Are smartphone users being sold short?

Hot on the heels of one of my previous posts bemoaning the lack of infrastructure to support smartphone based cloud computing and mobile cloud computing in particular it appears that the situation is worse than I had previously imagined.

A new report from UK regulatory body OFCOM says that while more than half of the UK population now owns a smartphone few people can use them to any great advantage as vast swathes of the UK have no 3G coverage.

OFCOM accuses the mobile industry of frittering away billions of pounds worth of investment and while the mobile phone companies like Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange, O2 and 3 have to provide coverage in 80 per cent of the UK, it seems that they are concentrating on profitable urban areas and pushing aside rural Britain.

3G – What’s That?

While the majority of Britain has a treasonable level of “state of the ark” 2G coverage, the 3G picture is one of metropolitan and urban areas being favoured over rural parts of the country. The OFCOM report states:

“For 3G – which enables you to watch videos and TV and access the Internet through your mobile phone – 73% of premises and 13% of the UK’s landmass can receive a signal outdoors from all five 3G networks, with lower coverage in less densely populated areas.

This means that approximately 7.7million UK premises do not have a choice of all five 3G mobile networks.

“The areas of lowest 3G geographic coverage are in the highlands of Scotland and mid-Wales which are both sparsely populated with hilly terrain.”

02 Spent £500 Million – Where?

So, if you are sitting there with your new smartphone and wondering what sort of 3G coverage you can expect, the sort of bandwidth you need to do anything really meaningful, you can always go and check out OFCOM’s interactive map but the chances are that if you are outside of London or another major city then you are doomed to disappointing failure as you won’t have the bandwidth to utilise it!

It is reported that by 2009, UK mobile airtime provider O2 had already spent more than £500 million on network upgrades – and then announced it would invest ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ more in the coming years increasing speeds and coverage. An enquiring mind has to ask where the hell has more than £500m gone because in rural Cumbria there’s not much sign of it?

Mobile misery has been further compounded by the news that the UK Government has postponed the much vaunted auction of 4G bandwidth so those people who had hoped to enter the 21st century while on the move will have to wait a lot longer before their dreams are realised.

Nokia Wi-Fi Pilot

But before you hurl your beloved smartphone into the nearest bin there is a glimmer of hope shimmering on the horizon. Just as I had written off Nokia for opting to go with the Microsoft mobile operating system – well, the new Nokia MD was a MS executive so that wasn’t exactly unexpected – over the obvious Android choice when the company goes and announces that it is planning to cover central London with free Wi-Fi!

In a pilot project due to run to the end of the year Nokia has set up 26 hotspots to support the service and these are largely concentrated around West End shopping areas. Victoria, Marylebone and Westminster will also get access points. The hotspots will be located on phone boxes owned and operated by project partner Spectrum Interactive. It said that the full service would involve using many more of its 1,000 sites in London.

The hotspots are built around web links that run at 20 megabits per second but predictably download speeds will be throttled down to a maximum of one megabit per user to ensure others can get at the service.

I have long argued that quick to install Wi-Fi hubs are the way to get this country on the mobile super highway as we cannot realistically expect BT to spend money replacing the legacy copper cable junk . Let’s hope this is the start of something big and prove that given the tools and investment people will fully utilise what’s on offer.

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Kevin Tea is a journalist and marketing communications professional who has worked for some of the leading blue chip companies in the UK and Europe. In the 1990s he became interested in how emerging Internet-based technologies could change the way that people worked and became an administrator on the Telework Europa Forum on CompuServe. With other colleagues he took part in a four year European Commission sponsored project to look at the way that the Internet could benefit remote communities. His blog is a resource for SMEs who want to use cloud computing and Web 2.0 technologies.