Finally, mobile data comes of age

Matt Lewis/ARCchart
18 Dec 2007

While I am an avid user of cellular data, the negative perception of high prices and poor performance lingers in the back of my mind. However, looking back at my past 12 months of mobile data usage I've come to the realisation that it now works, and works pretty damn well!

My experience is not limited to my home market of the UK. Over the past year I have travelled to 15 countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia and in each country I've used my handset to sync my emails and access websites through the phone's browser. I have also regularly used applications like Google Maps and IM which require a data connection.

Without exception, I have been able to connect to a cellular data network - whether GPRS, EDGE, W-CDMA or HSPA - within minutes of arriving in the country and that connection has usually remained robust throughout my stay.

Most of the time my phone was able to establish a permanent "always on" connection with the network and there was rarely a need to dial-up a link in order to start accessing the Internet. This takes a toll on battery life but there was never a risk of achieving less than a day's usage.

While much of my usage was in metropolitan areas (e.g. London, Barcelona, Bangkok, San Francisco) and at airports in particular, where coverage is optimal, there were several exceptions: a train journey from Helsinki to St. Petersburg saw me travel through suburban and rural Finland and Russia, and a drive down the spine of California took me through the metropolises of San Francisco, LA and San Diego, but also the rural heartland in between.

Three of my destinations were small islands - Barbados (Caribbean), Mykonos (Greece) and Langkawi (Malaysia) - all with very good data coverage. Hong Kong has fantastic in-building 3G coverage, even underground! And outdoor HSPA appears to be pretty much ubiquitous, even several hundred metres out to sea.

This examination of the global mobile data market is in no way scientific and is purely a representation of my own personal experience with mobile data around the world at the times when I happened to be visiting those locations. I am also not representative of a typical mobile user since I'm accessing these networks on a handset which supports the smorgasbord of 2.5G, 2.75G, 3G and 3.5G radio technologies. Nonetheless, any negative perception of mobile data should now be wiped away. The technology finally does what it says on the box - delivering ubiquitous wireless access to the Internet, and in the case of HSPA, this access is genuinely broadband.

What's brought about this change‾ For one, the maturity of the UMTS standard has boosted performance and network interoperability. Since their early deployments, operators with 3G licenses have been gradually expanding their 3G networks and adding capacity

Infrastructure vendors have also made the pain of adding HSPA low and 3G operators have consequently been quick to take this upgrade option. Many operators deploying 3G for the first time today are choosing to move immediately to HSPA

Similarly, most GSM equipment now has out-of-the-box support for GPRS, so new operators launching in developing markets like Africa and Asia have data support by default

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