3G mobile broadband may be an old technology, but over the years it has seen improvements so that in the right areas it can give 4G a run for its money. Back in 2010 there was a change to the licenses that EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone have, to enforce a coverage obligation in return for the making the licenses indefinite in duration.
Using a methodology that Ofcom arrived at the networks have now been tested and Vodafone was found to be the only one not to meet the coverage target, though they were very close, failing the 90% target by 1.4%. The end result is not a multi-million pound fine, but a plan that Vodafone will now put in place to improve its coverage to pass the 90% figure, with Ofcom testing the network again in January 2014.
"The 3G coverage obligation is set out at paragraph 4(a) of Schedule 1 of the 3G licences as follows:
The Licensee shall by no later than 30 June 2013 provide and thereafter maintain an electronic communications network that is capable of providing mobile telecommunications services to an area within which at least 90% of the population of the United Kingdom lives and with a 90% probability that users in outdoor locations within that area can receive the service with a sustained downlink speed of not less than 768kbps in a lightly loaded cell. Section 43A of the 2006 Act shall apply to any contravention of this provision."3G Coverage Obligation
For those who use 3G for data regularly the key part of the coverage obligation is that the 90% area is defined as population rather than premises or land area and the speed of 768 Kbps only applies to a lightly loaded cell. Which explains why in cities you can be within the 90% and still fail to collect email on a regular basis, i.e. 3G cells are creaking under the simultaneous load of all the small data requests that email, facebook status updates, twitter and the other numerous background apps on our smartphones.
In theory this is where 4G should come to the rescue, offering more efficient spectrum use in addition to new frequencies to give better penetration into buildings, and base stations getting serious upgrades to their backhaul to support the higher speeds of 4G. The real question is whether the cost of 4G to the consumer will be close enough to their existing 3G contracts to make people upgrade. 4G while it also has the potential to replace a fixed line broadband service still needs to dramatically alter its price per GigaByte of data, alas we may find that EU rulings to cap roaming charges etc will mean that domestic customers may see prices creep up, both to cover lost profits from roaming and pay for the 4G auction and the upgrades to the actual network.