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Netherlands 4G networks perform best in Europe - P3

Tuesday 15 March 2016 | 13:20 CET | Background

The four LTE networks in the Netherlands have achieved high scores in performance compared to other countries, according to the annual Connect Mobile Benchmark by P3 Communications. This is the second time the researcher has tested the Dutch market. T-Mobile emerged as the best this year, followed by KPN, Vodafone and Tele2. Last year T-Mobile was not included in the measurements as its 4G roll-out wasn't yet completed. 

Germany-based P3 Communications is a consultancy providing services for a range of sectors. In the telecom market, it counts around 120 companies as customers, including some of Europe's largest operators, such as Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Tele2 Group, Telefonica and KPN. 

In the Netherlands, the company used four test vehicles to conduct the network measurements around the country, from 28 January to 09 February. The route covered the cities with over 100,000 residents - Amsterdam, Arnhem, The Hague, Eindhoven, Enschede, Groningen, Rotterdam, Tilburg, Utrecht and Zwolle. These cities accounted for 65 percent of the measurements. The remaining tests were in smaller cities and along connecting roads, in places such as Terneuzen, Heerlen and Den Helder. P3 said it covered around 4.3 million residents and 7,600km, including 5,200km on major roads and the remainder in built-up areas.

According to P3 Managing Director Hakan Ekmen, the aim was not to test coverage, which would require significantly more measurements, but to look at the end-to-end performance of the networks. Every year P3 shares its methods with the operators before conducting the tests, something Ekmen said is unique in the sector.

Each car contains 12 smartphones for checking the network performance. For calls, eight Samsung Galaxy S6 were used, two for each operator, with as much operator-specific firmware as possible. This is important, as voice services are not yet operational on the 4G networks. The handsets still use CSFB to switch from the LTE network to 3G for calls, something which can result in a longer set-up time.

One of the phones was set to prefer 3G networks, while the other was put on 4G as preferred network. An automated system conducted continuous calls of 70 seconds each throughout the day. The call set-up time as well as the call quality on the MOS scale were measured. Tele2 was the only operator not to support HD Voice (on the T-Mobile 3G network which it uses as back-up) and as such had the lowest MOS. 

The call success rate on the Dutch networks ranged from 98.7 to 99.7 percent. While at first glance this appears very high, it's the small differences that impact the customer experience, Ekmen said, noting end-users quickly sense a lower call quality. They are more critical when it comes to the time to establish the call, but it is especially bothersome when the connection breaks or a video stops for buffering.

At the same time, four Samsung Note 5s were used to check 4G download and upload speeds. P3 downloaded and uploaded files and tested a static web page and normal and bigger websites. The quality of YouTube in SD and HD was also evaluated. 

 

One of the tests is a 10-second continuous download. On T-Mobile's network, this worked every time, with an average speed of 63.8 Mbps. In 90 percent of cases, the speed was over 28.4 Mbps and in 10 percent more than 110.3 Mbps. KPN and Vodafone reached top speeds of 108.7 Mbps and 106.2 Mbps in the fastest 10 percent of measurements, while Tele2 was at 99.918 Mbps. 

The measurements show download speeds in the big cities are better than elsewhere, in line with what the operators also report. Nevertheless, while the networks in cities are better, coverage outside the cities is nearly as good, and smaller cities show good connections. At T-Mobile, speeds were even higher than in the city. Tele2 is still lagging the three other operators though, as its network is not yet completed.

On connecting roads, performance was very similar to smaller cities. This shows that in a small, densely populated country like the Netherlands national coverage truly means national. However, P3 did note that this is still based on a limited number of measurements.

Netherlands scores highest in Europe

P3's last test in August 2015 showed Vodafone had the best network. However, T-Mobile was not included then, as it had not yet completed roll-out of its 4G network. 

T-Mobile's total score in the latest measurements was 966 out of a possible 1,000 points, ahead of KPN with 942 points, Vodafone at 920 and Tele2 with 904. These scores makes the Netherlands the only country in Europe where all networks scored over 900 (over 850 is considered 'very good' in P3's methodology). T-Mobile achieved the highest score of all networks tested by P3 in 2015-2016. Tele2 came out even better than Swisscom, which was ranked the best network across Germany, Austria and Switzerland. 

P3 also plans to test VoLTE once it's available, Ekmen said. In principle, this could lead to even higher scores. The operators are still working on improving call quality on their legacy networks though, as VoLTE is not expected to be dominant for several years yet. Operators also don't want too big a difference between legacy calling and VoLTE. In recent years, they have lost some call quality, according to P3's measurements. In the past year, that trend was halted or reversed.  

Outdoor/indoor

As the tests were conducted from vehicles, the differences between indoor and outdoor coverage are not as easy to evaluate. Consumers largely judge the network on indoor coverage. P3 claims it's found a way to make its measurements also benchmark indoor coverage.

Outdoor coverage is always measured with roof-top antennas on the car. This type of external antenna performs better, so the signal is later weakened. P3 conducts the test with smartphones, which come standard with built-in antennas. The latest phones are fitted with MIMO, and networks use beam forming and tilt in order to target the base station signal at users. This makes it important to work with original smartphones. P3 has developed an enclosure using a mix of materials that weakens the signal. This ‘P3 Antenuatr’ (patent pending) ensures the measurements are more in line with indoor coverage. 

'We won the Champions League'

T-Mobile said it was pleased and proud to take first place in the study and to hold the informal title of best network in Europe. In an interview with Telecompaper, T-Mobile Netherlands CEO Mark Klein compared it to winning the Champions League. "It was an exciting competition, but we won," he said. "I don't think many people would have thought T-Mobile would win. In that sense we are still working on improving our market perception." 

Klein said the company has worked hard the past 2.5 years in order to make this possible. In 2012, the operator decided to upgrade completely its network. This resulted in the network receiving P3's highest ever score.

The work will continue, according to the CEO. The company is now at 75 percent coverage for 4G+, which combines frequencies in the 900 and 1,800 MHz bands. This should reach national coverage by mid-year. The operator is also working on other parameters, such as a faster call set-up. This should get even better with the launch of VoLTE, even if end-to-end VoLTE to other operators is not yet possible. 

T-Mobile is also working on product innovation. The operator tested with 20,000 customers an offer of unlimited internet in off-peak times like the weekend, for a flat fee. This was so successful that a subscription plan will be introduced soon, Klein said. T-Mobile is also working on LTE services for residential users, as an alternative to fixed internet in rural areas. 

Small differences

KPN underlined that its network reaches over 99 percent of the Dutch population, making it the best in that sense. Jacob Groote, VP Mobile networks, noted that the big cities weighed heaviest in the test results. “The KPN network is for everyone though, and that is not immediately clear in this test," he said. He also noted that KPN has the best Net Promotor Score of all four brands.

Vodafone said it was great to see the Netherlands among the world's top mobile networks, with just small underlying differences in networks. CTO Eben Albertyn acknowledged that improvement was still possible, especially indoors, where the trend in energy-efficient buildings was making it even more difficult for mobile signals to penetrate. Vodafone recently announced it will be introducing VoLTE and Voice over WiFi to help improve the indoor experience.

Francois Mairey, CTO/CIO of Tele2, said he was extremely proud that his company was able to narrow the gap with competitors so quickly. "We're still not done though," he said. "We are building at full speed and within a couple months we expect to have national coverage. We look forward to the next test."



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