Vodafone's Blazin' 3G Upgrade

Having described High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) as “killer technology” when operators launched commercial services back in 2006, I’m on record as a big supporter of 3G mobile broadband. (See Vodafone’s 3G Broadband Service.)

For last six weeks or so I’ve been testing Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD)’s self-proclaimed “Fastest Mobile Broadband in the Galaxy” 3G service around London and other parts of the U.K. The verdict this time: phenomenal technology and a great service.

While HSPA itself is not new, Vodafone’s upgrade to 7.2 Mbit/s on one of the most densely deployed and tightly engineered mobile networks in the world promised to show 3G technology at its best. The operator is certainly backing itself, with attractive £15 ($30) a month tariffs and a major national advertising campaign inspired by pop-art graphics and comic-book space rockets.

Vodafone’s currently running three speeds on its network, with 7.2 Mbit/s and 3.6 Mbit/s available in the major cities and 1.8 Mbit/s in other regions. These are modem speeds defined by the 3GPP standards, however, and once network overhead is accounted for, data throughput is somewhat lower.

In central London locations where 7.2 Mbit/s service has been enabled, such as our office at United Business Media's HQ, service was consistently in the range of 3 Mbit/s to 4 Mbit/s data throughput on the downlink while stationary, and often as high as 5 Mbit/s, with bursts to 5.5 Mbit/s, where signal quality is good. This is around 10 times faster than the 500 kbit/s service we get at our desks and, on average, is comparable with the 3 Mbit/s I get at home on ADSL.

Just to prove it, here’s a screen cap image showing download speeds as measured by the connection manager and by NetMeter:

The uplink was a revelation. Previously, 3G topped out at around 300 kbit/s, but throughput of around 1 Mbit/s (this equates to a modem rate of 1.4 Mbit/s) indicates high-speed uplink capability has been implemented on parts of the network. From a practical perspective, this helps for things like uploading photos and sending large PowerPoint files.

Latency on 3G is always an issue and is noticeably inferior to fixed broadband. This can degrade the quality of VOIP calls (not recommended on 3G), and Web pages sometimes appear to load slowly, especially if the 3G device needs to transition from an idle to an active state. When in active state, ping times to popular U.K.-hosted Websites from the Vodafone network are generally in the 100 to 200 millisecond range, which is certainly usable enough, even if performance is variable.

Although delay is inherent to 3G, and will continue to be an issue until later versions of the standard (R7 and onwards) are implemented, operators can take a number of steps to optimize performance. For my money, Vodafone has done a good job of this. In addition to network-level optimization, the carrier’s proxy servers, for example, appear to speed up the Web browsing experience – although that’s a personal preference; some users don’t like image compression.

In areas outside of 7.2 Mbit/s coverage, performance is what you’d expect from a 3.6 Mbit/s network, with downlink speeds in the range of 1 Mbit/s to 3 Mbit/s, depending of signal strength. In locations with 1.8 Mbit/s coverage, data rates drop back to the 500 kbit/s to 1 Mbit/s range, and where the signal is weak, even that can be a challenge.

Performance in a moving vehicle is, naturally, highly variable. The fact that it works at all is amazing enough. As a rough estimate, 300 kbit/s is what you can expect on a 3G connection while on the move across London by car or train. That’s fast enough for apps such Internet radio, but not for streaming video.

Reliability is another important factor when assessing mobile broadband services. On this score I’ve no complaints at all about the Vodafone network, the Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. -supplied USB modem, or the connection manager software. It’s perfectly possible to work all day entirely normally without dropping the connection, and for most tasks there’s little difference between using a computer on home broadband, a work connection, or via 3G – and that’s probably the highest praise of all. I’ve spent days at a time working exclusively on 3G without a single problem.

I’ve used all kinds of 3G devices on all the major 3G networks in the U.K. and from a strict performance perspective there can only be one conclusion: 7.2 Mbit/s HSPA technology on a well designed and optimized network really does make a difference in day-to-day Internet use.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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