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Never mind the quality, feel the width

July 2009


Living, as I do, on a virtual pendulum that swings between the chaotic digital world and the ordered East Anglian countryside, I am usually able to maintain a sense of proportion and keep my temper when disgraceful technical irritations arise.  Even during those times (most of the time, actually) when the pendulum seems to linger at a point closer to the digital side, help is at hand.  If I feel too firmly manacled to the world of hard drives, mega bytes and downloads, I have only to glance out of the window at the house martins working away at their nests in our eaves, or the woodpecker picking insects out of out the lawn, to realise that the world is a better place than my temper suggests.

Nonetheless, despite these calming influences, every so often something makes my blood pressure gently but insistently rise in a way that even the house martins are not able to relieve.  One such issue is the declining quality of mobile phone services, and as the suppliers are also the major providers of internet services, their contempt for the customer is a warning to us web surfers.

Put simply, mobile phone call quality is a disgrace.  It has been declining fast for years, but has now reached a point so low that it is a scandal, especially as the technology that supports it has done nothing but improve.  Broken connections, cutting out words, echoes, fading, and fuzziness – all have become the norm.

The problem started when they moved from analogue technology to digital.  It suddenly became possible to squeeze many more phone calls through the same pipeline.  Consequently, the phone companies started selling their services without limit, as if they could serve them all properly.  They can’t, of course.  All mobile phone networks have a finite capacity, so as user numbers increase they just reduce the quality of the service that they offer (but not the price, of course). 

It’s the business model of the M25: the more people that use it, the worse is the service it offers, but the owners make no effort whatever to limit the number of customers.

I receive many phone calls from people using mobiles; it is a very rare call, and a very short one, that comes even close to the quality of any landline call.  The conversation will have been conducted through what sounds like either a bowl of soup, or the Heathrow departure lounge, and several times one or both of us will have had to repeat something to be understood.  Despite this, they cost much more than a landline call.  Smoke signals would be better.

Having said all that, the oddest thing is that we just don’t complain about this scam.  Generally, I am a great fan of the market place, as it has a wonderful way of sorting out the shysters and mountebanks, and is normally the best regulator of dreadful service, but for the moment, it seems powerless in the face of all this declining service.

The fact is, most people seem prepared to acknowledge that mobile phone quality is appalling, and getting worse, but they are prepared to put up with it and keep paying.  The marketplace is, therefore, actually rewarding the providers for this reduction in service.  In what sane world would an obvious reduction in service be coupled by an increase in use of the product?  Why has economic reason been so firmly unseated from her throne?

I expect there is an economic law that explains this, but it beats me. 

Perhaps a white knight will ride up soon and announce the founding of a mobile phone network that measures its success on quality of service, rather than number of customers, but I’m not holding my breath.