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The Lowdown on the UK Mobile Networks

May 13th, 2011 4 comments

In the UK, we have 5 main mobile network providers (others simply piggy-back on one of these networks):

I’ve recently spend some time considering which network to move to next and thought i’d share my thoughts and experience.

Background:

For many years (probably approaching 10 at a guess), I stuck with Orange – upgrading to a new handset each year in exchange for signing another 12 month contract. Once I got married and moved, the signal where we lived was poor and I eventually left Orange for 3UK, who I used for several years until 2009 when I moved to O2 to get an iPhone, as they had the exclusive supply in the UK. At that time, I had the choice of an 18 month or 24 month contract and I opted for the 24 month to keep the cost down and keep in-sync with the iPhone release schedule. In 2010, with the release of the iPhone 4, I sold my iPhone 3GS and bought a sim-free, unlocked iPhone direct from Apple and continued with the O2 contract. In this time i’ve also had various other, secondary devices on various networks for various purposes or to take advantage of certain deals.

This brings us up to today, where I soon enter the last month of the O2 contract and I am keen to move away from O2 to another network. The reason for this is almost purely their (lack of) 3G network. As far as coverage goes, they are excellent – it’s very unusual for my phone to be out of service, anywhere. The problem is, I use my phone a lot for data and it’s almost a bit unusual to see a 3G signal unless i’m in a big city – and even then, i’ve been in both London and Middlesbrough and not had a 3G signal indoors. The other minor consideration is they changed their tarrifs last year and removed unlimited data and started charging for MMS (Picture/Video) Messages, which were previously charged at 4x text messages taken from the available allowance.

My thinking is as follows – i’ll do some testing with Vodafone and 3UK (it’ll become apparent below why these are my choices) using Pay-As-You-Go SIM cards and sign a rolling 1-Month SIM Only contract with my preferred choice. I’ll use the period until the next iPhone is released to fully evaluate the network to ensure i’m happy before committing to a 24 month contract in exchange for the latest iPhone. There are a lot of rumours around this year that the tradition of a new iPhone every June will be broken and it will be somewhere around September this year, so I may have plenty of time to evaluate my decision!

For the past few weeks, i’ve been carrying two Nokia 6120 Classic phones, one with a Vodafone sim and the other with a 3UK sim, in addition to my iPhone on O2 and comparing signal. I’ve compared signal across my own area of Teesside but also on a weekend trip to Worcester in the Midlands and another weekend trip up to Hexham in order to gauge the relative signal strengths in different places.

Firstly, a look at the different networks:

O2:

O2 (formally Cellnet, or BT Cellnet), along with Vodafone are the oldest of the UK networks. They transmit on 900Mhz (GSM) for their 2G network and as with all of the UK networks, 2100Mhz for 3G. As i’ve already covered, their 2G network is excellent and covers pretty much all of the UK but as you see on the 2009 Ofcom Report, their 3G coverage is the worst of all of the providers and is largely focused on cities and large population areas. Being on 900Mhz for 2G coverage means they are able to get greater range so can have fewer, more spread out masts to achieve good coverage, as opposed to Orange and T-Mobile who use the 1800Mhz (PCN) band and require cell sites closer together. 900Mhz also by nature gives better penetration through walls and buildings than 1800Mhz (PCN) and 2100Mhz (3G).

Orange:

Orange run a 2G network on 1800Mhz (PCN) and a 3G network on the standard 2100Mhz. Looking at the coverage maps, they would appear to have the 2nd best 3G coverage, behind 3UK. However, my wife has a HTC Desire on Orange and quite regularly she will have a good 3G signal but is unable to get any kind of data connection – a great source of frustration. At first, I wasn’t sure whether this was the network, phone or settings, but several other Orange users i’ve spoken to have exactly the same problem, which seems to be caused by network overloading. Reading around various forums, lots of people round the country seem to have the same problem and some describe the Orange data network as ‘on it’s knees’.

In 2010, Orange purchased T-Mobile and they have joined forces under the banner of ‘Everything Everywhere‘. Shortly after this, they announced that they had enabled roaming between their 2G networks. This means that Orange customers will roam onto T-Mobile’s 2G network if they are outside of Orange coverage and T-Mobile customers will roam onto Orange’s 2G network if they are outside of T-Mobile coverage. I also believe that Orange Mobile Broadband dongles now use the T-Mobile 3G network and backhaul rather than Orange’s. They have announced that a full network share (which will include 3G and allow connection to the strongest available signal rather than roaming when out of service) will come later. This latter part is interesting, as I will cover under T-Mobile below.

