Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Three Mobile have just upgraded their network near my home from HSDPA Category 6 to HSDPA Category 8. In practice, this means that the maximum download speed I can achieve is 7.2Mbps rather than 3.6Mbps as before. In practice, one never gets close to this speed, but "double the speed" is probably true in the sense that I will get twice what I had before.

The real reason for the upgrade is that as well as doubling the speed, it doubles the capacity of the network. Superior mathematics and code, and superior computational power allows more sophisticated modulation schemes to be used and the bitrate that can be achieved using a given amount of radio spectrum to be greater. When 3G networks first came along, they for some years had significant unused data capacity, but in the last couple of years demand for this has risen dramatically, driven by adoption of mobile broadband and adoption of smartphones such as the iPhone. (Three doesn't offer the iPhone yet in the UK, although most people seem to believe it will soon. The upgrade could partly be preparation for this). Therefore, networks are now being upgraded to newer, higher capacity technologies because they are becoming congested. Three have also recently introduced usage management software, basically meaning that if there is a heavy user in a cell, his usage is restricted sufficiently to allow other users to operate normally.

However, hardware capable of the higher speeds needs to be operating at both ends of the connection. If the user has an old modem not capable of the higher speeds then communication will continue to be at the old speed. So if everybody is using old modems, the network upgrade doesn't improve congestion. Thus Three sent me a letter offering me a new modem "to give you the full benefit of the upgraded network". No charge to me. No extension of contract required. Free as in free.

Of course, I said yes. However, there is a little secret. Upgrading modems to higher HSDPA speeds isn't generally about hardware. It is about software. Older modems are capable of handling the higher speeds just fine, but to do so they need upgraded firmware. Flashing the firmware is not that hard, and I had already upgraded my old modem myself. So Three are not actually getting any benefit out of sending me a new modem. They are simply giving me a spare. However, new hardware is new hardware. Yum.

Mobile phone networks in recent times have been trying to extend contract lengths, as the subsidies they have been paying on new phones have been high and they don't want to pay them as often. However, we here have a reversal. Three are trying to force upgrades on customers early, presumably because (a) network congestion is becoming a real problem and (b) 3G dongles are cheap. That said, I am not expecting them to give out free iPhones mid contract anytime soon.

Also, this particular contract only has about three months to run. I wonder if Three will still offer me a new dongle at the end of the contract, which is the normal practice if I renew.

Update: Thinking about it some more, there is another reason why no network is going to give out free iPhones mid contract, which is that Apple has no trouble getting iPhone users to update their software (including their firmware) whenever it wants them to. iPhone users plug their phones into their computers and sync them with iTunes regularly, and one of the things they do when they do this is upgrade them to the latest software. By providing a smooth software platform through which to do this and by providing lots of new functionality on a regular basis, Apple has given itself the ability to do upgrades that networks want as well as to fix bugs and the like.

This contrasts severely with other phone makers like Sony Ericsson and Nokia. Whilst it is theoretically possible to upgrade firmware on most of their phones, it is not something that customers heave learned to do. For one thing, there is lots of operator customised firmware that needs to be updated too, and operators generally prefer their customers to be using an old version of operator customised firmware than newer versions of unbranded firmware. Secondly, finding new firmware can be fiddly and often involves connecting the phone to a computer, which is usually not done for other reasons. Firmware upgrades over the air involve lots of messing around with network settings and operator policies and data charges and all kinds of stuff. Plus, firmware upgrades tend not to offer new functionality (as the business model here is that you will upgrade your phone when you want new functionality) so customers don't always see the point. If a phone doesn't work properly, the tendency is to take it back to whoever you bought it from, not to mess around with firmware upgrades.

That said, handling firmware updates is probably easier for 3G dongles. When I use the dongle I run a Three branded application on my laptop to manage the connection. This is not strictly necessary - as long as an appropriate driver is installed, both Windows and OS-X can actually manage the connection themselves - but this is the simple way of doing so. Once in a while this application updates itself over the internet, and there is no real reason why it couldn't handle firmware upgrades as well. I suspect though that keeping up with all the different models of dongle and firmware versions and the like is too much hassle for Three. Dongles are cheap enough that it is easier to simply send out new ones when this is called for.

It was of course once the case that PC software was more or less fixed in the state you bought it in with all the original bugs. It was only when being constantly connected to the internet became standard that this business of operating systems and other software constantly updating itself became the norm. This may not have been entirely good - once upon a time software had to work properly when it was released, rather than the now all too common practice of getting something out the door now and fixing it later - but it does at least mean that serious bugs and security issues can be fixed at any time.

This is going to have to become standard in phones as well, and I am sure it will. For the moment, though, this is a real achilles heel for the traditional manufacturers. Over the last couple of years Nokia and Sony-Ericsson have got into real trouble by releasing many high end phones with extremely buggy software. Rates of return for some models have been horrible. (20% or more in some instances). Some of these might have been fixable with firmware updates, but the overall impact has been a tremendous loss of reputation.

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