Taking your phone abroad is doubly annoying. First, because you know you’re going to get a monstrous bill on your return (although, we hope that recent regulations will mitigate this to a certain extent) and second, because for once you’ll actually be getting better coverage, and the data rate you felt 3G promised and never delivered (and of course better data and better coverage means you can rack up charges even more quickly).
Partially, the reason for the better coverage is that when you’re abroad, your carrier will have roaming agreements with a number of carriers in the area you’re in, so if you leave the phone to find its own carrier, you’ll suddenly find it can connect to three or four different carriers’ base stations, rather than just the one carrier you are used to at home.
Ironically, this means that visitors to the UK will almost always get much better coverage than any of the UK providers is able to provide to UK residents, for the same reason. Manx Telecom has taken advantage of this, and has been targeting a maximum availability product at UK residents, including, allegedly Tony Blair.
Wherever he is in the world, he’s roaming - apart from the Isle of Man, but I’m not sure he visits Jeremy Clarkson or Robin Gibb very often - and when in the UK this means he has access to the base stations of O2, Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile, as Manx Telecom apparently has roaming agreements with all of them (although they refer to GSM networks in their literature, so maybe this doesn’t extend to 3G).
However, this doesn’t necessarily have any effect on 3G speed. Depending on which flavour of 3G your phone and the base station provide, you should reasonably expect speeds comparable to slowish broadband, but the reality is much, much worse. If you have an iPhone, when it switches to WiFi at home, you’ll find it’s incomparably faster, even than when connected to a UK 3G network when you’re out and about.
I have to say, in their defence, that the guy I spoke to at the O2 call centre to complain about this was at least honest. “Yeah,” he said, “I know we’re crap. That’s why I’m with Orange”.
From a legal point of view, it’s OFCOM’s job to make sure that the mobile carriers are providing a service which is up to scratch. In 2008, OFCOM threatened O2 with docking four months off its licence for failing to reach its 3G coverage targets.
This is, of course, four months from the end of its licence. Which expires in 2021. So despite OFCOM’s assertion that this is equivalent to a £40M financial penalty, it’s not something that is immediately pressing on the minds of the execs. One suspects that the regulators in other countries are somewhat better at getting the carriers to actually perform.
That’s only on the question of 3G coverage - I’m not aware of any attempts by OFCOM to ensure that the carriers have sufficient backhaul infrastructure to provide a decent service to the people who are actually connected. A best practice guide to the claims carriers can make was published last year, but I am unaware of any actual enforcement action.
So how do we get the carriers to perform?
I propose asking app writers to write apps for iPhones and Android phones which monitor signal strength alongside GPS co-ordinates, and then upload this information to a central database. In addition, it can monitor network data performance and latency.
That way, we would have a crowd-sourced realtime database showing us what sort of service we are getting from the carriers, based on real data. (I understand from developers that this is reasonably straightforward on Android, but the iPhone API, even in iOS4, makes it more difficult to get access to signal strength data). The resulting transparency will act as an incentive for the carriers to get their investment levels up.
Carriers should be prevented from connecting any more smartphones or 3G dongles unless they can show they have sufficient capacity in their network.
Ofcom and other regulators should use the powers available under the relevant consumer protection legislation (such as the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations, and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations) to review the claims made by, documentation and standard form contracts provided by the carriers to ensure that they are fair, and don’t grant the carriers too many excuses to avoid providing the services contract for.
Trading standards officers should scrutinize claims made about network speeds and connectivity, and take enforcement action where these are false.
Carriers have also, to a certain extent, been protected from blame by psychology: it turns out that it’s more likely that users will blame the handset manufacturer than the carrier, if they suffer from poor service.
These smartphone things are bloody useful if the network support is sufficiently good that you can actually use them. It’s a pity you have to go on holiday to experience them properly.