The UK has been behind in the mobile network race for many years now. Lacking in uptake for 3G bandwidth back in 2008, it wasn’t really till the launch of the highly successful iPhone 3G, that propelled both consumers and competitive manufacturers to boast that 3G was the way forward over current EDGE signals. Mobile operators have dictated what we can and can’t do on our phones for quite some time now. In 1946 the first ever telephone calls were made and later Bell System’s Mobile Telephone Service was created on 17th June, these devices first used where mainly installed in cars and compromised of vacuum tubes and relays. In all weighing over 36Kg (80 pounds). This is most likely the main reason why mobile phones did not catch on till the late 80’s. Motorola pushed for the development of mobile devices in 1973, their target to use a mobile telephone anywhere. Researchers at Motorola made the first call on a handheld mobile phone on 3 April 1973 to their rival, of Bell Labs, the phone able to communicate long range over a mobile network. This technology would herald the multi-billion dollar network companies that we all love to hate today.
“As I walked down the street while talking on the phone, sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call.” Martin Cooper Motorola Researcher
The world’s first commercial automated cellular network was launched in Japan by NTT in 1979, the UK, Canada and Europe would be to follow in the mid 80’s. Due to its size people would nickname the Motorola device the “brick”, it would become popular amongst businesses and would connect companies globally. Yet not really take hold in the consumer market until the early 90’s with the relasese of smaller devices from the likes of Nokia’s NMT-900.
Mobile networks saw chances to make money at this point in time, the first networks only offering 1G analog signals, mobile providers rejoiced at the development of 2G in the late 90’s. It enhanced efficiency over the spectrum led to the adoption of SMS messaging and limited data services, of course at a relatively astonishing price. The great influx of mobile phone usage in the late 90’s and in the early years of the next millennium had paved the way for a new communication era. Mobile phone networks cashed in on the billions that us consumers spent topping up phone sims and paying out lengthy contract. The mobile had been seen as the new ‘cool’ way to communicate and no more evident of this was in teenagers. In recent studies researchers identified that only 38% of people who now buy a mobile phone will use it to make a phone call. Considering this is the primary use of any phone – are we not becoming addicted to social media and the internet. The mobile phone has developed beyond the utility used to ‘call’ our friends and family when we aren’t near a landline phone. Its primary use today: the internet. Social media and connectivity to services for example YouTube, required a new faster generation of the mobile network, a new device. And the devices that started these revolutions haven’t slowed down in sales figures to this day.
2007 saw the release of the Apple iPhone, a major landmark in the stereotypical ‘touchscreen smartphone’, Steve Jobs and his Cupertino crew had managed to pull off one of the biggest commercial gambles that industry has seen in some time, would anyone buy a phone from a computer company? But yes they did, and continue to till this day: but the Apple iPhone led the way for the floodgates to be open to the now saturated smart device market. With the launch of the iPhone and like devices came the question about connectivity. How do so many people access their content on the go, through their phone without WiFI? Well again welcome the mobile operators, who along with companies such as Apple and Blackberry (at the time) innovated the path for 3G, the third generation of mobile communications. It brought fast mobile internet, greater cellular range, a more efficient spectrum and to the thanks of those government agencies; enhanced security. Nevertheless just as Motorola’s ‘brick’ wasn’t really adopted, so was 3G, left to the side, seen as a “nice to have” for the next year. UK mobile networks such as O2 boasted their 3G capability but the market still did not exist. Industry also had their fears over 3G:
“The 3G chipsets are real power hogs,” Steve Jobs
Again it took Apple in 2008 to release the iPhone 3G to allow 3G to take off. It therefore seems to be reaching a pattern in the technology industry, the fact that new technology appears and industry rushes to deploy it, yet consumers do not seem bothered. It takes a company such as Nokia in the 90’s and now Apple in 2008 to show consumers the possible potential in real life situations this technology could have. Yet we do not seem to be at this stage yet with 4G. Whilst 70% of us today now own a smartphone, the wonders of the 3G network have truly reached their limit. The spectrum again, as it did in the 80’s faces becoming oversubscribed. And without a new economically feasible option left for mobile users, what would happen next? LTE in the US has been around for some years now, 4G LTE can offer high speed internet connectivity to that of home broadband, greater range and even more efficient spectrum allocation. Carriers such as Verizon and Sprint offer the most comprehensive of deals at a modest price compared to European providers. Europe and the UK still have not grasped the full potential of the 4G signal; just as they did in 2007. In the UK, currently only one mobile operator can provide consumers with ‘super fast” mobile internet – EE. Everything Everywhere (a merger of T Mobile and Orange) one the rights from Ofcom to use its spare bandwidth accumulated from the mobile merger in late 2012. Just as normally does when as government body is involved this apparent unfair advantage given to EE has allowed for a one tier market.
British consumers are now limited in their choice of 4G providers. The likes of Vodafone, O2, and 3 having to wait to battle to the death when Ofcom releases spare bandwidth for auction; yet again these providers have been stabbed in the back by Ofcom as the spare bandwidth on offer would not be compatible with most 4G phones. Considering we live in a democratic and free society, do you not think that our markets that we chose to buy utilities such as our mobile phones should be too? Well without the auction from Ofcom only EE can offer 4G in the UK, and at extraordinary prices. Prices which push them far out of the reach to the likes of the common consumer, which is wrong. For new technology such as 4G to become effective, useful and feasible, it must be available to everybody; not who ever can pay the most. Vodafone’s CEO has already said that:
“I haven’t seen any figures but when I visited an EE store to see how fast it was all I saw was technofreaks in there,”
With the release of 4G to the UK via EE, it is clear compromises will be made. Only today have reports been issued suggesting millions of TV users will be affected by the role out of 4G, a total of 2.3 million homes will experience significant TV signal loss due to the new 4G masts. One of the frequencies on offer during the 4G auction, 800MHz, sits alongside the 700MHz spectrum used for Freeview; which when available to the likes of O2 and Vodafone will mean anyone within a 1.25 mile radius of a mast would face near to none coverage for the TV sets. Obviously for new infrastructure people have to come to agreements, but seeing as it has not even been a year since to digital switchover from analogue TV to digital many still are paying the cost of Freeview installation; now face having no signal at all.
The mobile phone networks have developed miles in the last 20 years, people could not have imagined making a video call in the 80’s let alone without it being plugged in to several hundred modems and power sockets. But do we need to sacrifice already existing infrastructure of millions to bring an expensive and overpriced technology to only those privileged enough to afford the £50 a month contracts? The bottom line is this, without development of infrastructure the UK can expect to remain behind in the mobile race. Of course cost implications need to be worked out, but as is currently, mobile users through contracts will be a able to pay off the investment required. To overcome the current bank busting prices more subscribers to 4G contracts are needed to subsidise these costs. But as a nation we have to decide if the short term cost outweigh the long term advantages – does the UK want to remain competitive in the mobile industry?