Ofcom have released research into broadband speeds in the UK which compared performance between the different mobile broadband providers in areas of good 3G coverage. The report shows that O2 top the stats as the fastest mobile broadband provider, delivering web pages faster than the other four mobile providers. They also had a lower average latency than 3, Orange and Vodafone. On average across all the providers, the average speed in Ofcom's consumer panel was 1.5Mbps and webpages took an average of 8.5 seconds to download. This compares to an average fixed broadband speed of 6.2Mbps and 0.5 seconds to download a basic web page.
"This research gives consumers a clearer picture of the performance of mobile broadband dongle and datacards as consumers use these services to complement fixed-line services or sometimes as their principal means of accessing online services.
The research is another important step in Ofcom’s efforts to ensure that consumers have the information they need to exercise their choice effectively and to make the most of competition in the market."Ed Richards, (Chief Executive) Ofcom
The testing commissioned by Ofcom included static probe testing and drive testing which were performed by Epitiro. The first of these involved the installation of 97 static connections performing hourly tests to each of the five mobile operators (O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Three and Vodafone) over 3G and HSPA. The average download speed of these came in at 2.1 Mbps, although this dropped to 1.7Mbps at peak times. The average web page load time recorded was 2.2 seconds with O2 performing better than all the other operators in this regard.
Looking at the difference based on levels of urbanisation, Epitiro conducted drive testing within four different regional areas, although the testing was completed whilst stationary. This looked at a dense urban city (Birmingham), urban sprawl (along the M62 motorway between Manchester and Liverpool), high density provincial town (Swansea) and high-density rural or semi rural counties (Herefordshire and Shropshire). Over 45,000 tests were completed for this across all five mobile operators.
The results from this are quite interesting as the testing within Swansea produced barely better download speeds than in the rural and semi-rural areas. This is despite there being good availability of faster connectivity using HSDPA. The likely cause of the slow downs is put to less backhaul capacity within these areas when compared with a denser urban centre. The 'urban sprawl' area actually performed better recording more higher speed downloads than the urban area and this is thought to to be due to contention on the network from other users within the urban city area.
Ofcom's consumer panel of 1,179 dongle users completed over 330,000 measurements in total with 12 tests performed up to four times per day. This was supposed to represent a more real-world representation of broadband operators. Average download speeds clocked in at 1.5Mbps and there wasn't a significant slowdown in the evening peak period as seen by the Epitiro testing, but during off-peak hours of midnight to 6am, speeds did rise to 1.9Mbps. The distribution of speeds tended strongly towards 1 to 2 Mbps as can be seen in the below graph.
Looking at web page download time (this was just for the HTML code, not for any images on web pages), this took on average 6.5 seconds at off-peak times but increased to 9 seconds at peak times. The overall average clocked in at 8.5 seconds. However, this was pulled by some slow download and in nearly 50% of tests, the web page downloaded in less than four seconds.
The full Ofcom report (PDF) also goes in to further details on other metrics which were measured such as latency. The general conclusions that Ofcom formed are that speeds vary most based on geographic location. Contention does operate as can be seen by the increase in speeds between midnight and 6am. Performance is on average significantly below fixed broadband performance which will make it less desirable generally as a replacement for fixed services.