Wanted: A 3G mast detector -

Free apps which help locate the nearest wi-fi hotspot must be two-a-penny, while apps that enable mobile broadband users to find the nearest 3G mast are currently as rare as hens' teeth. That will all change once the mobile operators wake up to the possibilities.

With the revenues from voice calls entering a downward spiral, the mobile network operators are enthusiastically seeking alternative revenue streams – and mobile data services are the obvious candidate.

But there's a problem. How do you differentiate yourself from the opposition? As O2 has recently found out to its cost, an arch rival such as Orange can claim its data network is better than all of the opposition.

Worse still, the market is rapidly heading towards a situation whereby the operators can only bleat that their data network is faster than the opposition in order to differentiate.

However, there's a problem. With the latest incarnations of 3G technologies, higher speeds are possible but they're only truly available to users in close proximity to the actual 3G masts themselves.

Techeye was recently chatting to 3 UK's CTO, Graham Baxter, about the present problems with 3G data rates. 3 UK estimates that the highest data throughput a typical user will see from a 3G network prsently rated at 3.6 Mbit/s will be around 2.8 Mbit/s.

The network operators, however, have already begun to roll out enhanced 3G networks which on paper offer 7.2 Mbit/s but which Baxter estimates actually only really offer 5.6 Mbit/s.

Worse still, the further you are away from the mast, the faster the speeds drop. Real data throughput speeds can drop by a half, if the user is a mere 500 metres away, 3 UK estimates.

Just around the corner is an even faster version of 3G which most observers are calling 3G+. These should, in theory, be able to support speeds of 14.4 Mbit/s.

The catch is that over 100 metres away from the 3G base station, these data throughput speeds will start to drop off fast, Baxter revealed.

Worst still for the network operators, first impressions are vitally important for securing mobile broadband users – typically a laptop/netbook owner with a 3G dongle.

If the first experience of a 3G data network fails to live up to the (largely overhyped) expectations, there's a grave danger that such customers will 'churn' to another operator whose network is perceived to be faster.

So Techeye suggested to Graham Baxter that the ideal solution would be an app which enabled mobile broadband users to discover how close they are to a 3G base station/mast.

In order to achieve better throughput speeds, all such users will need to do is move closer to the nearest mast. Simples.

While such information could plausibly be obtained from cellular site triangulation, Baxter pointed out that most 3G handsets these days come equipped with a built-in GPS facility.

So such handsets could actually indicate in which direction to walk/drive in order to get a better data signal. All such an app would require is a database of the location of the mobile operator's 3G masts.

Allowing such information to reside on a mobile handset would be a disaster from a commercial perspective but a 3G mast locating app could acquire the necessary location data by accessing the operator's mast database over the mobile Internet.

All such an app would require is some delicate negotiations with the 3G network operators. However, if one operator came out with such a useful piece of software before its rivals it would enjoy a distinct commercial advantage.

Watch this space.