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3G coverage in the UK far more patchy than operator maps suggest

Photograph of Mark HeathIn his last blog article, Alastair Brydon talked about the BBC’s launch of its mobile mapping experiment’. The BBC encouraged users of Android smartphones to download and run a specially-developed application to measure and report back mobile signal levels. Yesterday, the BBC announced initial results from its so-called ‘crowd-sourcing survey’, which unsurprisingly shows that 3G coverage is far more patchy than mobile operator coverage maps currently indicate.

In total, 44,600 volunteers took part, across the UK. After analysing the data collected, the BBC concluded that “3G has some way to go before it offers comprehensive coverage across the UK”. It added, “Despite operator claims of 90% or more 3G coverage, there are still many ‘not-spots’, including in major towns and cities.”

BBC Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones said, “(Coverage is) still far more patchy than the maps provided by the mobile operators would suggest”. “My own experience this week shows that in the centre of a major city, on a major inter-city rail route and in a village in rural Oxfordshire, you cannot rely on getting a good 3G signal,” he added.

The BBC results are in line with another crowd-sourcing survey of 3G coverage in the UK, by Opensignalmaps. Data has been collected from nearly 32,000 Android mobile users in the UK downloading and running the ‘Opensignalmaps for Android’ application. In total, about 10 million locations have been ‘mapped’ over a period of nine months, between December 2010 and August 2011. Analysis of the Opensignalmaps data revealed users had access to 3G networks for only 58.3% of the time.

Given that coverage is an important basic requirement for many mobile users, these results are very disappointing. Competition alone has not been sufficient to drive mobile operators to substantially improve coverage, so other solutions are required. It would be a shame if LTE/4G networks were to suffer the same fate once they are introduced. If operators have failed to provide extensive 3G coverage, then why will 4G/LTE be any different? It is important that the regulator and the mobile operators get to the root of the problem. Ofcom needs to take a much more proactive role in improving mobile coverage.

The first step towards substantial coverage improvement is to accurately gauge the current levels of 3G coverage, and for mobile network operators to acknowledge these. In this regard, crowd-sourcing coverage surveys provide an exciting and cost-effective opportunity for the industry regulator and mobile operators to achieve a good understanding of today’s 3G coverage levels. It is somewhat disappointing that it has needed the entry of the BBC to draw attention to the deficiencies of 3G coverage in the UK. I hope that Ofcom will not remain on the ‘back foot’ for long.

Dr Mark Heath co-founded Unwired Insight in 2001, to provide analysis and market intelligence for the mobile telecommunications industry. Previously he contributed to the standardisation of GSM, UMTS and DECT and held senior roles for a mobile network operator and equipment manufacturer. Mark has written over 40 industry reports and has advised investors, network operators, equipment vendors, lawyers and government bodies.

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