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Ofcom report has mobile broadband at snail's pace

Communications watchdog Ofcom has released a report into mobile broadband speeds, and the figures suggest that while adoption of the technology is growing at a rapid pace, the performance still leaves a lot to be desired.

The group's most recent figures suggest that 17 per cent of UK households are using dedicated mobile broadband - via a dongle, data card, or router, rather than through a smartphone or 3G-enabled tablet - to connect to the Internet.

The more surprising figure is that around seven per cent of UK households are using a mobile broadband connection as their only means of accessing the Internet - up from three per cent in a 2009 survey. Many of these are located in rural areas, where traditional broadband is unavailable.

Those figures show some impressive growth, but more importantly show that the rise of 3G networking has helped to bring the Internet to the have-nots in rural areas where traditional fixed-line broadband is not yet available.

Given the figures from Ofcom's research, carried out under commission by Epitiro, BT's decision to launch a high-speed 4G mobile broadband trial in rural Cornwall makes a great deal of sense: while everyone can benefit from improved speeds, those who use a mobile broadband connection as their sole means of Internet access will benefit the most.

Ofcom's research also included more than 4.2 million speed tests, designed to paint a picture of the performance of mobile broadband - and the news isn't great. With the average download speed languishing around 1.5Mb/s - contrasted with an average of 6.2Mb/s for fixed-line broadband - those relegated to mobile broadband connections will find themselves waiting over eight seconds for a basic web page to load.

While that figure changes in built-up areas of good 3G reception, with average speeds hitting 2.1Mb/s and droping to 1.7Mb/s in peak times, Ofcom's research demonstrates that mobile broadband has a long way to go before it can offer a service that is equivalent to that of fixed-line broadband.

The study also found some interesting differences between mobile networks, with O2 coming out on top for latency, and T-Mobile and Orange languishing at the bottom of the table for overall speed.

With 4G trials due to start soon, and companies promising increased coverage and performance for existing mobile broadband networks, the technology's performance will likely improve - but until mobile networks ditch the often harsh limits on the amount of data that can be downloaded, those forced onto a mobile broadband connection will remain second-class citizens of the Internet.