In his wireless blog, Mark Heath expresses his concerns at Ofcom’s plans for a statutory report to the UK Government on the UK’s communication infrastructure.
The UK Government’s Digital Economy Act 2010 gave Ofcom a new duty to provide a report to the Secretary of State every three years on the state of the UK’s communications infrastructure. This is long overdue. While I hope that this will become a useful exercise, Ofcom’s recent announcement of its approach gives me some concern.
The new Digital Economy Act requires Ofcom to report on various aspects of networks and services, including coverage, capacity, reliability, resilience and the extent to which networks are shared, or services are made available on a wholesale basis. Ofcom is also required to report on the use of spectrum and to provide international comparisons. Ofcom is due to deliver its first report to the Secretary of State by 7th August 2011.
While there are various sources of information on the services offered by mobile network operators and their pricing, it is almost impossible to find reliable information on aspects such as 3G/HSPA coverage and network capacity. As we have discussed many times in our blog, 3G/HSPA coverage is substantially worse than 2G coverage for all UK operators, and there are major challenges over network capacity, with rapid take-up of smartphones and mobile broadband services. Accurate, independent assessment of coverage and capacity levels could not come at a better time.
Even where information, such as coverage maps, is available from mobile operators, different assumptions made by each operator and inaccuracies of radio planning tools makes an accurate comparison impossible. For example, I have just had to cancel mobile phone contracts with 3 for all members of my family after a dramatic degradation in coverage in my local area and home. Amusingly, I have had several letters and phone calls informing me that the coverage is in fact excellent (no doubt because a radio planning tool says so). If similar errors are accumulated over the entire country then coverage metrics may be highly misleading.
Thankfully, Ofcom has stated that it will not be using coverage data obtained directly from mobile network operators. Instead, it intends to use modelled data available from industry associations, such as the GSMA. This will no doubt keep costs down compared with undertaking its own extensive measurements. However, as the sources of such data, and the assumptions behind them, are not clear, this methodology may be flawed. If the results are not robust, it will not take long for the mobile operators to develop compelling arguments for why they are not valid.
Ofcom is also required to report on the capacity of UK networks and here I have even greater concerns. At present, there is no reliable public information on whether mobile networks have sufficient capacity and whether their services are being affected by a lack of capacity. So, the principle of an independent assessment of network capacity is welcome. However, Ofcom’s discussion on how it will do this is extremely vague and gives me little confidence. For example, Ofcom talks about using network demand as a proxy for network capacity, which is highly confusing.
No doubt we will have to await the first publication, on the 7th August, to see the real extent of these new reports. I hope that this potentially valuable exercise does not fall at the first hurdle.