Ofcom has today published its first research into the performance of mobile broadband across the UK.
Ofcom consumer research shows that 17 per cent of UK households are using mobile broadband to access online services, with 7 per cent using it as their only means of internet access, compared to 3 per cent in 2009.
The research involved over 4.2 million tests and measured average speeds as well as the performance of the five mobile operators in areas of good 3G network coverage.
This report looks specifically at the performance of mobile networks using dongles and datacards and does not consider smartphones. Ofcom is planning to undertake further research into mobile broadband, including the performance of smartphones.
The research, conducted between September and December 2010 in partnership with broadband monitoring specialists Epitiro, found that the average download speed achieved by consumers in Ofcom's consumer panel survey was 1.5Mbit/s and basic webpages took on average 8.5 seconds to download.
This compares with the average fixed broadband speed of 6.2Mbit/s (Nov/Dec 2010), and average web page download times on fixed broadband networks of less than 0.5 seconds.
However, in good 3G coverage areas, Ofcom found that average mobile broadband speeds were 2.1Mbit/s, falling to an average of 1.7Mbit/s during the peak evening period of 8-10pm. Basic web pages took on average 2.2 seconds to download.
The research found some differences between the performance of operators' 3G networks. O2, Vodafone and 3 offered faster average download speeds than T-Mobile and Orange.
O2, on average, delivered web pages faster than the other four operators and had lower average latency than 3, Orange and Vodafone. Latency is a measure of the responsiveness of a connection (it is measured by the time it takes a single packet of data to travel from a user's PC to a third-party server and back again).
The slower speed of web page downloading on mobile broadband compared to fixed broadband is largely the result of higher levels of latency. In addition to increasing the time for web page downloads, high latency may make connections less suitable for some online games and VoIP.
The research also looked at how performance varied by location, by testing speeds across Birmingham, in the M62 corridor between Manchester and Liverpool, in Swansea and the surrounding area, and in the rural and semi-rural areas of Herefordshire and Shropshire. Urban areas outperformed rural areas, primarily due to greater 3G availability. However, performance was highly variable across urban areas, with no guarantee of good performance offered in a city centre location.
The most important factor affecting mobile broadband performance is coverage, and consumers should check with their provider how good the coverage is likely to be before buying a service.
Consumers should also consider what they most want to use mobile broadband for. As well as being able to use it in different locations, mobile broadband may also be less expensive for some consumers as it does not require a landline, and pay-as-you-go tariffs are available.
However, slower download speeds and data limits may make it unsuitable for heavy users and some broadband services may not be suitable for applications which require a high level of responsiveness, such as some online gaming.
Ofcom has published a guide for consumers with advice on what to think about when choosing a mobile broadband service.
Mobile broadband performance is likely to remain significantly below fixed broadband performance until the rollout of additional spectrum for mobile services in the UK, which is expected to begin in 2013. The new spectrum will provide much needed capacity for the fourth generation (4G) of mobile technology, set to deliver significantly faster mobile broadband services.
Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards, said: "This research gives consumers a clearer picture of the performance of mobile broadband dongle and datacards as consumers use these services to complement fixed-line services or sometimes as their principal means of accessing online services.
"The research is another important step in Ofcom's efforts to ensure that consumers have the information they need to exercise their choice effectively and to make the most of competition in the market."
The full research report can be found on the Ofcom website.
1. Over 4.2 million tests were run from September to December 2010 using three data collection methodologies.
- Static test probes installed in 97 locations across the UK, each with connections to all five operators and testing hourly. The objective was to research the performance of 3G/HSPA networks, so locations were chosen where all networks had good 3G coverage and any data collected from 2G connections was discarded.
- Drive testing in dense urban city, urban sprawl, provincial town, rural and semi-rural county locations (performing tests while stationary). The objective was to explore how performance varied both within and between areas with different demographic characteristics.
- A consumer panel of over 1,000 mobile broadband USB modem and datacard users with an installed test application that tested up to 4 times per day. The objective was to research the performance actually delivered to mobile broadband users and therefore included data from 2G and 3G/HPSA connections.
2. The research was commissioned by Ofcom from Epitiro, www.epitiro.com. For more information contact Iain Wood, firstname.lastname@example.org, 02920 488 226.
3. Web-page download tests involved downloading the HTML assets only (i.e. the code and text, but not the images) from the home pages of some of the UK's most popular web sites.
4. Mobile broadband is not generally marketed on the basis of the speed of connection, as headline speeds (for example, 'up to 7.2Mbit/s') have little meaning when performance varies so much as a result of different levels of network quality. In June 2009 UK mobile operators published 'Principles of Good Practice for Marketing Mobile Broadband Services' http://www.mobilebroadbandgroup.com/documents/mbg_mobile_broadband_pr_010609.pdf. One of the principal aims of this code was the provision of clearer information for consumers that actual throughput speeds vary significantly and depend on a range of factors.
5. Ofcom's UK fixed broadband speeds research can be found on the Ofcom website. Ofcom set out its plans for the 4G mobile auction in March 2011.
6. Ofcom's primary duty under the Communications Act 2003 is to further the interests of UK citizens and consumers. One of Ofcom's Annual Plan priorities is to ensure communications providers deliver clear information to ensure that consumers can make informed choices.