O2 last week defended its UK 3G network, going so far as to suggest it provided a superior customer experience in much of the UK, and in London in particular.
Tension is high among operators over network quality, and O2, considered by many watchers to have the weakest 3G network in the land, was asked to respond to claims by Vodafone in recent advertising that its 3G network offered the best quality of service.
O2 UK chief technology officer Derek McManus said: “Is Vodafone best for 3G quality? Not in my opinion, no. Overall, O2 has a better network – although, there are also parts of the country where we don’t. But we’d rather be honest, and talk to customers in a language they understand.”
McManus cited a January study, verified by the British Approvals Board for Telecommunications, which showed O2 fastest for mobile web downloads in four of the 20 major cities in the UK. Vodafone was placed first in five cities in the same study, however.
McManus said: “We have the best network in London – and that is independently tested, and not a claim to make us look good. We have 84 per cent [UK] 3G coverage, but we also have over 7,000 WiFi hotspots and the best 2G coverage. For mobile data, I’d say the best place to go is O2.”
He said O2 has “doubled network roll out for the next few years” and is “accelerating a plan to invest hundreds of millions” in it. It is to add a further 1,500 cell sites by the end of 2010.
Meanwhile 3, already embroiled in disagreement with Orange over claims in its advertising of network quality, also slammed Vodafone.
3 UK chief technology officer Graham Baxter said: “How can it (Vodafone) justify that claim? What is it measuring, and how is it demonstrating it has a better quality network than we have? Ours is a fair measure of throughput speeds, and Vodafone’s are comparable. We have the best population coverage so I don’t know what quality it’s claiming for.”
Vodafone head of network development Mairead Cullen said of the Sure Signal campaign in question: “We mean quality of customer experience and consistency of it – where and when. Our strategy is to ensure quality service is available to customers where they want it. And customers want to use 3G indoors.”
She added: “We have made consistent investment [in our network] to ensure our customers get the service they want. We are reaping the benefits. You must invest in networks over time – and just to meet demand.”
Independent commentators backed Vodafone. Ovum analyst Emeka Obiodu said: “Has O2 underinvested? Yes. Vodafone is taking its battle as challenger seriously. O2 has invested across the market rather than in infrastructure, while Vodafone has focused on network. Vodafone is fighting back and it’s attacking O2’s achilles heel. O2 needs to improve its infrastructure quickly.”
But O2 put in a fierce defence. McManus said it is right to invest as demand dictates. “Just 0.2 per cent of our base carries 29 per cent of our data traffic, and we have more data customers than any competitor. To say we haven’t invested is wrong, when we are carrying more data than any of them. Our data network doubles in capacity every four months.”
McManus added: “We are on a completely different scale [in terms of smartphone usage]. We have over two million iPhone users when the closest competitor has perhaps a tenth of that. We have invested because we’ve the biggest base, the lowest churn and the most satisfied customers. We have huge investment planned. It’s a case of coping with demand and improving service.”
But 3’s Baxter hit back: “I have seen what everyone has seen, and you have to wonder if O2’s network is strong enough to support a significant base of 3G usage.”