Mobile Data Sucks

We talk about the power of high speed mobile data networks a lot. The idea of having broadband wherever we are is a great idea and one we all hope comes true. Unfortunately, in today’s market, mobile data simply sucks. When push comes to shove, the connection is lost, speeds drop to nearly nothing, and the task ends unsuccessfully.

To begin, let’s talk about coverage. Both the GSM operators in the United States have notoriously bad 3G service. Don’t get me wrong, AT&T has the largest footprint in the USA, covering about 97% of all Americans with their Edge service. However, 2G networks such as Edge make anything more than simple text emails impossible. Moreover, T-Mobile is quickly expanding the footprint of their 3G network, a network which only a short time ago didn’t exist, but has yet to make it widely available. As such, consistency and HSDPA don’t go together in the United States. And don’t even get me started about basements, office buildings or parking garages. Can you say “No Service” with any more certainty?

CDMA carriers fair a little better, although they aren’t immune to the same pitfalls as AT&T and T-Mobile. Verizon Wireless loves to boast their reliable network as much as any carrier I’ve seen. Although more constant than AT&T, I’ve experienced network fluctuations and lack of coverage in my area. Sprint is equally inconsistent, particularly with the extremely limited coverage of their ’4G’ WiMax network.

In addition, none of the current mobile data networks available to the public even come close to DSL, cable, or fiber optic broadband speeds. I routinely get bellow 1Mbps download and average about 250Kbps upstream on AT&T’s 3G network. A reality simply unacceptable when you have content to share with the world. Verizon and Sprint, CDMA Rev. A, are comparable in real world situations although they have lower theoretical maximums. T-Mobile, on the other hand, continues to play catch-up with their HSPA+ rollout.

The combination of poor connectivity and slow speeds illustrate the overall terrible quality of these mobile data networks. In fact, whenever you really need to get some work done it seems the network gets even worse. I was trying to upload a picture from my iPhone the other day and AT&T’s 3G network refused to cooperate. Three times.

Let’s talk about some applications for a moment. The Evo 4G touts video chat with its front facing camera as a key feature of the device. Unfortunately, the service doesn’t work very well. Over WiFi the quality is VGA on a good connection and the frame rate is decent at best. Over 3G, you’re lucky to even keep the conversation connected. In fact, Apple is specifically blocking Facetime video messaging over 3G.

Video streaming is another example. Services such as MLB At Bat and the ABC player tout high quality video streaming to your mobile device. Over WiFi, watching my Yankees or my favorite episode of Castle is very enjoyable. When I tested the services over Sprint’s 4G network during a car ride, all I got was extremely low quality video streams and major lag. Essentially, the video wasn’t even watchable.

Of course, we aren’t always using our mobile devices in such strenuous situations. Some times sending an email or checking twitter is all we desire. Reading text isn’t too troublesome for 3G but when more advanced content, like images, come into play, expect delays. In fact, the gods at AT&T sometimes decide just to ignore this media all together and refuse to load the content. Don’t you just love passive censorship?

Even worse is the pricing structure for mobile data. Of course, specifics vary from carrier to carrier but generally speaking mobile data is over priced. For relatively slow speeds and connection issues it is hard to justify $30/month for unlimited data. In fact, AT&T recently removed unlimited data usage in favor of a 2GB, $25/month price tag. Even if your carrier still offers ‘unlimited’ data, remember unlimited really means a 5GB limit before your account gets flagged.

Overall, in today’s society I find it inexcusable that the major telecoms have no gripes with offering such a poor service. Obviously I’m a big user and therefore am critical of a product I use very frequently, but there is definitely merit to the argument. It’s 2010 for goodness sake, we can make big screen televisions an inch thick and we can drive completely electric cars for miles on end. Mobile data is undoubtedly years behind, a travest that irritates me day in and day out. If only one carrier went out on a limb and launched a powerful and consistent option I’d switch in a heartbeat. I mean, we can dream right?


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This is precisely the reason I haven’t secured one of the fabulous touchscreen, beautiful android devices out there today. I couldn’t justify $30 for data that I could supplement with WIFI seeing as I’m home more than anywhere else not to mention the instability and slowness.

Nice post.