Operators tardy with New Year texts

Text messages sent as the clock ticked past midnight on January 1 took some UK carriers as long as four hours to deliver, according to an infrastructure provider

The UK's four major mobile phone operators all badly failed their customers this New Year, according to the latest research into delivery delays and outright failures.

A backlog of SMS messages went undelivered for up to four hours while some never reached their intended recipient at all according to research from Sicap, which provides SMS service infrastructure.

Around the stroke of midnight mobile phone users, now dependent on texting as the communication tool of choice, went into a flurry of messaging, wishing all and sundry a happy new year. The total number sent is expected to have exceeded 100 million.

But Per-Johan Lundin, head of marketing at Sicap, believes SMS may have been a misleading acronym around New Year as the short message service became "the slow message service".

While the research was far from exhaustive, Sicap set up tests in London on all the four major GSM networks, O2, Orange, T-mobile and Vodafone, and found none of them were performing optimally as Big Ben rang in 2004.

In fact the best operator Sicap measured, Vodafone, still took a pedestrian 16 minutes, while second best took one hour and seven minutes and third took four hours and 43 minutes. Worse still one operator failed to deliver the message at all, though Sicap declined to name and shame the offending operator.

One customer using the T-Mobile network, via Virgin mobile, told silicon.com: "I couldn't phone anybody or text anybody for almost an hour around midnight."

Other users have contacted silicon.com with similar tales of woe involving all operators.

Mike Grenville, chief executive of 160 Characters, the mobile-messaging association, has some sympathy for the operators but claims "they can't say they haven't been warned".

With each major event, whether it's the Rugby World Cup final, the Pop Idol final or New Year's Eve, we hear more and more about these periods of network overload. But Grenville believes peaks on previous New Year's Eves should have enabled network operators to plan ahead for this year.

"Operators need to plan more effectively for these events. Whether it's the rugby World Cup or New Year or Valentine's Day, all the trends are upwards -- the volumes increase year on year and operators should be prepared for it," said Grenville.

However, while waits of several hours are still unacceptable, Grenville believes the networks performed better this year than last and says they do seem to be learning from experience.

But he warned of a particular danger on the horizon. With more and more people sending MMS messages, often with sound and picture files, these crunch periods on networks are likely to be far more severe on future New Year's Eves as the level of data being transferred skyrockets.