Page last updated at 07:54 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 08:54 UK

Mobile broadband feels the strain

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology reporter, BBC News

mobile phone users
Mobile broadband has enjoyed huge popularity.

Researchers predict that more than one billion people around the world will be using mobile broadband by 2012.

However some European mobile operators claim that current levels of use are already crippling their networks.

In Britain mobile operator Vodafone is doubling its mobile broadband capacity to 14.4Mbps (Megabits per second).

The new service rolling out across the UK should give users a realistic peak speed of 10.8Mbps, says the company. The upgrade will not affect devices.

By March 2009 three million British homes had mobile broadband access according to communications watchdog Ofcom.

Many use dongles, which attach to computers like a USB stick and enable internet access from anywhere with a mobile signal.

"Dongles really are reaching a critical mass," a Vodafone spokesperson told BBC News.

"There has been quite a bit of obsessing about speed by the media, but we have been concentrating on depth of coverage and quality of the network... as it will help us cope with the demands of new users."

French operator SFR claims laptops equipped with a dongle use 450 times more bandwidth than a classic mobile phone.

Fixed rate deals

The mobile broadband service is proving particularly popular with young adults says Howard Wilcox, senior analyst at Juniper Research.

"There's a growing number of under 35s living in rented properties, who tend to move around and take their mobile broadband with them," he said.

People need to know what it's going to cost them - there's no way back from fixed monthly deals. A fair use policy is reasonable.
Phil Sayer, Forrester Research

"Growth has also been driven by the availability of smartphones. It must be placing a strain on the mobile operators' networks."

The majority of complaints about mobile broadband from UK users are about network congestion in busy areas and poor signals inside office buildings.

Phil Sayer, principal analyst at Forrester Research, believes that the TV industry may unwittingly provide the solution to the interior signal problems.

Following digital switchover in 2012, the TV analogue frequency that the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and Five currently broadcast on, will no longer be in use.

A decision has not yet been made about what will happen to it.

"It would improve mobile broadband enormously," he believes. "700 MHz is a great frequency for good building penetration. 2.4 GHz [the current frequency used for wireless broadband] is pretty poor."

Fixed rate deals

An added attraction of web access on the move is that it is usually available for a competitively-priced, fixed-rate fee.

In the UK many fixed rate deals are capped - which can lead to high charges for dongle users who go over their allocated bandwidth.

Earlier this year O2 claimed the surcharge was "used as a deterrent and to make sure that others using the network had a good experience".

"Very few of our customers go over their limits," added a spokesman.

According to Phil Sayer fixed rates are here to stay.

"People need to know what it's going to cost them - there's no way back from fixed monthly deals," he said.

"A fair use policy is reasonable. Nobody wants anybody totally hogging the service."

Some operators, such as Norway's Telenor, slow down or even block the internet connection of individual users once they reach a certain amount of bandwidth.

"We have to do this otherwise only a few users will end up straining the whole network," a spokesman told Reuters.

High cost

Some operators claim that they do not generate a big enough financial return from fixed price deals to allow for much investment in the service.

"You can easily lose money on mobile broadband if you do it in the wrong way," warns Bjorn Amundsen, director of mobile network coverage at Telenor in Norway.

"We have had to be careful not to invest too much, because the only thing that would happen if we did would be to increase data traffic without an increase in our profits."

Phil Sayer does not think there will be much public sympathy for their plight.

"The user community as a whole is tired of hearing special pleading from the mobile operators," he said.

"Remember, these guys have been making money hand over fist from data roaming charges."

In July this year the EU introduced caps on the cost of using the internet abroad from a mobile.

The maximum operators can now charge is one Euro per megabyte.

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