ANALYSIS: The missed QoS bullseye

05 December 2013 |

With Vodafone named and shamed by Ofcom for not hitting its 3G targets, how accessible are reports for quality of service (QoS) standards across the industry? Capacity investigates.

It seems like an age ago, but all operators in the UK – Vodafone, EE (formerly Orange and T-Mobile), O2 and Three – agreed to comply with Ofcom's requirements for 3G services when they were awarded licences back in 2000.

The companies were ordered to roll out 3G services to 80% of the UK population by 2010. The target was then revised to increase to 90% of the population by June 30 2013.

In its assessment report on UK telcos, the watchdog said that "Vodafone had failed to meet the obligation, falling 1.4% short of the 90% requirement".

The company could have then been hit with a fine of up to 10% of annual revenue, but avoided that scenario by coming up with a compliance plan that it must meet by the end of this year.

Its compliance plan will involve rolling out 3G to more mobile masts than the company had originally estimated.

And it is not necessarily a Europe-wide problem, despite the well-publicised problems of 3G across the continent. Speaking this month, Joachim Horn, CTO at Tele2 said the entire industry "messed up 3G". It took at least five years to develop.

According to the most up-to-date reports, French regulator ARCEP and German regulator Bundesnetzagentur have both confirmed that operators in the respective countries have hit targets for 3G.

Matthew Howett, analyst at research firm Ovum, believes the fact that Vodafone missed its target by only a very small margin has saved the company from the problem becoming a bigger issue.

"This is most likely a simple oversight on Vodafone's part," Howett said. "They missed it by a very small margin and Ofcom seem convinced they will comply before the end of the year."

In truth, Vodafone is not the only major global operator out there that has had trouble fulfilling its coverage or QoS requirements.

Indeed, it is not an uncommon practice for regulators to assess how well operators are performing with regards to fulfilling their service requirements.

Industry watchers have long commented on the fact that price is no longer the defining factor in customers taking on services, with quality now more of a requirement.

According to leading management consultancy firm, ATKearney, the telecommunications industry rarely publishes QoS results, which makes it difficult for users to compare carrier performance in the same way they compare price.

Recently however, the industry has come up with a range of QoS indicators, dependant on regulation, definitions, measurement guidelines and expected levels of quality.

Ofcom in particular has been pioneering quality standards and makes fixed-line operators measure and publish QoS standards on its dedicated website.

The regulator has stated it will closely monitor Vodafone's compliance implementation, and will not take any action against the company's failure given the compliance plans at this stage. It did say it will assess the situation in January 2014, however, and could take action then.

"Had they been far off, Ofcom would no doubt have used enforcement powers and levied a fine," added Howett. "I suspect it will involve upgrading a few additional base stations or perhaps even increasing the power of its services."

The watchdog also revealed that O2 will be expected to extend 4G coverage in indoor areas to at least 98% of the UK, and 99% outdoors, by 2017 at the latest. Other mobile operators will be intending to match this coverage and help to extend mobile broadband to parts of the UK still underserved by 3G.

O2 also missed its 3G obligations in the past and Ofcom did levy a fine on that occasion.

The watchdog said it will carry out research to measure 3G and 4G performance, assessing the average speeds accessed by customers. It will publish this report in spring 2014.

Howett believes with that with development of 4G, the issue of poor coverage could be less of a problem in the future, given Ofcom's targets for UK coverage by 2017.

"Arguably the 4G coverage obligation of 98% of the UK population by 2017 is easier to achieve, since frequencies at 800MHz travel further than 3G at 2.1GHz, so fewer base stations are needed," he explained.