Mobile coverage – whether for voice services or mobile broadband services – is one of the most important issues for many mobile customers. In the UK, while the presence of many mobile operators has helped reduce mobile pricing levels, it has failed to deliver extensive mobile coverage. In July 2011, the Communications Consumer Panel reported to Ofcom, “A pure market oriented approach to delivering the coverage that citizens and consumers need has proved inadequate.” In this blog, Mark Heath and I have made regular comment on the poor quality of coverage offered by mobile operators in the UK, which is principally caused by underinvestment. Now, mobile operators and Ofcom are facing increasing pressures to address mobile coverage.
The BBC and, in particular, its Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, has become rather frustrated with the issue of mobile coverage in the UK. In a recent blog article, Rory said, “We’ve been frustrated by the lack of information about the state of our phone networks and somehow persuaded colleagues that we should do something.” This month, the BBC launched its ‘mobile mapping experiment’. The BBC is encouraging users of Android smartphones to download and run a specially-developed application to measure and report back mobile signal levels. Within a few days, about 36,000 people had downloaded the coverage survey application.
Currently, mobile customers have to rely on coverage maps that are provided by the operators themselves. Like-for-like comparison is impossible since operators’ assumptions are different. Furthermore, they are inaccurate since they have been produced by radio planning tools (using theoretical models for radio propagation) rather than by direct measurement. Since coverage maps are used for marketing by operators, it won’t come as a surprise that they provide an optimistic view of coverage levels.
This month, the Communications Consumer Panel produced a report, which was sent to Ofcom, which discussed the state of mobile coverage. The Communications Consumer Panel is an independent group of experts established under the Communications Act 2003. Its role is to provide advice to Ofcom to ensure that the interests of consumers, including small businesses, are central to regulatory decisions.
The report suggests that coverage has not significantly improved over many years. The report states, “Coverage is one of the main attributes of a mobile infrastructure and one to which citizens and consumers attach a high importance. It has not significantly improved in the last ten years.”
The report strongly criticises both 2G and 3G coverage in the UK. Regarding 2G coverage the report states, “We do not believe that the current coverage on 2G meets the legitimate aspirations of consumers.” The report goes on, “GSM coverage has largely stood still since the arrival of 3G; most coverage not-spots ten years ago are still not-spots today.”
The report is equally critical of 3G coverage. “The speed of 3G roll out was disappointing, with coverage today still patchy in places where coverage maps paint a more rosy picture.”
The Communications Consumer Panel has called on Ofcom to explore what interventions could extend existing 2G as well as 3G/4G coverage. “This is a critical moment, providing a unique opportunity to resolve the persistent and continuing problem of inadequate mobile coverage,” it said. It considers that the provision of 800MHz spectrum presents perhaps the only opportunity within the next decade, to correct the “adverse coverage position”.
I agree. It is now vital that Ofcom and mobile operators act to address one of the most critical issues facing the UK mobile industry. If mobile broadband services are to flourish, mobile operators need to think about existing 2G coverage levels as something that 3G and 4G networks have to significantly improve upon rather than seeing them as a ‘gold standard’, which will never be improved upon. I look forward to the BBC reporting back on its coverage measurement programme in due course.