3G networks don't deliver speeds users expect

Despite the hype and billion dollar investments, anecdotal evidence - and now a study by Gartner - suggests rapidly diminishing returns on higher-tiered speeds of mobile broadband.

Last week, I compared my experiences with Wi-Fi and 3G. In the comments section, TechRepublic member w2ktechman effectively summed it up by highlighting Wi-Fi's superior performance for a stationary network and 3G's "roamability."

What I did not elaborate on -- and didn't have space for anyway -- was a recent report compiled by Gartner that noted its unsurprising findings that 3G networks don't deliver the speeds users expect. Computerworld has a relatively detailed report on it, which you can check out here.

Now, while the study was specific to the four major U.S. wireless carriers, my personal experiences and a couple of unrelated amateur tests of broadband speeds lead me to agree that 3G networks simply don't deliver on their advertised speeds.

Wireless is subject to interference

And why should we be surprised anyway? Even with the Linksys Wireless-N router that I purchased late last year, sitting at my study table a scant two meters away doesn't necessary guarantee me the full connection speed. Note that I am not talking about the measured throughput here, just the speed that shows up under the Status header in Network Connections.

In fact, the connection speed can even drop to just 1Mbps in the living room about 12 meters (or about 40 feet) away, courtesy of the two concrete walls in between. Indeed, the environment consists of just three wireless laptops in the whole house, and we are not out in the middle of town with the potential interference resulting from 50 or 100 users trying to share the same mobile phone mast.

Reliability of 3G for large downloads

When in a pinch to download files of more than a few megabytes, I will often find myself crossing my fingers and hoping that the download will successfully complete. When loading graphics-rich Web pages, it is not uncommon to find image splices missing, necessitating a page reload. This is a good indication of dropped packets or disrupted TCP sessions.

I am not 100 percent sure on this point, but I am assuming that signaling priority on a 3G mobile network goes toward voice transmissions, which would go a long way toward explaining the incomplete file downloads that I sometimes end up with.

Just stick to a lower-end data plan

I do suppose most of the shortcomings of 3G data networks are inherent to technological limitations rather than any deliberate attempt at shortchanging by the Telcos. When all is said and done, however, I have one piece of advice: Just stick to a lower-end data plan if your Telco tiers data access by different speeds.

Mind you, I am speaking from the perspective of a user who has been on literally "unlimited" data plans. Okay, some of the plans I have used do have upper limits ranging from 10GB to 50GB, but that's unlimited enough for me! You see, regardless of data networks, every test that I've come across shows average download speeds of not more than one or two megabits per second.

While there are times where it is possible to achieve 2 or even 3 Mbps -- on "7.2" or "14.4" Mbps networks -- it is generally quite rare. As such, one questions the wisdom of shelling out double or even triple the amount for the faster-tiered speeds that one probably will never see, and I'm not even talking about places where 3G coverage is bad or nonexistent!

In conclusion

I no longer travel overseas as much as I used to, though my writing and teaching at a local polytechnic leads me to travel around a lot more than a typical desk-bound job. Guess what: I used to have the ideal -- and it's not a typo -- that a fast mobile broadband subscription and 3.5G modem and laptop would be all that is required for "unwired" productivity on-the-move.

Now, if I have critical, Internet-dependent work that needs to be completed, I just finish it at home first.


Paul Mah is an independent tech writer, covering a range of topics from enterprise IT to mobile technology. Several times a week, he also indulges in teaching IT-related topics at a local polytechnic. You can reach him via his contact page at TechatPlay.com. Read his full bio and profile.