T-Mobile:

T-Mobile run a 2G network in the 1800Mhz (PCN) band. For their 3G network, they jointly own (50/50) a company called MBNL (Mobile Broadband Network Ltd) with 3UK. Under this agreement, they share cell sites, towers and (I think) antenna’s using something called RAN (Radio Access Network) but then have their own backhaul connectivity – either via fibre or using directional microwave links daisy chain on to another, nearby cell tower. They therefore have pretty much the same 3G coverage as 3UK (although I believe that 3UK’s backhaul is faster, giving better data speeds, but this will of course vary depending on location).

What’s interesting here though is that as I mentioned above, T-Mobile is now owned by Orange, who are looking to merge their 3G networks. How I believe this will work is that the MBNL sites will be enabled as part of the Orange network, they will shut off all of the Orange sites which are the same as or close to MBNL sites and will contribute their remaining (around 3,000 I believe) sites to the MBNL network. This means 3UK will have the option of running their backhaul links to those sites and gain the additional benefit of those sites on their network. Once all completed and enabled, these sites will transmit Orange, T-Mobile and 3UK signal through common antenna’s (but with their own equipment and backhaul). This will mean that in theory, all 3 networks should have the same coverage.

Three (or 3UK):

3UK is ran by Hutchinson Telecommunications who used to own Orange, before it was sold to France Telecom. As they are a newer company compared to the other networks, they decided to only build a 3G network and they utilised this early on by pushing ‘video calling’ as their unique selling point, as well as offering very generous call and text allowances. As I covered above, their 3G sites are deployed by MBNL which is jointly owned with T-Mobile but I believe they do deploy some of their own, 3-only sites to increase capacity (more than coverage) in certain areas.

As they don’t have their own 2G network and because of the higher frequency of 3G, it’s much harder to get complete coverage because masts have to be closer together and 3G also requires faster data connectivity which I assume will be tricky in rural areas. To ensure good coverage, they agreed a roaming agreement with O2. In 2006, a deal was done with Orange and 2G roaming migrated from O2 to Orange (although for a while it worked on both at the same time!). What this means is that if the phone is unable to obtain a 3UK (3G) signal, it will use Orange (or originally O2′s) 2G network. This 2G roaming is generally a good thing because it gives you the ability to make and receive calls and text messages (and very slow data) while you would otherwise be out of service. However, there is a few quirk’s with this. Firstly, if you are in an area that has a very weak 3 (3G) signal but a strong Orange (or previously O2) 2G signal, the phone will prefer and stick to the 3G signal – so at times you actually got a better signal for calls by going (further) inside, covering the phone or doing other things which would usually reduce the signal because it caused it to lose the weak 3G signal and use the stronger 2G signal. Phones also only re-scan the available signals every so often (usually after a few minutes inactivity) so it’s possible that if you lose 3G signal momentarily and it picks up the 2G network (especially as it will scan in sequence so it depends where in the sequence you catch it), it will hold on to it until the next check. This and people who disable 3G on the phones will mean that there are a lot of unnecessary calls going through the 2G network while in 3G coverage areas and that will obviously come at a cost to 3UK as they will have to pay Orange for the calls through their network. For these reasons, they have started to turn off the Orange roaming in certain areas which they believe will have adequate 3G coverage.

Vodafone:

Vodafone’s network is very similar to O2′s (in fact, I believe they do share some cell sites). They have an excellent 2G network on 900Mhz (GSM) and according to the coverage maps, they have a better 3G coverage than O2 (but not as good as 3UK or Orange).

My Conclusions:

For the reasons I outlined above, my choice was to move to either Vodafone or 3UK. In my testing with the Nokia 6120 Classic’s on 3UK and Vodafone, the Vodafone signal was good, but it was still on 2G at times – whereas the 3UK signal was excellent. The 3UK phone was always in 3G coverage and quite often had a full signal so was a clear winner on signal strength.

3UK were also a long way ahead in terms of the package – for £25/month on a 1-Month SIM-Only deal or £35 with an iPhone, you can get their “One Plan”. This includes 2,000 cross network minutes, 5,000 text messages, 5,000 3-3 minutes and unlimited data. Unusually, the unlimited data doesn’t have a fair usage limit and they make a big deal out of the fact that it is truly unlimited. They also allow the use of tethering and use of the “Personal Hotspot” feature in the latest iPhone software. Vodafone on the other hand are the same price, but for £25 on a 1-Month SIM Only deal, you only get 600 minutes, unlimited texts and 1GB data and on an iPhone contract, £35 gets you the same but with 500Mb data. Vodafone do include BT OpenZone Wifi usage when near a hotspot but they charge extra for tethering and personal hotspot which is a shame.

