyone that has some perspective — particularly:

– Operators – what are the problems you’re facing right now? Does it affect you at different times, locations etc? What are your predictions for the future?

– Developers – how is this affecting you? Are you aware of it when developing (do you use less video for example)? Please reassure me that you don’t collectively view the handset as an ethernet terminal and that you *are* considering cellular connectivity into your application infrastructure!

– Brands – more and more big name brands are rightly getting into mobile, but if you’re from one of these brands, is this issue putting you off? What kind of SLAs are you demanding from your mobile partners?

– Analysts – I’d love to hear your predictions for the future, let me know if this is all effectively scaremongering, or should we all be really concerned? Surely it’s not just about putting up with it until 4G arrives in the UK in about a billion years?

– The mobile industry – I’m just as happy to hear from the rest of you too. Many of you have got solutions for this, so what are they, how do they work, how will it affect me as a consumer? Or are you just hyping this up? 😉

Get in touch if you’ve got a view and let’s try to thrash this one out. As always, I’m ewan@mobileindustryreview.com.

Meanwhile, hear’s the Data Capacity Crunch series from last year. Looking through them, most of the points discussed still stand today (you can flick between episodes — there’s 5 in total).

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

1 reply on “The Data Capacity Crunch: Are we still in it?”

I’ve recently had to move, and the new place still doesn’t have proper broadband, so I have to juggle between tethering on my iPhone 4 O2’s connection (measly 500MB allowance and image compression = ugly on my PC), an Orange Motorola Defy with the wireless hotspot for the laptop and xbox live (Hey, it’s laggy but it actually works somewhat!) and I ended up buying another 1GB for £10 from Three using my very old £50 Skypephone S2 as a modem for the PC.
I am quite impressed with Three, I suppose I have a mast nearby. Otherwise I’ve got friends that live in dead zones and can’t even take a phone call using Three, but maybe it’s their old Nokia non-smartphones with bad antennae…

I’d say that all operators seem to be getting obsessed with lowering the amount of data allowed per connection. Looking at Vodafone (who don’t compress images and ruin the experience like O2, Orange and T-Mobile) they used to be all about mobile broadband, now it seems like the prices have gone up but allowance has gone down. Oh and a friend has had 20 months of pain with her iPhone 3GS on Vodafone’s awful network (dropped calls and no data) so I’m sure they’re in heaps of trouble.

O2 used to not care about limits, but now I have a 500MB limit on my iPhone SIM only plan. Comparably, a similar price plan would have maybe twice the download limit a few years ago, or none at all (I can’t remember for sure). They ruin the experience of these gorgeous smartphones by forcing everyone to look at highly pixelated and frankly, ugly, images that are all over the internet.

My analysis of Orange brings disappointing results. I swapped to them in summer 2010 with my iPhone 4 and was very, very impressed. I had much better signal and 3G than Vodafone everywhere I went. I had no dropped calls, and data was fast. Then came the T-Mobile signal sharing debacle and it all went to hell. I remember that night, going to Vue Cinemas on a wednesday and trying to get a 2-4-1 ticket. I couldn’t because there was no signal. At all. I tried everything from resetting the phone settings, to the phone itself, and I couldn’t get signal let alone a 3G connection anywhere. The next day it worked but that’s when I started noticing the changes: I would have 5 bars 3G but data wouldn’t work at all. I’d be able to make voice calls, sure, but I can’t get the Underground lines status to update, I can’t get my e-mail and I can’t do anything with data. I called up Orange and they checked postcodes of the areas, and said all is OK. I went to Apple and they swapped my iPhone 4 for a new one citing antenna issues. But I still had the same problems. So I decided to go back to O2 and have been with them ever since.

Three, however, are impressing me. Their broadband is saving me right now, so I want to get a Galaxy Nexus with their One Plan, and it seems reasonably priced. I also know that I can get good 3G in the few places that I might really need it when my broadband is out and I can tether.
I like what they’re doing.

I am just worried, for how long they can keep this growth up, if long at all. Because they’ll hit a limit just like all the other networks and then all the poor subscribers, will hit the fan. 🙁

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