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Mobile Services: The Quality Of The Experience PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Tuesday, 16 April 2013 10:48

(notes from the crowd gathered yesterday to hear views on crowd-sourcing techniques to monitor the performance of Mobile Networks)

head of communicationsOfcom, the UK’s communications regulator, started the meeting with the not unreasonable thought that mobile phone consumers expect service availability indoors, outdoors and on the move. 

They ended the meeting with a plea for suggestions to improve consumer trust in mobile operators.

In between this opening and closing, the quality of the experience, like many a mobile call, was variable.

In regulatory arenas, time moves slowly.  The regulated usually have countless reasons to prolong debate and delay decisions.   The regulator is under little or no pressure to push – unless embarrassing evidence of citizen dissatisfaction finds its way to the surface. 

Ofcom’s call (last December) for information on the quality of experience of mobile services was just such a response to evidence of high levels of consumer dissatisfaction.

Ofcom’s Consumer Panel – the watchdog’s house-trained and rarely a ‘turbulent priest’ – reminded us that looking after the interests of the operators’ consumers might even include those in small businesses.  In these regulatory circles the default is to assume that large businesses are well able to fend for themselves.  As the primary source of Operators’ profits, large businesses (including the public sector) can always, presumably, tax others to pay for the Operators’ cross subsidies and maintain Ofcom’s market-driven dreams.  

Considering the notion of better information for consumers the Consumer Panel envisaged the thrilling prospect of a new stream of quarterly reports.  Ventures like Open Signal and Root Metrics had a more dynamic approach – the use of crowd-sourced evidence freely gleaned from mobile apps.  The good news is they are already doing it – doing it independently of Operators and doing it without asking for permission or needing regulatory intervention.

Similarly the Operators, we learned, are not short of information but their networks’ operational perspective does not always look the same in the consumer’s context.  Analytical tools for Big Data are now well able to ensure that the Operators are not overwhelmed by large numbers – so, as an excuse for not doing it, complexity is a poor argument.

The central issue, not dissimilar to fixed-line networks, is the small matter of honesty.  Are you selling something that is fit for purpose?  The communications industry has a long track record of being ‘up to’ wishful thinking.  At root mobile consumers get more annoyed by a lack of coverage than a lack of speed but that, it seems, does not lessen the lust for headlines; headlines that are hooked on ever smarter handsets which stretch the Operators’ capabilities if the traffic cannot be offloaded via Wi-Fi onto adequate fixed networks.

In the spirit of wishful thinking, regulatory fingers are crossed that 4G will perform better than 3G.  We might even, they hope, end up with better coverage than 2G.  Ofcom’s reluctance to mandate national roaming is not a surprise – it would offend their notion of competition.  Consumers, however, don’t understand why the signal and what you then do with it, needs to be so inextricably interwoven – particularly if the guy sitting next to you on the train has a better signal from a different Operator.

So reluctance to innovate in the consumer interest is not the preserve of the Mobile Operators.  Consumers must pay a price.  As Claire Milne so eloquently pointed out, the obverse of the price-rise penny is a quality-cut.

Mobile Operators’ reactions to calls for better information on service quality were, of course, predictable.  1: Question the validity of evidence. 2: Object to the cost.  3: Raise issues of commercial confidentiality.  5: Complain about regulatory burdens and, if yet more impact needed, (6:) argue that doing anything would be a strategically dangerous diversion from investment priorities for the entire country.

In the spirit of ‘light touch’ regulation Ofcom looks favourably on a crowd-sourced approach to better informing consumers.  The notion that it would cost next to nothing is not entirely valid – the crowd-sourcing Apps providers will look for buyers of the data freely provided – but they do stand a better chance of becoming an acceptably independent source of information that consumers can trust.

But nobody can yet be sure that the power of crowd-sourced data might provide the evidence that drives Mobile Operators to abandon wishful thinking and come up with sales propositions that do not place the entire risk on consumers. 

The smartphone has become a remote control for many aspects of individual lives and economies.  Oddly, in this emergent and rampant Digital Economy, it is the Mobile Operators and their Regulators who seem most in need of understanding that consumers understand ‘value in context’.  No amount of over-simplification will disguise the fact that the context demands that the thing should work when and wherever needed and with whatever else it needs to work.

Yesterday’s crowd at Ofcom’s consideration of crowd-sourcing will have noted that the experience was variable.   


Ofcom's 'Call for Input' was covered in an earlier CMA Leader 'Ofcom asks: Is the Quality of Mobile not strained?'





Last Updated on Friday, 19 April 2013 07:49

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