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Monday, January 27, 2014

Mobile phone coverage: is this as good as it gets?

Mark Bridge writes:

A new report has highlighted the issue of poor mobile phone coverage in rural Sussex villages. BBC Sussex invited me onto their ‘Sussex Breakfast’ radio show to explain what could be done - and, as usual, I made enough notes for a lecture rather than a three-minute interview.

Here’s what I would have liked to have said if I’d been given a disproportionate amount of time to talk!

In many ways, the fixed-line telephone network has given us unreasonable expectations of call quality and coverage. A nationalised and subsidised telephone service can put a ‘Telephone Box’ in every reasonably-sized village if it wants.

Conversely, the UK’s cellular mobile phone networks have always been competitive. Price, quality and coverage have tended to be their battlegrounds. But that means cities and larger towns are favoured, because you’re spending less per customer on infrastructure than in less-populated places.

I reckon there are four main reasons for ‘not-spots’, those areas where there isn’t any mobile phone coverage:

  • money: areas where the population density is low, there aren’t many passing visitors and there’s not much revenue to be generated.
  • geography: the challenges of hills, valleys and trees blocking radio signals.
  • buildings: traditional construction using thick stone walls can cause problems with coverage in and around these properties.
  • mast location: issues with planning permission, with the health concerns of local residents or with the appearance of large structures.

Ultimately, let’s not forget these are radio waves. Yes, we’ve moved on from Long Wave to FM and DAB, giving us better quality when we can receive a signal. We’ve got digital phones and high definition sound - but sometimes geography is against us when we try to use phones. Radio waves can’t go through everything. If you’re in a valley or on the side of a hill - or even on the wrong side of a house - you can be stuck without a signal. [Top tip: if you can’t get mobile phone service and you’re indoors next to a window, open the window. Yes, really.]

Frequencies make a difference as well: low frequency spectrum is better at covering larger areas than higher frequency spectrum - and that means it’s cheaper for mobile operators to cover rural areas because they don't need as many masts. It’s also why the shipping forecast is still on Radio 4 Long Wave. Lower frequencies are also better for getting inside buildings. The flip side is that higher frequencies are better at handling higher internet speeds. Most network operators have a mixture of lower and higher frequencies - and most phones will automatically switch between them.

So... is this as good as it gets?  Should we just put up with the mobile coverage we have?  Short answer: no. Longer answer: here’s how we can deal with not-spots.

Emergency roaming. Since 2009, it’s been possible to call the emergency services (999 / 112) using another mobile network if your own network is unavailable but the other UK network has coverage. There’s nothing special to do; just make the call as you would normally.

Mast-sharing. We don’t need more masts if there’s already one there. A mobile network can put its equipment on another network’s mast - and sometimes even share equipment as well. In fact, there are already formal agreements in place between Vodafone and O2 and between EE and Three.

Home boosters. Some networks offer ‘femtocells’ or ‘small cells’ that connect to your broadband and provide coverage inside your house. They can be available for a single up-front payment, by adding to your monthly bill or occasionally given away free by a network if they think you’re a particularly deserving cause.

Community network schemes. Vodafone has been particularly keen on this idea. It’s trialling the ‘Vodafone Open Sure Signal’ scheme, putting suitcase-sized units in key buildings and even on telegraph poles to provide 3G service in unconnected areas. Instead of connecting directly into Vodafone’s network, they use existing broadband connections to carry voice and data traffic.

Alternative carriers. Technologies including WiFi and satellite communications may be a practical replacement if mobile service isn’t available.

Government intervention. Actually we’ve already got this. The original 3G licence conditions from 2000 required networks to cover 80% of the UK population with 3G service (although this is admittedly only around 45% of the land area). An updated target was later introduced, compelling networks to cover 90% of the UK population by 30th June last year. There’s something even tougher for 4G: the allocation of radio spectrum won by O2 UK requires the network to provide indoor mobile broadband coverage to 98% of the UK population by 2017. This is expected to cover more than 99% of the UK population when outdoors - and is expected to prompt O2’s competitors to keep up.

The Mobile Infrastructure Project. This is the government’s not-so-secret weapon. Launched in 2011, it’s spending £150 million to improve coverage in areas where there wasn’t any commercial incentive to do this. Technically, it’s only allowed to do this in areas where there was no mobile coverage at all, otherwise it would be unfair under competition law. The money’s being spent on setting things up; the ‘big four’ UK networks (Vodafone, O2, EE and Three) have then agreed to take care of running costs. It’s being done in five phases: the first sites started to go live last year. Overall, around 60,000 homes and commercial properties are expected to benefit from the Mobile Infrastructure Project, with economic benefits thought to be worth more than double the initial investment.

Mobile coverage will never be perfect. That’s physics for you. But I can honestly say it appears to be getting better.

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