Speed, coverage and the user experience

There has been considerable press coverage of Samsung’s 3.6 Mbs HSDPA handset at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It is a significant milestone, representing the first handset from a major manufacturer to publicly demonstrate these sort of network speeds. Samsung is working with Qualcomm as the chipset provider and is said to have reached an agreement to supply the device on an exclusive basis to Vodafone.

HSDPA, sometimes referred to as 3.5G, is a primarily software-based upgrade to 3G W-CDMA networks, providing faster data speeds. Vodafone, Cingular and NTT DoCoMo have been vocal supporters of the technology, while infrastructure vendors are naturally keen to promote its benefits as they seek ongoing investment from their operator customers.

One of the key arguments used by these vendors in support of HSDPA is the impact faster networks will have on the customer experience: Samsung’s announcement cited the possibility of downloading a 4 Mb MP3 file in just 10 seconds using its new handset. Of course, there is no denying that faster is better and, as an incremental improvement, it will no doubt be appreciated by users.

However, there is a much more pressing issue for companies like Vodafone, which is currently spending considerable sums of money marketing its music download and mobile TV services, both of which rely on the speed of 3G networks to deliver an acceptable customer experience: coverage.

As an example, I can enjoy the impressive range of mobile TV services offered by Vodafone on my Sony Ericsson W9ooi handset – but only when I am at the rear of my property. If I move to a room at the front, I can no longer access mobile TV or mobile music downloads at an acceptable speed because my handset has switched back to the 2.5G GPRS network. The experience is repeated in urban centres and suburbs alike – and, of course, most rural areas have no 3G coverage at all.

This is frustrating for me as an individual user and the negative effects are multiplied when you start extending that problem across other subscribers. I rarely make video calls because the few contacts I know who have compatible handsets are experiencing the same difficulties dropping in and out of 3G coverage areas. Likewise I hesitate to send video messages or large emails to those users, because I cannot be sure they are in an area which will allow them to be accessed.

Network operators providing these sort of services are currently in a situation where their customer experience works – at best – 50 percent of the time. That’s not good business. Faster data speeds will always be welcomed, but reliable, widespread coverage using the current generation of 3G infrastructure should be a much greater priority for satisfying customer expectations.

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