The mobile internet is not mobile

So many of the new and exciting web ventures we hear about daily seem to revolve around the mobile arena, capitalising on the rise of smart phones in the market.  This of course is dependent on good mobile communications, both in terms of bandwidth, and stability of access.  There are two problems with this: non-city locations and international travel.

Taking the latter first, anyone other than the US, where one mobile telephone contract covers an enormous contiguous area, is left stranded as soon as they leave their home country.  I recently spent 3 weeks in Florida and was left with no mobile coverage at all.  I could of course left my phone on data roaming, but at £6/mb and with the amount of data usage that only a few emails and web sites use, the cost is just not reasonable.  So off to Verizon I went to get a MiFi – a small wifi unit connected to the Verizon network (I use one in the UK provided by 3 for internet access on my computer and iPad when on the move).  However, I can only get one on contract – equivalent of £500/yr for a reasonable amount of data – not justifiable unless I am making monthly visits to the US.  A stop at WalMart tells me that Virgin Mobile in the US do a pay-as-you-go WiFi – perfect until you find its on the Sprint network with limited coverage in Florida (and the West Coast where I am going next).  So to access all the wonderful mobile features on my iPhone I have to find a Starbucks with WiFi access – perfect, except that I can’t use my Starbucks app to find where the nearest Starbucks is, and nor can I use the wonderful WorkSnug app to find WiFi!  ((Disclosure: I am an investor in WorkSnug.)

Outside super-connected cities such as San Francisco where extra bandwidth 4G is regularly available, most cities, including digital cities such as London, have very variable data coverage for mobiles with low bandwidth and dropped connections the norm.  This is such an issue that businesses such as Hailo (which I have invested in) operating in the London Taxi market have to put a lot of effort into their mobile app to make sure it works well with low bandwidth and extended periods of no communications at all.  Go on a rail line outside of London and my experience is you get mobile coverage at best 50% of the time and similarly the motorway network is patchy at best, let alone when you go out into the country where what network you are on is the most important factor in whether you have coverage or not.

Mobile apps are great and the amount we will do on our mobiles will only increase, but for as long as the mobile internet is not truly mobile (either in bandwidth availability and/or access stability) the dream of the day when we can rely only on cloud services and mobile access will remain just that, a dream.  We have lost the ability to package data in a bandwidth efficient manner and my prediction is that the provision of extra bandwidth by the telecoms suppliers will not even hold still in terms of the need for growing bandwidth by ever more greedy apps.  And of course until mobile operators properly cooperate across international borders to bring reasonable roaming prices to all, the mobile internet for travellers will remain a dream for even longer.

So, whilst usage of cloud and mobile services will grow in our lives, we will continue to rely on our own computing resources (laptop et al) and own data stores for much longer than the cloud zealots are predicting.

About Julian Ranger

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Posted on August 2, 2011, in Internet - general and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Yes, mobile roaming is still expensive and tricky. Getting a local SIM or solution can be even more challenging. The irony is that the EU has laws in place now to regulate the cost of roaming, but only within the EU, so operators are making non-EU roaming even more expensive to make up!

    I wrote a comprehensive guide to getting 3G in the US and explains what any visitor to the US needs to know to get online at a reasonable cost:

  2. Thanks Scott – a great piece on the US options. What your guide shows though is how ludicrous all the hoops you have to go through are.

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