On the strength of the above, and the fact that i’d had a good experience with them for several years in the past, I went ahead and ordered the 3UK SIM Only deal (through Quidco to get £50 cashback). This is however where things get a little strange. When the Microsim arrived for the iPhone 4, the number of bars on the iPhone was clearly no where near that of the Nokia. I tried it for a few days and where the Nokia was often full signal, the iPhone was rarely full signal. It wasn’t that the iPhone was bad at receiving a signal because it was as good as the Nokia at picking up a very weak signal. There is a good article here about why bar’s don’t really matter – the bars are just a visual representation of the actual signal strength reading and there is no standard for this between manufacturers, but it just wasn’t right. The iPhone was quite often 1 or 2 bars and speed tests varied a lot. This also confirmed experience some friends have using iPhones on 3UK.

Another consideration was that Vodafone is the only network that seems to work well in our house. Coverage on the other networks is patchy, until you walk out and off down the street where it jumps in signal.

The above problems and the fact that 3UK are withdrawing the 2G roaming coverage which can easily create gaps in the coverage has led me to go with Vodafone. The 3G coverage might not be as comprehensive, the deal not as good and no tethering/personal hotspot without paying extra, but at least I know I should (just about) always have at least a 2G signal for calls and texts, even if I can’t get a 3G signal for data.

I’ve also already got a 3UK Mifi (Mobile Wifi) which I can continue to use for data as a backup so going with a different provider it saves me from finding an alternative to that, which I would have if i’d gone with 3UK for the iPhone. Also, it’s only on a 1-month contract (and I got the 1st 2 months free) so i’ve got between now and when the next iPhone comes out evaluate and change my mind…..

Categories: Phones Tags: , ,

Faster Broadband – BT Infinity (Fibre to the Cabinet) Coming to Ingleby Barwick – How does it work?

April 7th, 2011 No comments

I first learned about BT Infinity last year when a friend I used to work with at BT pointed out that my exchange, Ingleby Barwick had been scheduled to be enabled in June 2011. At the time that sounded a long time away but now it’s getting closer, I decided to do a bit of digging and find out technically how it worked.

BT Infinity is BT’s new Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) broadband service which is slowly being rolled out across the country and promises speeds of up to 40Mbps downstream and 10Mbps upstream.

Pretty much all of the country can now get broadband in the form of ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line). ADSL works by utilising the existing copper wiring for the telephone lines already in the majority of homes. Unused frequencies are utilised to send data over the lines and a splitter is placed on the customers phone sockets to split the broadband signals off and allow simultaneous use of the telephone and broadband.

The original ADSL standard gives a theoretical maximum downstream speed of 8Mbps and upstream speed of 1Mbps and the newer ADSL2+ standard gives a theoretical maximum downstream speed of 24Mbps and upstream speed of 3.3Mbps. I say theoretical because it’s practically impossible to ever obtain those speeds unless you are literally next door to the exchange. The majority of people only obtain a fraction of those speeds. I am reasonably lucky to be able to be able to get 5Mbps downstream and just under 1Mbps upstream – most people I know get even less than that. (My modem actually sync’s at around 6000kbps and 1000kbps but only get around 5Mbps and just under 1Mbps real world speed test). The reason for this is that when transmitting signals over long distances of copper wire, noise on the line degrades the signal and the maximum speed reduces. As the exchange can be miles away from the premises and cable ducts do not necessarily even run directly as the crow flies, this loss can be great. It’s also very very sensitive to dodgy wiring – for this reason it’s recommended to plug the modem/router into the master socket and use a filtered faceplate to filter off the ADSL signal before the extension wiring to minimise the risk of interference (which is exactly what I do).

The only other serious option for fast home broadband in the UK is if you are in the coverage area for Virgin Media’s Cable Internet service. I used to have cable internet for several years – however when we moved house, even though it was less than 5 minutes walk round the corner, our new street is not wired for cable. There is a Virgin Media cabinet opposite our road end but they have not cabled down the street. If you can get cable then you are able to obtain speeds of up to 100Mbps downstream and 10Mbps upstream through their latest packages. The good thing about cable internet is when you sign up for a certain package, be it 10Mbs, 20Mbps, 30Mbps, 50Mbps or 100Mbps, you do actually get that speed connection. Of course, with connection in NTL’s network and quite harsh traffic management (throttling) they apply at peak periods, you wont necessarily see those real life download speeds all of the time, but at least you are actually connected at the speed you are paying for. The way this is achieved is, Comcast as they were known when they first started laying cables (they were later sold to NTL and later to Virgin), similar to BT, distributed cabinets around their coverage area to interconnect users. However, unlike BT, Comcast ran fibre optic connections to their cabinets rather than huge quantities of copper wires (one pair per line). What they then do is lay low-loss coaxial cable (coax) between the nearest cabinet and the premises. A single length of coax can provide the subscriber with fast broadband and cable television.

