Peter Cochrane's Blog: 3G Reality bytes

Promising to deliver what physics says can't be done is no way for an industry to operate

Compiled on BA 215 flying London to Boston and dispatched to from my harbour hotel via a rather poor and expensive wi-fi service

Continually promising to deliver what the limits of physics say can't be done is no way for an industry to operate. The outcome can only be customer disappointment, scepticism and commercial damage, but the telecom industry continues to do it anyway!

Around 20 years ago I was lambasted by industry, politicians and commentators alike for declaring that 3G was likely to be a commercial failure and unlikely to meet published projections on data transmission. Since that time I have been less than vocal on the topic but it seems to me I was spot on for reasons that were obvious at the time, and remain obvious today.

Unfortunately for the industry, and I have to say, giving me absolutely no pleasure, it seems I was right in spades. Every 3G mobile operator is having a hard time achieving a good ROI, and the innovation space has been taken over by those operating on the periphery of the industry. Even worse, users will not abide by the rules and increasingly call the shots. For example; the number of iPhones operating on networks other than the one they were intended is reckoned to be around 40 per cent or more, and the vast number of applications and widgets come from outside the industry.

So how about the delivery of bits - data services. What did industry promise, what do they promise today, and what is the reality?

Promised at the development phase = Up to 15Mbps

Commercially offered today = Up to 7Mbps

Actuality = Mostly less than 2Mbps (according to me!)

The 15 and 7Mbps are close to the published figures across the Western world, while the 2Mbps figure is one I have derived during my travels across Europe and North America. I have been logging on using 3G via different networks to establish a set of representative performance figures. The results are shown in the graph below and clearly demonstrate the difference between promise, advertising, and this user's experience.

3G data rates by Peter Cochrane

3G data rate delivery likelihood (Image credit: Peter Cochrane)

I now have to qualify my findings as follows: with one 3G provider I could never get higher than 200kbps and so I removed them from my study which only includes the biggest and most popular of networks. So my results represent the best I could get, and had I included the worst players, my conclusions would be significantly worse.

For sure you can't run roughshod over the laws of physics, and to get anything like the advertised 3G data rate you would have to sit on top of the cell tower! The inverse power law, plus noise and interference (and more), all limit the data rate we can reasonably expect. And for sure there was never a hope of achieving the figures promised at the development phase. But the business is about selling expectations and not the truth. Unfortunately, the backlash can be very damaging, but they continue time and time again despite warnings and an accumulated experience and knowledge. Ho hum!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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