The mobile operator 3 is to let its broadband customers cancel their contracts or receive a discount if their local 3G services are too poor to support basic web browsing and email.
The operator's concession to those suffering particularly bad mobile broadband experiences came on Monday, the same day it announced it would temporarily suspend dongle sales in areas that are currently poorly served for 3G. It did not specify which geographic areas this applies to.
Hugh Davies, 3's director of corporate affairs, said customers will not be held to their contract if their local 3G service from 3, which has some of the most extensive broadband coverage in the UK, is not meeting the operator's internal standards.
"At the moment, we have some internal standards and, if you come within those and we can't resolve it technically or through a change to your terms, we wouldn't hold you to your contract," Davies told ZDNet UK. He defined a change of terms as "a discount or something like that", to be applied in cases where customers are getting a "degraded experience" due to marginal coverage.
Davies said 3's precise internal standards for 3G services would be made public within months, maybe sooner. He said the standards relate to a quality of service that allows basic web browsing and email, rather than video streaming or other high-bandwidth usage.
"When the whole mobile broadband thing took off, it was very much geared around browsing and email, and we've never said we'd be able to compete with high-speed fixed broadband," Davies said. "Where someone calls up and says they're not able to download videos or do streaming, that's not what it was intended for."
3 can, with customer permission, deploy technology to help customers evaluate their experience on both mobile broadband dongles and 3G-using smartphones. If a smartphone or dongle user is having an "unacceptable level of issues", that user will be released from their contract, the company said in an email to ZDNet UK.
In its announcement on Monday, the operator said certain areas of the UK will see a suspension of dongle sales while it gradually puts into place a network-sharing agreement with T-Mobile. "In the few areas where we cannot offer the best experience if we add significant numbers of new customers, we will temporarily limit the number of new people joining the network by briefly suspending sales activity," 3 said.
According to Davies, these suspensions will take place across "a few hundred sites where, for a short period — one to three months — we'll be advising stores in those areas to have a damn good check of the coverage maps to make sure [potential customers are] not on the edge of a degraded experience".
At present, 3 has just over 9,200 masts in its 3G network. The T-Mobile network-sharing deal will see that number rise to around 13,000 by the end of next year, Davies said.
Noting a widespread general dissatisfaction with 3G service speeds, Davies said there is "a reasonable percentage of people who, whichever network they bought mobile broadband from, are not looking to renew".
"The thing has grown so quickly that the sales process has not looked at things like where you're going to get the best coverage and where you're not," Davies said, adding that the situation was complicated because mobile broadband is inexpensive and dongles are often bought as presents.
Davies said 3 had seen sales of its Skype phones go up in the summer, then seen a sudden 35 percent surge in traffic in October, when students swarmed to university towns.
Other major sources of mobile broadband traffic are P2P usage and video streaming, Davies said. 3 recently started degrading P2P traffic at busy times of the day in certain areas, in order to maintain a better surfing experience for other users. According to Davies, these are the same areas where sales of new dongles are being discouraged.
Davies added that 3 will hold off limiting video streaming on its mobile broadband network as long as it can.
3 is not the only mobile broadband operator to be feeling the bandwidth pinch at the moment. In mid-November, O2 said it would invest hundreds of millions of pounds in boosting its 3G capacity, citing an "unprecedented change in demand".