Why 3G broadband can be better and cheaper than ADSL

One of the subjects that always seems to get your attention is the mobile blackspot: whenever I write about these problems and their legal solutions, I end up receiving lots of mail and comments.

Why 3G broadband can be better and cheaper than ADSL

Quite often the solutions involve routing voice calls via your broadband connection, whether that be UMA, Skype, traditional SIP-based VoIP or even a femtocell. But what if you can get a good mobile signal, but your broadband is lousy?

Things seem much better now with all the UK networks rolling out high-speed packet access plus (HSPA+)

That plight is more common than you might think, because cable companies such as Virgin Media only really provide service in areas of dense population, and the same is true of BT’s fibre-based Infinity service. The rest of us are left with ADSL services running over copper telephone wire between the local telephone exchange and our homes or offices, and there are many factors that can cause the speed and reliability of ADSL to be poor. You might be too far from the exchange – ADSL performance tails off the further you are away from it (and remember that telephone wires aren’t laid “as the crow flies”, but generally follow a complex route from the exchange to your building).

The quality of that intervening wiring is also important: the copper wires connecting your house to the exchange are probably decades old and may have cracks in them. They might have only “twisted together” or badly soldered joints, and may be suffering from corrosion or oxidisation, all of which can reduce ADSL performance.

Worse still, some stretches of wire may not be copper at all, because during the 1970s and 1980s, BT would sometimes employ aluminium cable instead within the local loop. That seemed like a good idea at the time, because aluminium was cheaper and lighter for engineers to lug around, and it worked fine for voice calls, but unfortunately it has a destructive effect on ADSL performance.

Other factors I’ve seen reduce people’s ADSL performance include the weather (either too wet or too dry), proximity to big TV or radio transmitters and, of course, the quality of the extension wiring within their house (although that’s one of the few things you actually have control over, and can fix relatively cheaply). So, what can you do if you’re sitting on the end of a so-called “up to 24Mbits/sec” broadband connection that’s barely delivering 512Kbits/sec?

Mobile alternative

There’s always satellite data, but as I explained in a recent column, “proper” satellite data is expensive, it isn’t especially fast and it can be quite laggy. There’s an intermediate option that uses the satellite to receive only, while pushing outbound data through your normal phone line, but for many business users this simply isn’t sensible; when you email a huge PowerPoint file to your boss, you really don’t want it to take all night.

Is mobile data a viable alternative yet? Is it good enough to replace a fixed-line broadband service these days? Yes, I think it finally is. I remember writing about this very issue around four years ago and coming to a very different conclusion.

Back in 2008, there were fast mobile data services available – 3G from most of the mobile networks, with high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) in key cities that typically offered around 7.2Mbits/sec. When you tried to use these, however, there were plenty of drop-outs, and speed was often fine for the first few minutes but became throttled once you ramped up the data volume. Back then, mobile data could be a frustrating experience. Things seem much better now with all the UK networks rolling out high-speed packet access plus (HSPA+), which offers speeds up to 42Mbits/sec (although most UK networks run at a nominal 21Mbits/sec, and in real-world tests you’re likely to see a tad over ten). However, coverage is pretty good these days, especially on 3’s network.

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