1.1 Ofcom's primary duty under the Communications Act 2003 (the "Act") is to further the interests of UK citizens and consumers in carrying out our functions . In addition to securing the availability of a wide range of electronic communications services including broadband services, encouraging investment and innovation in relevant markets and the availability and use of high-speed data services, we must have regard to the interests of consumers in respect of price, quality of service and value for money. Our duties include the requirement to carry out research into consumers' experiences of the way services are provided and to publish and take account of the results of such research.
1.2 Ofcom has an ongoing programme of research into the performance of fixed-line broadband. We believe that similar research into mobile broadband is useful as take-up of mobile broadband increases and an increasing number of households use mobile broadband as their only internet connection. Our research finds that there were around 4.8 million active mobile broadband subscribers using datacards or dongles at the end of 2010 compared to 2.6 million at the end of 2008 ; 7% of UK households have it as their only means of internet access, compared to just 3% in Q1 2009.
1.3 Ofcom partnered with broadband test and measurement specialists Epitiro to measure the network performance delivered by the UK's five mobile networks (3', O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone), and to understand the consumer experience of users accessing data services via USB modems or datacards.
1.4 Measurements were made on key performance indicators which affect the consumer experience of mobile broadband applications such as web browsing, downloading files, on-line gaming and streaming video. Measurements included upload and download speeds, web page download times, latency, DNS resolution times, packet loss and jitter.
1.5 Over 4.2 million tests were run from September to December 2010 using three data collection methodologies.
1.6 From our deployment of static probes we analysed only the faster 3G and HSPA data (2G connections were excluded) to understand network capability. From the locations tested we determined the following:
1.7 Average mobile broadband speeds and other key performance indicators varied significantly by time of day, with services on average around a quarter slower in peak evening periods than in the off-peak early hours of the morning. This indicates that there is contention for services in mobile broadband networks, although this study does not attempt to establish where the contention lies.
1.8 There were some differences in average performance between operators which are outlined below. Key findings for each operator are expressed as a 95% confidence interval around the mean; we do this in order to acknowledge the limited statistical accuracy of the research - a 95% confidence interval means that if we repeated the research again with a different sample assembled in the same way there would be a 95% probability that the mean value would be in the range shown. From this analysis, we conclude:
1.9 Our drive test research analysed performance from all available connections (2G, 3G and HSPA bearers) and showed a significant variance in service quality across rural, urban, semi-urban and inner city areas.
1.10 Our consumer panel survey included data from all connections (2G, 3G and HSPA bearers) to examine the service levels actually experienced by consumers.
1.11 For some consumers, mobile broadband, given its costs and added flexibility is already proving to be an adequate substitute for fixed broadband. This is despite the fact that average speed, latency and web page download times for mobile broadband perform at levels lower than those typically delivered by fixed broadband services. The average mobile broadband speed of 1.5Mbit/s based on the consumer panel results compares with the average fixed broadband speed of 6.2Mbit/s.
1.12 It should be noted, however, that the actual speeds available through fixed and mobile broadband depend very much on a combination of location and network quality. Consumers should therefore check the speed available on their individual fixed line as well as the level of mobile broadband coverage before making any choice between the two.
1.13 Network latency on mobile broadband services is almost double the average delivered on some fixed line services. This means that webpage browsing is typically considerably slower using a mobile broadband connection rather than a fixed broadband connection. The lower latencies required by activities such as online games may also make mobile broadband unsuitable for some types of internet use.
1.14 Geographic location is likely to be the largest single determinant of mobile broadband performance. There are very significant differences in performance by the type of network connection (2G, 3G or HSPA), and our drive testing indicates that the availability of 2G, 3G or HSPA networks, and the performance delivered, vary significantly even within small geographic areas. Before purchasing mobile broadband, consumers are advised to check the network availability in the locations where they expect to use the service using operators' own postcode-based coverage checkers.
1.15 In areas where there is good 3G/HSPA coverage, our research finds that there are some differences between operators in the performance delivered. Consumers should be aware that service quality will differ based on their location and choice of provider.
1.16 Mobile broadband networks and services, and broadband services in general, are evolving rapidly, and it is essential that consumers have information which enables them to make informed choices about the services available to them. Ofcom will continue to work with industry with the objective of ensuring that up-to-date information about the following is available: