Frustrated trying to access the internet from the smartphone you bought at Christmas? It’s partly your own fault, says the International Telecommunication Union, the industry body that represents the mobile and fixed-line industries – and it’s likely to get worse unless governments and networks take urgent action.
The problem arises because ownership of smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone or models running Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Android software is booming, and on average they use five times more data capacity than users of “feature phones” capable only of sending text or picture messages or making video calls.
The explosion in use has caught some networks off guard. In Britain delays to the government auction of extra radio spectrum, caused in part by legal objections raised by the networks themselves, means some people will not see improved access for at least two years.
On the opening day of the Mobile World Congress exhibition in Barcelona, Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the ITU, said governments need to accelerate the introduction of high-speed fibre optic cable which provides faster data connections between mobile towers and networks. Governments also needed to provide greater availability of radio frequency spectrum for mobile signals.
Smartphones are the fastest-growing sector of the information technology market, growing 74% in 2010 to a total of 300m shipped to retailers. In the last quarter smartphones outsold PCs worldwide. While “feature phones” still made up the majority of the 1.6bn mobiles sold in 2010, they are expected to be outstripped by smartphones within a couple of years.
The ITU forecasts in a forthcoming report that the number of smartphones in use will rise from today’s global estimate of 500m handsets to almost two billion by 2015. “Operators are already having to employ multi-pronged strategies to keep up with demand and not all are succeeding,” it said. “In some high-usage cities, such as San Francisco, New York and London, we are still seeing users frustrated by chronic problems of network unavailability.”
Industry observers said that the ITU was essentially putting pressure on governments which have been slow to free spectrum, which is needed urgently to cope with the “capacity crunch”. One said: “It’s apparent that some networks are suffering. O2’s data network struggled badly last week and there have been complaints about Orange which showed up in last autumn’s YouGov survey.”
Greater capacity on the network requires extra radio spectrum as well as “fibre backhaul” to provide fast connections from mobile masts to the core telecoms network. “Fibre will play a crucial part in providing the backhaul for increased data usage. BT (NYSE: BT) needs to get moving on rolling that out,” added the insider.
Touré said that countries need robust national broadband plans to promote faster rollout of fibre networks. MPs and industry officials have reportedly criticised Ed Vaizey, the communications minister, over the lack of progress on four pilot schemes which are meant to push through next-generation broadband in Britain.
Though announced in October, the pilot projects have not yet been put out to tender. Ian Lucas, Labour MP for Wrexham, said that “before we can make any progress, the pilots have to be commenced and assessed.”
Replying in parliament, Vaizey said that “no dates are fixed at this time, but will be made public at the earliest opportunity.”
British networks have insisted that they are well placed to deal with any capacity demand. A spokesman for Three, which offers unlimited data to smartphone users, said: “In the UK, capacity problems to date have largely been the result of some operators’ under investment, not lack of spectrum.
“However, looking forward, a fair allocation of spectrum across the UK’s operators is crucial to support the expansion of smartphone and mobile broadband use. We echo the ITU’s call for governments not to limit competition. Without a fair allocation of spectrum across operators consumers will have less choice and higher charges.”
A spokesman for Vodafone (NYSE: VOD) said: “While there has been dramatic growth in data usage – we have seen data traffic grow 83% year on year – Vodafone has invested to create a smart network, staying one step ahead of rising demand.
“As this year progresses, it will become increasingly obvious which operators have failed to consistently invest in their infrastructure. Those that have underinvested or are consolidating their networks to boost profits will creak under the strain.”
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.