Data Roaming: Why non-RIM smartphones suck

Come with me on a journey. This is a long one and coffee or tea is recommended.

I’m a Vodafone UK customer. I have opted-in to their special European data roaming deal that gives me 25mb of roaming data per day, in return for £2.

Now that’s cheap. Very cheap, when Vodafone will normally take £1 per megabyte from me without thinking.

Unfortunately, Vodafone’s Price Plan Cretins (known in the business as VPPC’s) decided that after this 25mb daily allowance, I will be billed an excruciating £1 per megabyte.

So they’ve almost got it working nicely. I suspect that the viewpoint from the VPPC committee is that 25mb should be enough for anyone to ‘use the internet on their phone’ in a given day.

My primary handset is a BlackBerry Bold 9780 (running 6.0 of RIM’s OS). RIM know what they’re doing in the context of mobile data compression technology. Sanyu Kiruluta from RIM’s EMEA Developer team made that perfectly clear when we put her on camera to discuss ‘the data capacity crunch’ a few months ago.

One of her key points:

“We tell developers: Only send the necessary data, only send it when necessary.”

This philosophy is, I believe, born of the fact that when RIM were starting out, data was a scare commodity. You had to make really good use of the available GPRS bandwidth. You had to allow for continual service interruptions and for poor network bandwidth. So RIM optimised the hell out of everything.

Let me highlight just how important this is for the mobile marketplace.

You see it is very, very easy to get rather frustrated with the mobile network operators for not delivering in today’s always-on culture. It’s really easy to get annoyed by the stupid battery consumption problems that almost any modern smartphone suffers from. I regularly explode at my network operator’s inability to deliver me service when I need it. I am continually banging the table (at industry roundtables) demanding a ‘boost button’ so that I can get prioritised data access services so that my connection will be faster, when I need it.

I really cannot stand sitting on the bus and watching my bandwidth from the cell seem to disappear almost immediately when the teenager sitting across from me flips open his bog-standard smartphone and starts streaming an HD Youtube video. For no apparent reason, other than he’s bored.

“That’s not an efficient use of the mobile network infrastructure,” I scream. To myself.

I remember being at an HP roundtable a while ago — years ago. One of the tech guys there wanted to illustrate just how fragile our mobile infrastructure was. He got four Nokia N95s, all on the same network. He then proceeded to make a video call between a pair of them. All was fine. The picture was excellent. He then got the other pair fired up and tried to connect them on their own video call. Everything went to shit. The original video call began to break. The new video call couldn’t show any video signal at all. I could virtually feel things breaking at the local cell tower. This was a few years ago.

Things are a little better now.

The mobile networks have invested substantially in shoring up their data capacity capabilities. It was o2 UK, if memory serves, that recently announced it was spending something like a million pounds a day building out it’s network in the wake of the meltdown caused by so many iPhones blindly shooting their data loads all over the place.

Just how bad is the data demand from a smartphone? Well, there are all sorts of facts and figures around that we could resort to. We could quote the ‘average’ smartphone data usage. We could argue or support Vodafone’s 25mb daily roaming limit — is this 25mb limit a perfect allocation of data for your average consumer? Quite possibly. I doubt my mother would use more than that in a given day.

But having set out the semi-interlinked points above, let’s get to the main point of today’s post: The flipping Google Nexus S.

I went out and spunked the cash on Samsung’s Nexus S. It was, I reasoned, about time I had a proper up-to-date Android phone. There are plenty of test ones around MIR Towers, but I thought I needed to have one to play with and experience.

I’ve been doing just that. Now and again I take the SIM card out of my BlackBerry and stick it into the Nexus.

I’ve not had much time to do anything to the Nexus, beyond setup my Gmail (3 accounts) and have a quick look around the phone. I’ve downloaded one or two apps from the Marketplace — and I’ve installed a beta version of Swype to replace the dire standard on-screen keyboard.

That’s the extent of the configuration.

