Archive for January, 2012

Feeling discombobulated: the horrors of a week without mobile data

Last Thursday I received an unusual text message on my iPhone. “You’ve got 100MB left of your 1GB data bundle”.

“Huh?”

This was followed just a few seconds later by a second text which read, “You’ve used up all of your 1GB data bundle”.

Wow, that was quick.

Both texts were surprising, and not just because the second text implied that I had used up 100MB in about 10 seconds, which even if I was on an LTE network – which I assuredly am not – would be pretty good going. It wasn’t even that I was surprised that I had used up as much as a gig of data – I was fully aware that I’d recently been chewing my way through my allowance for several months, Spotify at high quality will do that. The surprise was that I’d gone over my allowance before, never received a text message about it, and never been charged. So what had changed?

I had my suspicions and a call to my carrier, Tesco Mobile, an MVNO that’s uses the O2 network in the UK, quickly confirmed that I was correct. For the last year or so I’d been on a iPhone SIM only tariff, offering 250 call minutes, 5,000 texts and 1GB of data. For a data allowance, this was pretty generous, and double what O2 and Vodafone offer as standard with the iPhone. However, I recently thought of defecting to 3, and after calling Tesco Mobile to cancel, I was retained with a newer, cheaper tariff, 500 minutes, double what I had before with the same 5,000 texts and 1GB of data.

Or so I thought.

You see that, in the world of mobile broadband, 1GB of data is not always the same as 1GB of data. Or that while all 1GB data allowances are equal, some are more equal than others.

It seems that that on my previous tariff, the 1GB of data was actually a number that Tesco Mobile had plucked out of thin air, or perhaps, off a shelf. When I first called to query my texts I was told that my older tariff was actually not really limited to 1GB, but in fact was ‘unlimited’, though the actual ceiling was 3GB, after which Tesco would tell you off.

The new tariff however had no such flexibility – it was a hard limit of 1GB – over which I would be charged at a slightly eye watering 60 pence PER MEGABYTE.

On realising this, I dived straight for the Cellular data button on the iPhone settings and flicked it to off, realising with horror, that a week and a half stretched out before me with me unable to use data. This would be difficult. This would be trying. This would be like…. like 2006

However, this was nothing to discovering that to my horror, in the 24 hours or so from receiving the texts to getting round to turn off data, I had managed to somehow rack up over £28 of charges, pretty much blowing any savings I might have made from switching to the cheaper tariff.

I called customer service and got myself put through to a manager and explained the situation. My key complaint was that I had not been told that there was a difference between the old 1GB allowance, and the new 1GB allowance, and therefore had not changed my usage patterns. The manager I spoke to admitted to me that even internally, there was some confusion over whether data was unlimited or operated on a fair usage policy. It was, to use his term, “a minefield”. What had occurred though was a policy change, and that unlimited was history: – 1GB was now the limit. As this crucial difference hadn’t been made known to me, he agreed to waive the data charges so well done Tesco Mobile, on keeping one customer satisfied. Naturally though, I would have to keep data off on the iPhone or risk racking up those exorbitant data charges once more.

What do we learn from this?

Clearly, carriers have to get sensible. One by one, the unlilmited packages, designed to draw customers in, are disappearing, as operators realise that it’s not cost effective or feasible to run a network that way, especially as more and more people use online services. After all, there’s always some idiot streaming 320Kb Spotify streams spoiling it for everyone else.

As a carrier then, it’s important not to just focus on technical issues, but to be as transparent when coming to market, particularly around data. In fact, the launch of a ‘truly unlimited’ package on T-Mobile UK is a response to this exact issue.

They also need to do more work on education – to provide customers with a clear idea of how to be sensible with their data allowance, and what activities might not be appropriate on the cellular network.

(Such as streaming high quality Spotify streams. I mean, who would do that? Sheesh. Interestingly, if I was streaming to my handset in the morning or the mid-afternoon, then tracks would play smoothly, but invariably around lunch time tracks would stop playing smoothly as people moved outside and the network became congested. I know; selfish of them).

As a user therefore I’m going to have to learn to modify my behaviour, and satisfy my Spotify cravings by syncing playlists at home before I leave the house – my 50Mb cable connection should just about be able to handle it.

It also throws into relief the need for carriers to offer a compelling wifi offload solution as part of their offering – one that it simple to set-up and access, and one that consistently works, in order to help relieve the burden on the cellular network.

In many senses, the arrival of LTE will only exacerbate the need for more clearly defined data limits on packages, for wifi offload, and for modifying user behaviour. An unaware LTE user might feel that because he or she now enjoys greater responsiveness and bandwidth they can go all out on the network – and burn through that data allowance even quicker.

