“Sorry Mr Mobile Broadband Customer, our network is congested. Would you mind if we switched on web compression?”

That’s what I would have liked to have heard from my service provider. Instead, and without warning, I fired up my mobile broadband dongle this week to find my browser was displaying images in low resolution. I’m not talking a slight downgrade in picture quality here, I’m talking the turning of Facebook thumbnails into blurry smudges.

At first I figured this was a Firefox setting that had been corrupted, so I tried IE 8. Same experience. And then I realised that I was only experiencing this downgrade in quality when connected to O2 mobile broadband. Make a WiFi connection and all is well. O2, it seemed, had switched on web compression without warning.

Web compression for mobile broadband customers is not new; several carriers use it and there are several providers offering solutions. In its most basic form, the technology intercepts my page request and ‘optimises’ it to reduce the size of the page so that it loads faster. The most noticeable layer of optimisation is the compression of images.

Carriers position web compression as a way of improving the customer’s user experience. Pages download faster and I use less data. This last point is key. I use less data, and therefore use less bandwidth on the network and reduce my carrier’s costs. So who’s really getting the better deal here?

  • If I were on a PAYG, metered tariff, I would see benefit in using less data. I’m not, I’m on monthly plan and I’ve never got close to my allowance. As more and more connections move to unlimited plans, I don’t see this as being a sustainable point of defence by the carrier.
  • This change happened without warning. I’ve been running at full resolution for the last year. Why the switch now. Was it me? Was it a firmware / driver update?
  • My colleagues have the same plan, same USB dongle etc. They are not impacted by this. They still have full resolution as default. What did I do?
  • Why was I not asked? A simple dialogue box, asking if I wanted to improve my speed (but compromise quality) would allow me to make an informed choice and not waste time thinking it was a browser setting. That’s an hour of my life I’ll not get back.
  • There is no option to switch compression off via the connection manager. Work arounds include reloading the page while pressing ‘shift’, this sends a no-cache header that returns an original page (seriously frustrating). You can also download an add-on for Firefox to modify headers. But that’s perhaps out of the technical competency of 99% of the population.

Most importantly, does my carrier truly believe that I believe its marketing guff about improving my download speeds for a better user experience? This is about them protecting their profitability under the unprecedented weight of data traffic that they are experiencing.

Surely, if I was getting the download speeds that they advertised in the first place, then there would be no need for me to want to speed up the experience?

The truth is, from smartphones to mobile broadband dongles, embedded 3G modules and mifi units, the range of data-hungry prod­ucts and services promoted in 2009, coupled with the availability of low-cost unlimited data plans, has created unprecedented strain on networks.

This puts the industry in a difficult position. Having spent considerable effort raising consumer awareness around data, many networks have hinted at the need to try and curb traffic by educating consumers about their data consumption. In particular the handful of ‘power-users’ that account for the vast majority of traffic.

Strategies for managing this problem range from the sensible, if not challenging, to the down-right absurd. Several carriers have already come in for criticism after discretely rewriting the rule-book and restricting their unlimited data plans to the disadvantage of paying consumers.

At best, this practice of degrading the mobile broadband experience in this way is going to drive support traffic. At worst, it’ll force users to churn.

All of the margin gained through optimizing bandwidth use is just going to be eroded by an increased support burden and a spike in subscriber churn.

Let’s put this into perspective. I’m usually a pretty loyal customer, but this has annoyed me. I’ve had no communication from O2, no warning, no explanation. Had I not been inclined to investigate this myself (or had the technical competency to understand what was happening) I would have just assumed it was a poor service and a degradation of the experience I had been receiving from the last year. Does O2 really believe this wouldn’t force a huge decline in brand loyalty?

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