The first flaw with the Nexus S is that, if you use it the way you’re meant to do, the battery hits 50% before you can type ‘mobileindustryreview’. My annoyance at this experience is only heightened by the helpful Android fanatics who feel obliged to point out that I’m, “doing it wrong.” I need to switch off real-time email delivery, apparently. That, “chews a lot of battery”, I’m told. Duh. And, “you should put your screen brightness down loads.” That is another genuine suggestion from a 35-year old IT expert I know.

Well, obviously. I only used to get through the day with my T-Mobile G1 Android phone by using one of those power saving apps that basically switched everything off, from the WiFi to the screen. It effectively bricked the device continually unless I specifically wanted to use it, at which point, the app would scream and scream as the battery dripped charge.

I refuse to do this with a £500 handset.

It is not the battery that’s the problem for me though.

Oh no.

It’s the sodding data use.

I’ve been coming to France for two days a week for the last three months. Vodafone’s 25mb for £2 days deal has been keeping me going. The moment I enter France and the BlackBerry selects a new network, I get the friendly ‘hello, you’ve got 25mb’ message from Vodafone.

And that’s all I get from Vodafone, despite giving the BlackBerry a good amount of data use throughout the day.

The Bold has four email accounts constantly being updated. Three Gmail accounts, one BlackBerry ‘Instant’ email account. The BlackBerry Twitter super-app is live and updating every 20 minutes. Google Maps is constantly monitoring my location. Smrtguard is pinging the server to keep an eye on my phone’s location (and doing a backup every evening). Google’s own Gmail app is always live and pinging. I use that to access my 20gig email archive as necessary across the day. BeReader updates regularly across the hour, keeping my Google Reader feed updated and ready for review. SmartWiFi sits in the background monitoring my cell location — when I get home or when I get to my hotel (where there’s a WiFi network), the app switches on my WiFi and begins routing all my traffic across that connection. Text messages are flying in and out. And BlackBerry Messenger typically runs read hot most days.

Now then, battery wise, the BlackBerry will typically last a full day. On some particularly heavy days, especially when I’m using the telephone portion of the device, the Bold will get to 11pm with about 20% battery. It’ll go a further few hours before the horrible RED battery display appears — then it really does need a charge.

The key point? I get full usage out of it.

But what about the data?

Well I don’t actually know. What I can tell you is that I never, ever get a message from Vodafone saying I’ve gone over 25mb in a given day, when I’m roaming. Never.

If I was sending copious amounts of photos, I suspect I could force my device to exceed the 25mb roaming limit, but my normal heavy usage never seems to break it.

Can you guess what happened with the Samsung Nexus S?

Yeah. It’s not good.

The Eurostar arrived out of the tunnel into France and the Nexus S switched on to the local French network. I got the familiar text from Vodafone letting me know I was now eating into my 25mb of allowance and that they’d charged me £2.

About an hour later, I arrived in Paris. I got into a taxi and as we pulled away, I got another text from Vodafone. I’d used up my 25mb allowance already and I was now burning £1 per meg.

I was astonished. I quickly checked Google Maps to see what route the taxi driver was taking. Boom: I got a text to let me know I’d blown £5.

And my Nexus S battery was down to 53%.

To be clear I’d hardly used the phone. It had been in my pocket since I’d entered France.

I was astonished.

This, then, is the difference between a BlackBerry and an Android device. I can only assume that the BlackBerry’s proprietary compression and communications layer is ridiculously efficient and that the Nexus S is behaving as though it’s connected to WiFi and sucking as much data as it wants.

Of course, I know the solution. I need to switch off the mail sync. I need to effectively prevent the Nexus from doing anything. Indeed switching off the data roaming capability would probably be the best way ahead — and then I could switch it on when I need to check my email. But goodness me I wonder if checking my email would actually end up using a few meg? If that means syncing contacts, calendars and mail, for all three accounts, every single time?

I suppose I could try using the mobile web to check my email when I’m abroad using the Nexus S. That would at least limit the data usage to a distinct refresh.

Goodness knows what it’s doing when I have it on in the UK? The Nexus S must be burning through 100mb a day just sitting there.

This is why I continue to use a BlackBerry.

No wonder the mobile networks are having problems coping with the ‘data crunch’. I wonder if operators concerned about increasing network demands should be heavily discounting BlackBerries for their subscribers to help keep the pain away.

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