In the meantime though, it throws into sharp relief the freedom and flexibility that ubiquitous fast bandwidth brings, how quickly you become reliant on it, and how limited one feels when its absent.

Now though, when I’m out and about I have no email, no bar code price comparisons in shops, no surreptitious cheating in pub quizzes, no checking time tables to see how late the trains are. Worst of all, no FourSquare. I can now no longer pointlessly check in everywhere.

It’s the long, dark, teatime of the smartphone.

Instead, I have to wait to reach the shores of island of wifi between journeys. I feel thoroughly discombobulated. Is this how it feels in rural areas? Nightmare.

Why LTE would have made the iPhone 4S worse

LTE will come to the iPhone - let's hang in there

While a lot of people were aggrieved that LTE did not make it into the iPhone 4S when it was released last October, the tech site Ars Technica has done a good job making it clear that not only did Apple not need to have LTE in the 4S it actually would have been detrimental.

The clue is in Apple’s just released quarterly results, which show that, unsurprisingly, the iPhone has accounted for a sizable chunk of Apple’s revenue over the past two years. Of the 37 million iPhones sold in the last quarter, only an estimated 10m or so were sold in the US. And outside of the US, while certainly growing apace, LTE is still an emerging technology.

Even within the US, the number of iPhone owners who could actively make use of LTE, is not huge. Verizon has reasonable coverage, but AT&T is still getting going and Sprint has yet to start its LTE roll-out. Apple would have increased the cost of its BOM on integrated technology that most of its customers could not use.

What’s more, considering the battery drain that current LTE chipsets impose on the iPhone’s Android rivals, it’s little wonder that LTE was omitted. The initial release of iOS5 caused users enough battery problems as it was, and having to weather the storm of the inevitable user dissatisfaction that a battery draining LTE chipset would have brought is a sea of hurt that Apple did well to avoid.

It’s also not the first time that Apple has approached network technology in this way. The original iPhone released in 2007 was much derided by commentators for its lack of 3G – but Apple was happy to wait for greater 3G rollout and better 3G chipsets for the follow up a year later. It proved to be the right move.

As I covered a while back, the chipset that Apple is waiting for is that Qualcomm MDM9600, which should enable Apple to get LTE into a form factor it wants with, hopefully, not much power drain.

One area though that does have pockets of LTE is the Middle-East, on networks such as Etisalat, in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Devices are sure to be a major point of conversation at the LTE MENA conference, taking place on 29th-30th April, Westin Mina Seyali, Dubai, UAE, and I for one will be keen to hear the operator’s take for the need for LTE handsets, from either Apple or its competitors.

On a selfish note, if LTE didn’t make it into the next iPhone I wouldn’t be too bothered. It would save me the frustration of seeing others round the world using it, while here in the UK we’ll be stuck with a cutting edge iPhone on a second class 3G network. The chances are though that LTE will be here for the next iPhone, possibly available in the summer. It will be interesting to see if Apple produces a separate version for markets without LTE, or goes for a single phone, containing a chipset that many will have to wait to make use of.

Waiting for Qualcommo

The new CEO of RIM - Thorsten Heins. Will the best LTE chipsets come to those who wait?

So Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the co founders of ailing Blackberry smartphone maker RIM, have finally seen sense and stepped down. It seems that they have finally done what everybody has been telling them to do for some time – get up, get out and get a clue. Whatever RIM has been doing over the past few years, clearly hasn’t been working, with the company losing market share faster than something that loses market share really fast, going downhill. Like Nokia.

It’s a welcome move, but if we were being kind we have to admit that we don’t think that new boss Thorsten Heins has quite the charisma of a Steve Jobs – we can’t see him easily inspiring the troops to innovate it’s way out of trouble. If we were mean, and we’re not, we’d say he seems too conservative, too boring.

Well, we’re a bit mean. He’s seems boring.

What RIM simply needs is a hit, and with Apple and Android phones continually upping their game, not to mention the possibility of a resurgent Windows Phone powered Nokia, that’s going to be a tall order.

The hope is that Blackberry 10 devices and PlayBook 2 updates will save the say, but as ever with RIM these are subject to delays. The suggestions are that RIM is waiting for new LTE chipsets from Qualcomm. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that – after all, Apple doing the same. However, Apple is the second richest company in the world and its phones so successful it barely updated the last one and still had a monster hit on its hand. For RIM however, the clock is ticking.

The problem is, the reasons to want a Blackberry are now smaller than ever. RIM came into existence on the back of email – a unique appeal that pretty much went with the introduction of the first smartphones. Then there’s the enterprise integration and security – areas the competition are making huge strides in. In fact you could argue that much of its continued success is from momentum of an existing customer base rather than any genuine technical advantages.

