I am on the whole a great fan if Vodafone. Their service and reception us second to none, especially here in the North Wessex Downs where mobile services from any other provider are either non existent or so patchy that it's too unreliable to use. The news that Vodafone have successfully trialed femtocells in Garston to boost signal to not spots is a great idea. The thought of our local MP, Richard Benyon, begging on his knees to a Vodafone exec to get the service up an running, makes it seem even more interesting.
But Vodafone are always going to get bad press whilst they forget two key things:
-Customers want data these days.
-Citizen's of our country want corporates to do the right thing – like paying their fair share of tax.
The second part of this is obvious – all corporate should be compelled to do the right thing. Not only for the company and it's employees, but for the country and our society overall. Corporates must understand that they have a responsibility that expends beyond their balance sheet – it's a social responsibility that should be mandatory for all companies in the UK. But it's the data aspect that I want to discuss today in this blog.
As with most other mobile providers, the Vodafone data network in the UK leaves a great deal to be desired. Often slow and unreliable, especially when travelling, our mobile networks are often pot luck and not a sure thing. I may be especially sensitive to these things as I travel on trains & buses quite often and see either the dreaded GRPS only marker (so slow, even basic web pages refuse to load) or a full five bars of signal but no internet at all.
This is not just a Vodafone thing, but is indicative of what is missing – aiming for only populated areas limits the availability of the service and often brings data not spots to large sections of the country. This is often more apparent for people on the train – who you can see frustratingly saying they may loose connection (and often do) or who are desperately struggling to send email's, read web pages or do anything else on the data networks.
These often train journeys are a perfect bit of down time – somewhere between breakfast and the commute nightmare that's London, or between work and the rush home. These are valuable bits of time that could be regained and re-used by the population. Perhaps by facilitating working from trains, buses etc people could leave work an hour early? Missing a good deal of the rush hours, spreading the commuting load and, by implication, allowing people to spend more quality time at home. Perhaps though, it's just about using the time to contact people, say hi, discuss their day on Facebook, tweet the things that are important to you.
So we could help return a little bit of the day to people with a fully integrated communications strategy. 90% land coverage is not good enough, but neither are hundreds of new phone masts covering some of the best parts of our country. Perhaps though the re-use of some of the current TV spectrum will help – lower frequencies can travel further and often through obstructions that force the use of large numbers of small comms towers.
One thought though could be re-use of the existing spectrum in a more efficient way. Old GPRS spectrum could be re-used for 3G, LTPA or similar. But this brings in a competition problem. For the multitude of companies to compete effectively in the current system, they need to have a level(ish) playing field. OFCOM attempt to do this by handicapping the larger companies and letting the smaller players have a few competitive advantages. This wasn't helped by selling off the spectrum to the highest bidder. Those that won, did so at a huge cost, further crippling true competition and limiting expansion of existing networks. It should not be about how big your bank account is to provide service to the citizens of this country – especially as ultimately it is will be the citizens who pays for this cost through their mobile bills anyway.
So what's Adrian Hollister's big idea for the mobile communications network? How can, in my simple mind, fix the problems of availability, competition, cost effectiveness and in the world stage, ensure that the UK is state of the art, highly efficient and helping it's citizens return part of their day or improve their quality of life?
I would look at three key approaches:
1. Move critical infrastructure into public hands
2. Allow comms towers to be shared between providers
3. Move to a high availability service – blanket coverage of voice and data
Let's look at these in a bit more detail. The first is an obvious one. Depending on your political leanings you may related to this or not, but in terms of something highly efficient it cannot be disputed. Just in terms of the duplication of comms towers there is a level of duplication waste that could be removed and reinvested in other areas in need of service support. But by covering the whole of the UK, you gain the ability to architect (plan and design) service coverage that helps our citizens, protects what is part of our critical national infrastructure (something I am not sure is fully recognised yet by HMG) and provides a base for fair competition and high quality blanket services.
I don't think there are too many people who would dispute the National Grid's role in providing an essential service throughout the UK, and more recently the rail infrastructure was moved back into a public owned company. These are examples of key and critical infrastructure for the country that is most efficiently served though a centralised, co-ordinated and designed from the ground up to provide the most efficient and effective service to the citizen.
With the assumption that the wireless network throughout the UK has been move into a single public owned company, then the reuse of comms towers and communication bands between providers is a simple thing to facilitate. If companies are truly allowed to compete in the market place, then this is one step that would level access and availability for the smallest and largest providers. It would move the question of consumer value to a different playing field. Vodafone, 3, O2 and the others would have to offer higher value services (perhaps contention ratio, internet bandwidth etc). These services would better suite the consumers than basic price – though I'm sure some would compete on raw price alone.
But neither of the top two will work unless the country moves over time to good quality, redundant, blanket coverage of voice and data services. Clearly this would take time, but investment in the services could be provided by auctioning off value add service elements or pre-payment from the mobile company for useage on the new network. How ever we arrive at the investment profile, it's key that the public owned infrastructure company must aim to be not for profit over a fair business cycle. It is a service that critical for our citizens and must be cost effective on that basis.
So what would we end up with?
a. We would have a mobile network owned by the citizens of the country. We control the areas of core investment and we aim to make no profit from it.
b. Each of the mobile providers would have a level playing field and they can differentiate their services though the use of value add services or price. Competition would be opened up to many new providers that could purchase core service directly from the public infrastructure core.
c. We could move to blanket coverage. High availability services. High data services.
In summary though, we could create a UK with a significant competitive advantage compared to our competition. Our country would have a much more cost effective and personally effective service. We could return quality time to people and facilitate new ways of work (such as from home or on public transport). We would have a competitive landscape that would be the envy of the world.
It's also clear though that the Conservatives and their poodle Liberal Democrats do not have the vision for this. Richard Benyon's begging at Vodafone's door clearly shows the limitations of our current service, and whilst I appreciate the investment Vodafone has made in one of our Downland villages; there is a more efficient and effective approach available.