With ADSL, a modem at the customers premises (usually ISP’s supply a combined ADSL modem and router so the single connection can be shared between several machines connected via ethernet or 802.11 wireless using NAT (Network Address Translation) which allows multiple computers on a Local Area Network (LAN) to communicate to the internet with a single external IP address) connects to the ADSL splitter and over the copper wire direct to DSLAM equipment in the telephone exchange.

With BT’s new FTTC network (BT Infinity), as it’s name suggests, the local cabinets are connected via fibre (optics) back to the telephone exchange (which I assume will be connected by fibre to BT’s core network). As fibre travels at the speed of light, there is negligible loss – hence why it’s also used to connect different countries together round the world.

When I first heard about it, I didn’t really think about it and assumed that they would do similar to Virgin’s cable service and lay new cables of some kind between the cabinet and the customers premises. When you actually think about it though, that would be expensive, slow to roll out and would end up like Virgin’s cable network – severely limited to certain areas. i.e it wouldn’t really be practical.

So, how does it work? – well, what they are doing is using a technology called VDSL which is similar to the current ADSL technology already in use.

What this means in reality is the following:

Once the exchange has been enabled for FTTC, they will distribute new and slightly bigger cabinets which will house DSLAM equipment which is similar (but newer) to that currently housed in the telephone exchange, the fibre backbone, patch panels and a cross connect to the existing BT cabinet.

When you order BT Infinity, an engineer will come out to install the product. He will replace your current master socket with a new NTE5 master socket with a built in filter (so the modem/router will need to go into the master socket as the broadband frequencies will be split off before the extensions). He will then hook up a VDSL modem and separate “BT Home Hub” router.

What this modem does is connects using VDSL from your home to the VDSL cabinet using the existing copper wires, on to the DSLAM, back to the exchange (over the fibre) and on to BT’s core network.

Your phone line is then still terminated in the original cabinet for telephony (using the cross connect between the old and new cabinets I mentioned above) and back to the exchange over the original multi pair copper cable as it always has done.

What this means is that the noise induced loss is now only an issue between your premises and the cabinet rather than your premises and the exchange. This is how they are able to provide the quoted maximum speeds of 40Mbps downstream and 10Mbps upstream and you are much more likely to be able to get somewhere near these speeds depending on the distance to your cabinet and the quality of the lines and wiring to it.

Another area worth mentioning is currently, any ISP (Internet Service Provider) can sell you ADSL broadband. They either do this by using BT’s network and renting from their wholesale devision (I believe the product is called IPStream) or renting space in their exchanges and installing their own equipment (known as LLU). I believe this will still be possible with the new FTTC network but there doesn’t yet seem to be a great uptake in this – probably due to the costs involved.

Disclaimer: This is only my own knowledge mixed with snippets i’ve read about FTTC rather than any inside information so please do feel free to comment if you know anything here to be incorrect.

Categories: Phones Tags: , , ,

Free, Quick and Easy Conference Calls with ConferenceBuster

November 20th, 2009 No comments

I mentioned in a previous post that you could call 0800 numbers free from a mobile using a free service provided by Localphone.

They have now released another free service which gives free, quick and easy conference calls: ConferenceBuster.

If you want to have more than 1 person on a call to someone, all you do is go to: http://www.conferencebuster.co.uk, click the button and it gives you a phone number and pin.

You give the other person the phone number and pin and dial it yourself.

It’s free and the number to dial is a normal 01xxx number so will come out of your free minutes on your mobile for example.

Call 0800 Numbers Free from a Mobile Phone

May 20th, 2009 3 comments

Many years ago I remember that 0800 numbers were free to call from mobile phones as well as land lines. That all changed a long time ago though and 0800 numbers are chargable calls – which is annoying when most phone call packages come with plenty of minutes nowadays.

Here is a neat trick though to be able to call 0800 numbers using your inclusive minutes.

1. Go to 0800buster.co.uk

2. Note the number in the top left hand corner of the page (this is randomly displayed from their pool of numbers so if one doesn’t work, just refresh and try another!)

3. Store it in your mobile for when you need to dial an 0800.

To call an 0800 you can now call that 0800buster number and enter the 0800 you would like to call, followed by #

You can even store numbers in your phone book by using the pause function on your mobile – see the 0800buster site for details

Categories: Phones Tags: ,