I personally know of one IT department at a large law firm that is exclusively a RIM shop, investigating the competitors as an insurance policy in case its main supplier goes belly up, and I’m sure it’s not the only one.

Then there’s its biggest remaining pull for many is from the “I have to have a keyboard” brigade – but my long held view is that this bunch are just stick-in-the-muds. The benefit of a smartphone is as an internet device, and taking up half its space with a keyboard virtually negates that; browsing on a Blackberry is unquestionably poor compared to a large screened iPhone, iPod touch or Android device.

So can RIM actually afford not to get new product out there quickly? If it is goes early and chooses to go with HSPA devices, it will be seen as a lagging behind, even if Blackberry customers are not the ones who are likely to actually need LTE speed. It could go for the current LTE chipsets, but that would force even more design compromises, and negate battery life that is probably its one real boon over that of the iPhone and Android brigade.

The face is that it’s caught between a rock and a hard place and in essence it is going to be forced to wait it out. And while Apple can bide its time, and use it to further improve the iPhone 5 or count its stash of cash, RIM will have to just cling on, and hope that when those suitably downsized, power efficient Qualcommm LTE chipsets finally appear, there’s still a company  to make use of them.

End of the road for LightSquared?

All in all, it’s been a pretty bad news week for LightSquared. A report from the snappily named Space-based Positioning Navigation & Timing (PNT), appeared to have put the proverbial nail in its coffin.

The report states, in no uncertain terms that like Lampard and Gerrard in the England midfield, there’s no way that GPS and LightSquared network will ever play well together. So much so in fact that the PNT said that there’s really no bother doing any more testing at all.

Unsurprisingly, LightSquared is pretty hopping mad about this and isn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. The suggestion in a sternly worded press release from the company suggested that the testing was ‘rigged’ – and levelled a barrage of challenges at the PNT report, the highlights of which were:

–          The testing protocol deliberately focused on obsolete and niche market devices that were least able to withstand potential interference.

–          The report selected an extremely conservative definition of failure – one dB of interference that independent experts say can only be detected in a lab and has no impact on GPS positional accuracy or user experience.

–          Why did the government choose a power level 32 times greater than the level at which LightSquared will operate?

–          Why was it allowed for a representative of the GPS lobby allowed to sit on the PNT advisory board? Conflict of interest, surely.

I would characterise this as; “dem fighting talk.” Not surprising really, considering how many billions Falcone, owner of venture capitalist Harbinger has sunk into the project.

The one that does confuse slightly is the pop at the use of ‘obsolete devices’. Can GPS devices become obsolete? Surely a ten-year old Garmin sat-nav will still pick up a satellite and work, making it just as much a problem as a new advice. It’s not like phones, which tend to be replaced every couple of years.

Aside from this though, most of these all seem like valid questions and for one I’m disappointed to see the wave of negativity coming LightSquared’s way. GPS is something that I’m very keen on – in a former role as a gadget reviewer I looked at the first Tomtom device ever released in the UK- but if there’s any way to get LightSquared running without planes falling out of the sky it’s clear every effort should be made to make it happen.

Touchy GPS

The irritation from LightSquared’s perspective of course is that it purchased this spectrum in good faith, and it is, in fact, the GPS industry that is leaking into its licensed spectrum. Annoying.

LightSquared was given a licence for 1525-1559MHz, while GPS operates at 1575MHz. Normally there should be enough of a guard band, but it seems that years of having no spectral neighbours made the GPS industry lazy, producing lazily designed devices that were far too sensitive to surrounding frequencies. There are technical solutions to get round this- but as desperate as LightSquared is to get its network up and running, it’s not willing to fork out the billions of dollars needed to retrofit and entire industry made up of millions of devices.

It never had to worry about this stuff before but with LightSquared in the world – it does. LightSquared has made concessions to the GPS industry by agreeing to only use a lower part of its bandwidth, (1526-1536MHz) and lower its power output from its basestations by 3db. In case you’re wondering, LightSquared was originally granted its spectrum as a satellite only operator, using much lower power. But once it was granted a waiver in January 2011 to create terrestrial only devices, it was suddenly boosting the power of its stations and creating the interference issue.

It’s not really clear though if the latest tests took this into consideration. In fact, there’s no real way of knowing if LightSquared arguments are valid.

If only there were some independent body that could conduct these crucial experiments without any bias or particular agenda. If only. Now that may seem sarcastic- but it isn’t. There’s no one who can seen to do these tests without having their own agenda. Everyone seems to be acting rationally, but only in their own self-interest.

