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Vodafone CEO: 'Never mind the speed, watch the content - slowly"


via Flickr © wwarby (CC BY 2.0)

According to Vodafone's UK CEO, Jeroen Hoencamp, the mobile operator's strategy is to focus on content rather than on providing a widespread high-speed "4G" coverage. Well, that certainly differentiates it from its rampaging competitor, EE.

The fact is that EE is now by far and away Britain's biggest mobile operator. It has 7.7 million subscribers and covers 80 per cent of the UK population and says it will have 98 per cent coverage by the end of this year. (It's still a shame about the name though. People still remember that EE used to be "Everything Everywhere" when, patently, it was no such thing. It was a brand name that made an immediate laughing stock of the shy and retiring little company that emerged, blaring its lungs out, from the 2010 union of Orange and Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile UK and the company was quickly re-branded as 'EE'.)

Vodafone, meanwhile, seems to have been around since shortly after Samuel Morse popped his clogs and is a permanent fixture in Britain's dwindling constellation of mobile telcos although its star has dimmed considerably over the years. Even today Vodafone covers only 50 per cent of mainland Britain, but, according to Jeroen Hoencamp, that's not because it couldn't extend its reach, it's just that it doesn't want to - allegedly.

In a stilted and determinedly old-fashioned "interview" posted on the 'Official Vodafone UK Blog' page Mr. Hoencamp is quoted as saying, “We could build a network just to achieve massive speeds but the reality is that you don’t currently need anything beyond 20Mbps on a mobile device".

That is an interesting point. Vodafone may no longer have any significant US interests but the FCC, the American regulator, defines mobile broadband as a minimum of 25Mbps and it is  generally accepted by analysts and industry observers that 20Mbps won't cut the '4G' mustard - anywhere.

Mr Hoencamp continues,"Even for streaming video you only need a couple of megabits per second, so we think less about absolute speed and more about using that bandwidth to enable more customers to enjoy great content on the move, even in the busiest places and at the busiest times.”

Hmm. We'll come back to that a little later.

For Jeroen Hoencamp so-called '4G' services are "all about having the strongest network … [and] one of the things that makes us different from others is that we have our ‘low band spectrum’. What that means is that our 4G is on a lower frequency, which travels further and deeper indoors. Forget all the technicalities, though: all it means is that we can offer great indoor coverage, and that’s important because the bulk of mobile activity actually takes place indoors – whether people are at work and at home."

Hmm and double hmm again. We'll come back to that one later as well.

The argument is that while Vodafone could easily and quickly invest in network expansion and the provision of services to a higher percentage of the UK population than it does currently, it won't do so because that would result in a "thin and flimsy network." Really? This sounds more like a thin and flimsy excuse not to spend on better and more extensive infrastructure whilst continuing to charge subscribers premium rates for content that, all too often, falls and fails. Surely the depth and breadth of network coverage is a matter of direct correlation with the  amount of money spent on upgrading and extending infrastructure?

The CEO says that while subscribers do care about great content they "shouldn’t worry or care about the latest back end technology.

Well, here's some news Jeroen, they don't. But they do care about patchy and inconsistent coverage, lack of signal strength, dropped calls, buffering and the myriad os other faults and glitches that can mar Vodafone's service. I know this from bitter experience being a Vodafone subscriber myself. Some examples follow a little further on.

"Forget all the technicalities"? I don't think so

But first let us ignore the CEO's stricture that we should "forget all the technicalities" and take a closer look at that much-vaunted "low band spectrum". Mr. Hoencamp is referring to

900MHz range which Vodafone has been holding on to for well over a generation now - as well as the 800MHz which it bid for and bought in the recent 4G auctions. The germane point is that Vodafone has significantly more spectrum in the sub-1 GHz ranges than EE. True EE has some 800Mhz spectrum but the lion's share of its RF (coming from both Orange's and T-Mobile's original holdings) is the 1800Mhz bandwidth. EE (and Vodafone too) own 2100MHz spectrum and 2.6GH bandwidth. It is hardly a surprise then that attitudes to network build-out differ between the two operators.

EE has plenty of spectrum now and when its acquisition by BT is complete the new entity will have double and more the bandwidth available to Vodafone. That said, as EE/BT will have only a relatively small amount of sub-900MHz bandwidth, the merged company will have to deploy a lot of antenna sites, and that is a major capes item.

Vodafone, on the other hand, with more sub-900MHz spectrum to its name can gat away with fewer cell sites and provide better in-building access. Hence Jeroen Hoencamp's boast that "we could build a network just to achieve massive speeds, but the reality is that you don’t currently need anything beyond 20Mbps on a mobile device". And, of course, Vodafone (unlike O2) is not regulatory required to provide '4G' coverage.

Mr. Hoencamp says Vodafone's strategy is "more about having the strongest signal." Well, for what it's worth, as far as yours truly is concerned, Vodafone's coverage leaves a great deal to be desired. OK, so I admit that I am way out in the boondocks a full (and flat) four miles from the palace of Westminster but I am still slap bang in the middle of the metropolis. I have a top-of-the-range iPhone and a corporate 3G post-pay subscription to Vodafone.

Within my house (which, by the way, is not lined with lead) Vodafone's signal strength is non-existent. It simply does not register. I can't make a voice call out except by taking myself up into the attic, opening the window and leaning out as far as is commensurate with safety and still being able to hold the handset up to my  ear. Even then the calls drop at least nine times out of ten. I can get a signal and a slightly better service if I up stick and wander down into the garden, but t hat is extremely inconvenient and anyway who would want to do it in a British winter? I'll bet Jeroen doesn't have to suffer such indignities. For all I know he is accompanied everywhere by a little chap who deploys a telescopic antenna every time the boss wants to use the phone.

I get the ring tone for incoming calls but then I can never hear what is being said. I have to check who rang me and then call them back from a good old landline. As for content, what an absolute joke. However vital and compelling it may be I do not know because I can't get any, ever.

Naturally, I have over the past years complained to Vodafone about the absence of reception only to be told that because I live near a playing field and close by the banks of the River Thames (which is a full 200 feet wide at my place) I shouldn't expect to get a "complete" service and that Vodafone has no plans to boost signal strength or install an extra antenna to help alleviate the problems that I and thousands of other Vodafone users experience daily. My other mobile handset is from O2. I don't use it for work, but it does work perfectly.

If this ludicrous state of affairs can, does and continues to happen in central London, my sympathies go out to all Vodafone subscribers living in rural parts of the UK.By the way, a colleague has emailed me to say that there is a huge Vodafone dead zone in the middle of London's Victoria Station. Who knows how many calls are lost there every day as tens of thousands of commuters pass through? And, irony or ironies, the dead spot is in full view of the Vodafone store where staff are working their socks off selling punters handsets and subscriptions.

But hey, Jeroen Hoencamp believes that Vodafone's 4G network "is really futureproof'. He says "It’s here to stay for a long time, but what we offer will always continue to improve. We’ll add more content partners, and there will be new technologies overlaid which will make the network even better and even faster. It’ll never stop."

The trouble is that at my place it never bloody starts.

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