UK operators and quality of service: a network benchmarker’s perspective
Voice networks are getting more reliable, calls are getting clearer, and data throughputs are on the up – but network footprints will be constrained until the ECC is finally revised, says CEO Paul Carter
My company, Global Wireless Solutions (GWS), carries out carefully controlled testing programmes in order to gather layer-3 data and benchmark the performance of mobile networks. In the last 12 months, we’ve collected engineering-level data on mobility around the Monopoly board, on UK commuter trains, in London pubs and, most recently, in peoples’ homes in London. This data clearly shows that all of the ‘big 4’ UK operators are improving the quality of their voice and data networks at an impressively rapid pace.
However, my conversations with network executives and engineers, journalists and consumers have made something else clear: that subscribers’ expectations are now much greater than the aforementioned achievements of the UK operators. Quite simply, the average subscriber wants coverage wherever they are, whatever they’re doing – if they are making a call they want the conversation to be crystal clear, and if using the internet, they want 4G/LTE and the ability to stream video without having to wait for it to buffer. And if they don’t get what they want, they are willing to punish their provider – by ditching them and joining the network of a competitor. A poll of 2,000 adults we commissioned to complement our most recent collection programme suggests that 1 in 4 Brits have previously switched operators because of poor mobile data network performance.
Clearly, improving the quality of voice and data services should be part of an operator’s strategy for minimising subscriber ‘churn’. One barrier to making these improvements which is common to all the UK operators relates to in-home connectivity. With mobiles effectively replacing landlines and swathes of the population relying on cheap, mass produced WiFi routers that often fail to provide connectivity across whole properties, operators looking to please need to offer a good service both within and without homes (and this principle should, of course, be extended to include workplaces and leisure sites).
GWS has just spent 6 weeks testing and analysing mobility inside and outside London homes, and the compelling, detailed data that we collected gives a good idea of the nature of the challenge UK operators face when trying to improve quality of service inside buildings. Firstly, operators clearly have room for improvement when it comes to providing in-building 4G coverage. Our test devices were on 3’s 4G network for 78% of the time that we spent collecting data outdoors, but only 55% of the time indoors. With EE we were ‘on 4G’ 100% of the time when outdoors, but only 85% of the time indoors. O2 arguably fared the best when it came to 4G penetration inside buildings: we were on O2’s 4G network for 95% of the time we spent testing outdoors, and 91% of the time indoors. We were on Vodafone’s 4G network 95% of the time while outdoors, but this dropped to 87% indoors. As you would expect, the lack of in-building 4G penetration impacted negatively on data throughputs.
Both EE and 3 also struggled when it came to providing a high quality of voice service indoors in London – 1 in 14 test calls we made via EE’s voice network failed during our survey of in-home connectivity; similarly, 1 in 20 test calls we made via 3’s network ended in failure. Overall, then, all of the UK operators can do more to provide high quality connectivity to subscribers using their devices inside buildings – and, with the exception of O2 (which had decent 4G penetration, and only failed to connect/complete 1 in 174 voice calls during testing), they must do more.
However, if UK operators are going to provide a higher level of in-building connectivity they will need to build out their existing cell sites, and develop new cell sites, to do so. Which brings me to the most common – and most daunting – challenge that operators face when trying to improve quality of service. Quite simply, it is still far, far too hard to build and develop cell sites in the UK. Readers will recall that a revised Electronic Communications Code, setting new rules governing the installation, maintenance and removal of electronic communications equipment from property, was supposed to be implemented into UK law through the Infrastructure Bill earlier this year – but was scuppered by party politics. Until the revised code becomes law (it is currently in a post-general election consultation phase, I believe), UK operators will struggle to make meaningful improvements to the quality of the voice and data experiences that they offer – and provide the extremely high level of service UK subscribers have come to expect.
By Paul Carter
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