So where now? LightSquared will keep fighting, but it seems reasonable to assume that unless tests independently and transparently run tests conclusively prove that LightSquared doesn’t cause an issue for the vast majority of GPS devices, this potentially transformative network could end up the same way as the AT&T and T-Mobile venture (another deal that most thought would be a dead cert) – and that’s on the scrapheap.

Gaming the system: The long and winding road to UK LTE

With news reports of LTE networks popping up all over the place, writing about LTE as a UK-based journalist with a penchant for his iPhone, is something of a frustrating experience. The fact is that the UK will be one of the last major European economies to gain access to a next generation mobile  network, with actual deployments unlikely to see light of day before 2013 – and most likely the end of it.

With the cost of roaming still being so prohibitive (another issue that needs addressing), there’s only been one instance when I have properly made use of a 3G network in another country but it emphatically proved to me that mobile broadband in the UK is poor. This was in Israel last summer, where I swapped my O2 SIM in an iPhone 4, for a local one from Cellcom. It was a revelation. Data was fast and responsive, and more like using wifi back home. Back in the UK, the way if generally goes is that if you’re not in a major city, you won’t get 3G, and if you are, you’re hamstrung by poor latency and network congestion. Rubbish. So will LTE be a panacea for this? Well it certainly should be in terms of raw speed, but  in terms of coverage I’m not holding my breath it will be much better.

According to a recent report from the GSA there are now 49 LTE networks across 29 countries from the Australia and Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, the Philillipes, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, and yes, Uzbekistan. Hell, even Estonia’s got one. In the US, once a smartphone backwater compared to Europe, Verizon and AT&T customers in many locations can now enjoy fast LTE speeds from smartphones, dongles and mifi units. And over here in London, home of the world’s greatest sectret agent, Dangermouse?

Nada. LTE, LTE everywhere, but for the UK, not a drop to drink.

And will no one think of the poor, soon to be underprivileged Blighty-based iPhone users? After all, it’s a near certainly that come the end of the year, the next iPhone will finally be LTE ready. In fact, it could even be ready for the iPad 3, which could appear on shelves as early as March of April. When the Apple droves upgrade to their next gadgets, UK users will be starting folornly at their new shiny, shiny, calling out despairingly, “Go, Faster, Dammit”.

As a reminder, spectrum auctions are kind of a big deal for governments, as they tend to raise a lot of mullah. Last time round, the UK government pocketed £22.5bn, though this time it’s accepted that it will be nowhere near this.

So why has there been such a delay for the UK auctions? The main reason is that UK auction will sell off spectrum in the 800MHZ and 2.6GHz bands, and the former will only become free once the analogue to digital switch over is completed, which won’t be until the end of 2012.

The problem was compounded in June 2011 when O2 claimed that the spectrum auction was illegal due to ‘spectrum floors’, which would give each of the four UK networks a minimum of 10MHz of spectrum below 1GHz in order to keep the market competitive. O2 points out that this would be a free hand-out to three and would amount to, “state aid and therefore illegal under EU law”. Whatever.

The carrier with most to lose with the delay to the auction was Three. The issue is that it’s running out of spectrum, which is rapidly being used up by its customers for data, a problem compounded by its, admittedly rather desperate, marketing strategy of being the only UK carrier to offer truly unlimited data for most of its packages.

Three’s problem is that while Vodafone, Everything Everywhere and O2 have received permission from Ofcom to refarm some of their existing 2G spectrum to 3G and thus alleviate their data congestion issues, Three has no such spare spectrum to play with. (The clue is in the name, I guess). Thus it sees the delaying tactics from its UK rivals as a cunning and dastardly ploy to squeeze it out of the market – which it quite patently is.

The whole business was recognised described by the Ofcom chief executive last November as prevarication tactic and pointed out that, “When litigation becomes essentially strategic rather than based on objective grounds, and when it has the effect of holding back innovation and hampering growth, it is legitimate to ask whether the overall legislative framework fully supports the public interest in this increasingly vital area”. In other words, the carriers were gaming the system.

The regulator wasn’t doing itself any favours though, as the latest delay to the process was from Ofcom itself, when in October 2011 it said it would need to run a second set of consultation with the carriers due to the significance of the decisions it had to make. This doesn’t instil confidence in a regulator that exists solely to make those sorts of decisions.

There’s some talk that the UK has benefitted that from holding back by seeing the mistakes that other operators might have made in their rollouts but I don’t think that holds much water.

By the time that the first LTE network finally do come online in the UK it’s more likely that we will have suffered years of slow lane mobile speeds, and many millions of pounds lost due to the data bottleneck that’s been imposed on UK business, at a time when the economy could very much do with a boost.

It’s almost as bad as the UK’s train networks, which I have to suffer everyday on the First Capital Connect Line. Oh don’t get me started…

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