Research Notes

Sometimes a Samsung Galaxy S III is not a Samsung Galaxy S III

Consider your phone the next time you can’t get a signal on the network
An increasing number of consumers complain about poor mobile coverage, and they blame their carrier for the bad experience. But consumers don’t realize that there are many reasons why they experience poor coverage. More often than not, it is the phone itself and not the network that is causing the problem.

The popular Samsung Galaxy S III is a case in point. The Samsung Galaxy S III you buy in the USA is not the same Samsung Galaxy S III you buy in Singapore. As a practice, phone manufacturers market variants of their products under the same. Their global supply chain is so vast and complex that it is impossible for them to provide exactly the same phone with the same components from the same suppliers to every geography. The variants are similar enough that consumers don’t take notice.

A simple search on Wikipedia can give you a picture of the complexity of a Samsung Galaxy S III. Just a quick glance at Wikipedia will reveal that Samsung Galaxy S III is just a name for different variants of the same phone that will be sold and distributed around the world. Scroll down the page and you will see that there are least 10 variants of the smartphone:

The software on the Samsung Galaxy S III is constantly being developed, updated and upgraded. While handset manufacturers will continually improve their products and software, the impact is that variants of the phone can come to market with different versions of the software. Some versions of software may work better than others. Scroll further into the Wikipedia article to read.

Hardware is another shifting issue. Hardware components come from many different suppliers, and users can replace or upgrade components in the phone. Samsung can vary the processing chip, the receiver for 3G/4G, the memory card, the camera, and other essential hardware.

Even the question of who exactly are Samsung’s customers is up for discussion. Samsung sells to mobile operators around the world, but increasingly Samsung sells to independent retail outlets. They may be electronics stores, super markets, stores that specialize in mobile phone and accessories, or web outlets. Furthermore a large inventory may be purchased by a middleman on the spot market who then sells to a retailer. This means that Samsung has little control over the handsets that are marketed under their name.

Customers also influence the coverage by how they configure their phones. Apps are one of the culprits of bad coverage experience with smartphones. There are millions of apps on the market, and they vary in function and quality. A typical user not only has many apps on his phone, but many of these apps are poorly designed and interfere in how the phone functions with the network and the experience the customer gets.

Paid versus free apps can also be an issue. If you download the free version of Angry Birds, you will get a lot of advertising. The constant stream of ads means continuous signaling between the phone and the network, creating noise on the network. Multiply that by all the people downloading free ad-packed apps creating congestion. Signal noise from Angry Birds’ and other apps brought down two mobile networks in Norway 2010.

There is no doubt that they number and types of software installed on your phone will impact your coverage. This extends to the mobile operating system your manufacturer adds to your phone and the frequent software updates they ask you to make. The dirty little secret in the device industry is that they try to make up for in updates what they lack in quality in the original product. There is so much competition to get phones to market quickly that manufacturers frequently cut corners in software development. So rather than work out all the bugs, you buy a suboptimal phone and then they send you updates to fix it later.

The popular Android operating systems has a much touted open-source platform enabling millions to make apps. At the same point, while open standards spur creativity and innovation, they also create fragmentation and complexity, and to a degree are part of the problem with your mobile coverage.

Lastly, don’t forget the role of the antenna inside your phone. This may be the single most important factor for the quality of mobile coverage, as documented by Gert Froelund Pedersen from Aalborg University, one of the world’s leading researchers on the phone antennas. Froelund documented how nine of the top selling phones performed on four different mobile networks in Denmark. He found that the quality of antenna in the phone can vary by a factor of 10, depending on the model of the phone, the suitability of the phone antenna to the network, and even how the user holds the phone. You can read the study here.

Mobile operators and carriers have long known that the phone plays a role in coverage quality, but have been subject to gag orders from handset manufacturers requiring that they not discuss the phones’ deficiencies.

It is not realistic that a consumer can find out all the information on these issues. A customer will have a difficult time to verify whether his Samsung Galaxy S III is really a Samsung Galaxy S III. Therefore some politicians have called for disclosures. They have mistakenly sought out operators to take responsibility, but phones are increasingly sold at general retailers, so focusing on operators will not provide adequate disclosures. Retailers offer millions of products so are also reluctant to make special exceptions for phones. Indeed, product liability rests the manufacturer, not the retailer or carrier. It is time that phone makers take responsibility for their products. Each phone should come with a disclosure so customers can make an informed decision regardless of where they buy the phone.

In the report “How to reduce the cost of mobile masts and improve regulation”, we have described the challenges that mobile operators as they build and run mobile networks. We discuss the studies that show how smartphones increasingly cause problems with mobile coverage. If you want to know more about the report or on Strand Consult’s experience in this field then you are welcome to contact us here.

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