Last week Ofcom put out a report on the state of communications infrastructure in the United Kingdom. From a wireless networks perspective the report unsurprisingly emphasised the spread of 4G LTE as the most significant development in the UK communications landscape. Two particularly interesting case studies revolved around looking at EE’s 4G network. The first looked at how 4G could be used to supply high speed broadband Internet to rural areas without a fixed line service (an interesting study especially considering the potential 4G has for transforming internet provision in less-developed economies). The second looked at how 4G is changing the profile of mobile user behaviour (chiefly video streaming).
Interestingly Ofcom seem to be increasingly keen to get away from a top-down perspective on mobile network performance. This emphasis on how customers actually experience the networks is one that was a logical avenue for Ofcom to pursue and reflects the fact that the layered nature of service provision makes it hard to judge performance based entirely on looking at the supply side. More research is needed to determine how important the various network functions are to consumers, as this will help make the provision of mobile networks more efficient at providing a service that actually works in a way that will best satisfy consumers.
The rural areas study says ‘it is likely that mobile solutions will be necessary to provide superfast broadband to parts of the final 10% which are hardest to reach with fixed broadband solutions’. The 4G trial took place in the Northern Fells in Cumbria, an area of relatively poor fixed line coverage. According to trialists the 4G service transformed their internet use, showing the real potential for wireless networks to fully replace fixed-line in the future, especially at the speeds associated with 4G. There were, however, a few surprising obstacles that make using cellular network more of a challenge than anticipated, with the most interesting one being the nature of rural building construction – the thick stone walls of Cumbria caused a high level of propagation loss. The EE user study observed that video streaming (predominantly an evening activity) meant that people were less likely to turn over to Wi-Fi and to remain on 4G.
There were some interesting stats on public Wi-Fi networks, and their increased role in complementing existing 3G and 4G provision. 4 The data Ofcom gathered from their sample of operators shows that 1,991,268 GB of data was downloaded and uploaded on public Wi-Fi hotspots in June 2013. The significant growth of 188% in data usage could be ascribed, the report suggests, to the increase in number of public Wi-Fi hotspots (hotspots increased by 114%73). However, the average data consumed per hotspot in June has also increased by 26% compared to June 2012 from 48MB to 58MB. What this shows is that 4G, while potentially bringing broadband to new areas, will not replace fixed line internet entirely. Operators manage around 34,000 UK hotspots, which doesn’t include BT who operate around 5 million and have deals with several networks. The geographical dispersion of hotspots is shown on the map below.
Geographical distribution of Public Wi-Fi hotspots (hotspots per 1000 premises)