Speeding’s fine

An old adage has it that no matter how much space you’ve got, you’ll always fill it up. It’s manifestly true for houses, handbags and hard drives, and I’d say for comms bandwidth too. Those with hair as grey as mine may remember the days of 300 baud modems, when the real-world data rates were around ten characters per second – this single paragraph would have taken around a minute to download. Such rates sound comical now, but 20 years ago they were the norm and we managed just fine – it didn’t feel slow because 10cps was what we early adopters were used to.

Speeding's fine

Technology moved on and we got 1,200b/sec, then 9,600b/sec modems, and each time we were told we’d now reached the physical limit a phone system could handle. We soon got used to ever-higher connection speeds: what a novelty to see text arrive on screen faster than you could read it! But it became impossible to contemplate going back to a slower connection, because you were now downloading more stuff, writing longer emails and subscribing to more newsgroups and CIX conferences – consuming all the available bandwidth. Modems continued to get faster, then along came broadband. Most of us are now used to megabits per second, both in the office and at home, and once again our workloads have adapted so we rely on such speeds.

But once you hit the road, suddenly you’re back in the dark ages with GPRS speeds averaging around 40Kb/sec, dial-up modem territory. 3G helps – when and where you can get it – but it still fails to be as fast as once promised and its coverage tends to be limited to major cities and motorways.

Incidentally, does anyone else find it infuriating that the networks spend fortunes to provide a good data signal on the roads where uses are fairly limited, but leave the main rail arteries – where business users actually get work done – typically with very poor reception?

On the EDGE

These slow mobile data rates are a real productivity drain, almost certainly costing UK businesses a lot of money. It’s really frustrating to wait ten minutes for your email to synchronise with your phone. Vendors of business smartphones push the line that workers can access and update Office documents on the hoof, but what use is it if that Word report takes 20 minutes to download? Sensible people will have given up and be playing Freecell or Sudoku by then.

I’ve been playing with one possible solution to this slow data problem in the shape of Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE), sometimes called 2.5G. This technology promises 3G-like speeds across the old GPRS network, but only where it’s supported by both the carrier and your handset or data card.

One of the first UK networks to roll out EDGE was Orange, and that’s the service I’ve been testing, using its Business Everywhere card, a PC Card that combines Wi-Fi, 3G and GPRS (including EDGE). I also popped the EDGE-enabled Orange SIM into a couple of my handheld devices to see how well they’d handle the extra speed. Orange tells me that it’s EDGE enabled more than 600 sites so far and is aiming for around 1,500 by the end of this year, which means that wherever you move out of 3G coverage there’s a good chance you’ll fall back into EDGE rather than GPRS. How does it work? Superbly well! Almost everywhere I went where 3G wasn’t available, my devices switched to EDGE and I hardly noticed any speed difference. When I measured the data rates, I was getting around 200Kb/sec from EDGE against 320Kb/sec from 3G. On just a couple of occasions, I found myself stuck with bog-standard GPRS, and boy was that a pain. A big thumbs-up for Orange’s EDGE service.

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