An inconvenient truth: nothing can stop the rising cost of mobile

It was announced towards the end of last month that, after a protracted review, Ofcom is planning to triple the fees it charges mobile network operators for their use of “spectrum” to provide services.

Ofcom is taking a current combined total of £64.4 million and raising it to £199.6 million for the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz spectrum bands – for the same thing as before. That makes even UK energy providers look parsimonious with their increases.

In the context of the UK mobile market, which is worth more than £15 billion, this represents an increase of their cost base of just under 1% of their revenues – but at a time of falling revenues and increased bandwidth consumption, it will not be welcomed. Somewhere along the line, the costs will find their way through to mobile phone users.

>See also: How can networks deal with the demands coming with the VoLTE revolution?

The problem – and it’s a problem that is becoming more and more apparent – is that the electro-magnetic spectrum is a fundamentally limited resource. There is no more of it. Network operators are getting better and better at using it efficiently, but they will eventually bump into the theoretical limits of how much information they can pump through a given band of frequencies.

So while one fan at a football match may (just) be able to stream the 4k video feed he’s taking on his smartphone to his friends at home, if the other 39,999 spectators try to do the same (or even try to post a picture on Instagram) they will be frustrated.

In areas of dense population, getting enough bandwidth into a given area is a real challenge. All five of the UK’s national carriers – or three, as it may well end up before the end of next year – want to offer superfast service on very similar frequencies.

The techniques they use to cram that in are having to become increasingly inventive. There is the trend towards smaller and smaller “cells”, transmitting and receiving at lower power, so that there can be more masts in a given geographic area.

Antennae are increasingly directional, again, reducing interference and bleed into other areas. Higher frequencies are easier to manage in this way (as well as having theoretically higher data transfer rates), but those higher frequencies present other problems: they take more power (as in, battery life) to handle, the components are more expensive, and they are less good at getting through windows and walls.

It’s almost as if people’s usage patterns are designed to create a series of evermore difficult problems for wireless engineers. Mobile users want more and more bandwidth, to use it all the time and in taller and taller buildings, to fill those buildings with radio-waves of their own making (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi etc.), and to cover those buildings with smarter and smarter materials – a side-effect of which is that they become more hostile to radio-waves.

In some offices, those coveted window seats are no longer commanding a high premium because of the natural light and opportunity for “diet-coke break” moments, but because that’s where you can get a decent signal on your mobile.

In response to this, companies and individuals are increasingly building out their own mobile networks to handle the “not-spots”, whether they are caused by being in the middle of nowhere or the middle of everything. We have femtocells in our homes that work over our home broadband lines. Many buildings, both public and private, are building in mobile network coverage to support use indoors.

And there are other emerging solutions. Given that most people connect their smartphones to Wi-Fi when they get the chance in order to keep their data costs down, the latest phones allow them to take advantage of that with “voice over Wi-Fi”, or Wi-Fi calling.

No longer requiring separate apps with a whole new user interface to learn, this is transparent to the user. Calls are made and received in the usual way – it’s just that the signal now goes over the internet to the mobile operator, rather than through the operator’s radio access network.

>See also: The mobile network untangled – how to simplify mobility

Most of the UK networks offer this service now, although only the very latest smartphones can take advantage of it – and even then only on certain calling plans.

One could begin to be confused by the plethora of different connectivity options available. There are all sorts of questions to which the answers are not readily understood by the average user. Is this network free, or am I paying to use it? Is the data included, or am I paying more the more I work? Is this network secure, or is my data or my personal information at risk?

In the course of travelling to work, many people will connect and disconnect from a whole host of different networks – that’s a lot of spectrum and a whole lot of complexity, all being carved out of one irrevocably finite resource.

It’s an unbreakable law of physics, leading to the fundamental economic problem. No wonder the price is going up.


Sourced from Rufus Grig, CTO, Azzurri Communications

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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