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New Study Slams Lack of 100% UK Geographic 4G Mobile Coverage

Friday, August 9th, 2019 (8:36 am) - Score 2,007
ee mobile mast tower in scotland

A new Which? study has found that in 524 out of 650 UK parliamentary constituencies 4G mobile coverage is not available via all four operators to the whole constituency. The most poorly-served city-based constituencies (all under 80% coverage) were Rochford, Southend, South West Devon, Romsey and Southampton North.

The results appear to be based on a mix of two sources. On the one hand the magazine has simply analysed public data already released via Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2018 report (here) and on the other hand they’ve conducted a survey of UK people (it’s not stated how many were surveyed or when) in order to better understand their experiences of mobile connectivity.

At this point we should highlight how Ofcom’s data from January 2019 shows that the 4G geographic network coverage of the UK from all four operators (EE, Three UK, Vodafone and O2) is currently just 67%, which rises to around 91%+ when only looking at EE’s reach. In their analysis Which? refers to UK constituencies lacking “full” or “comprehensive” coverage where there is not 100% geographic (outdoor) 4G signal from all four operators.

The results are presented in an unorganised scatter-gun blast of information, which makes for a difficult read and so we’ve opted to simply summarise the key highlights below.

Data analysis (Ofcom)

  • 266 (40%) of constituencies do not have complete (100%) geographic (outdoor) coverage of 4G services from at least one operator, although 546 constituencies (84%) have at least 99% access.
  • Access is generally poorest in rural areas (especially rural Scotland), which is to be expected given the low population density rates in these areas and how the data is constructed.
  • 524 constituencies (80%) do not have 4G coverage from all 4 operators in 100% of the constituency by geography.
  • Among the worst affected town-based constituencies for mobile coverage – with less than 60% of the constituency receiving 4G coverage from all four operators – were Clwyd West in Wales, Barrow and Furness in Cumbria, Ribble Valley in Lancashire and Scarborough and Whitby in North Yorkshire.
  • Only three constituencies in Scotland had complete 4G coverage from all four operators – Aberdeen North, Glasgow North West and Glasgow South West.
  • In Wales, only the constituency of Central Cardiff had 100% 4G coverage from all four operators.
  • In Northern Ireland not a single constituency area had 4G coverage from all four operators.
  • In England 23% of constituencies have 4G coverage from all four operators. Among those who are well-served are the Loughborough constituents of Nicky Morgan MP – the new Culture Secretary.

Which? consumer survey results

  • 41% of mobile phone users who have a landline at home pay for it but never use it.
  • 49% of people said they experienced patchy mobile phone signal at least once a month.
  • 81% of those with an active landline and a mobile phone said their mobile phone was of equal or higher importance than their landline
  • Consumers do a wide variety of activities on their mobile phones. Two thirds (68%) of consumers with a mobile phone use it whilst connected to 3G/4G whilst out and about at least once a week
  • Those who said their mobile phone signal whilst at home was bad were asked what they did as a result. Half (50%) connect to their home wifi network instead
  • A quarter (23%) of those who experienced a lack of mobile phone coverage in the last 3 months said they felt extremely/quite stressed as a result.
  • Over half (57%) of those who experienced a lack of mobile phone coverage in the last three months said they experienced a significant impact as a result – the most common was the inability to make or receive important phone calls or messages.

The report also makes several mentions of the Government’s 2017 General Election manifesto commitment, which aimed to achieve 95% UK geographic mobile coverage by 2022. However it should be said that the text of that manifesto never specifically mentioned 4G itself alongside the 95% target.

Caroline Normand, Which? Director of Advocacy, said:

“Millions of people are finding it difficult to get a reliable mobile connection and risk missing out on digital services we increasingly rely on like online banking, maps and NHS information – while some even struggle to receive important calls and messages.

To tackle this unacceptable and widening digital divide, the government must act now to connect the UK with truly comprehensive mobile and broadband by swiftly putting in place a plan to give communities the infrastructure they need.”

At present one of the ways in which Ofcom plan to improve geographic coverage is by attaching a new obligation to their forthcoming auction of the 5G friendly 700MHz radio spectrum band (details). As part of that two of the winning bidders would be expected to extend outdoor data coverage (3G, 4G and 5G) to “at least” 90% of the UK’s entire land area within 4 years of the award (92% often gets talked about as the real target).

On top of that the two operators would also have to improve coverage for at least 140,000 premises which they do not already cover, as well as providing coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas. In exchange each lot would carry an associated discount, up to a maximum set by Ofcom, on the price of spectrum (i.e. a top discount in the range £300m-£400m for each obligation).

As usual this has caused plenty of industry disagreement and the Government have also been keen to find a way of going further. In response to that the industry recently reached agreement on a new Shared Rural Network (SRN) proposal (here), which operators claim could achieve 92% coverage without the need for tough new obligations (but getting to 95% would take until the end of 2025).

However it’s probably unrealistic for Which? to expect mobile operators to deliver 100% (universal) outdoor 4G geographic mobile coverage of the UK, which would include a vast landmass gaps where nobody lives and is thus extremely uneconomic to tackle. Ofcom has previously estimated that addressing all total not spots could cost between £3bn to £6bn, once the 700MHz coverage obligations are factored in (here).

As it stands today mobile operators, Ofcom and the Government are still trying to come to a final agreement. Early indications suggest that the Government are looking favourably upon the industry’s SRN proposal, although the proof will be in what direction Ofcom takes when they issue their next statement on the 700MHz auction. Landowners are known to harbour concerns (here).

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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22 Responses
  1. Avatar Mark

    Still not worry, 5G will solve….. nothing! Just make more money for the carriers.
    It’s just another report that highlights the sad state of mobile coverage on the UK and the lack of any interest to fix it. Well we could all join EE I guess so long as you don’t mind expensive tariffs that increase mid term at least once.

  2. Avatar TheFacts

    We need a plan to give 100% UK coverage from all 4 networks?

  3. Avatar Fred

    There is of course a potential disparity between theoretical coverage and actual achievable coverage which in my experience are not the same thing. Also the antenna gain achievable on handset is usually very minimal so I would be interested to understand when coverage maps are produced, are there any assumptions on the sensitivity of the equipment – I guess there has to be? I would image they are intended to reflect coverage attainable with a handset with unity gain (as that is the typical use case) but would be interested if somebody could confirm?

    For example, I can get 4 bars 4G on a router with antenna but 0 bars on a smartphone.

    • Avatar Mark

      My experience exactly. We are 4 bar for EE 4G on their coverage map, and my router gets a reasonable signal with an outside antenna (RSRP -89 dBm, RSRQ -11 dB and SINR >20 dB). However, I am currently sitting by an open patio door on the side of the house facing the mast and the best the phone can manage is -100 dBm of GSM (2G).

      Equipment OEMs are not free of blame. “Bars” is not a standardised unit of measurement, and my TP-Link router can give a full four bars “100%” on Three 3G, but quantitative measurements say that the signal is actually rubbish quality.

  4. Avatar Fred

    One problem some folks around here have is lack of ANY cell coverage and the implications of so many organisations now requiring two factor authentication, often in the form of an SMS. I know some banks have other schemes such as apps and card readers but this is quite patchy and seemingly not well thought out. Not all WIFI calling supports SMS either which does not help.

    To get on my employer’s corporate network I need to use 2FA for example, but I do think they support an app option which will work with WIFI.

  5. Avatar bob

    This is why national roaming should be forced on the NMO’s. If they don’t build their own network then they have to pay to use another NMO when their customers are in an area they do not cover.

  6. Avatar Brian

    I find there’s a big difference between coverage maps and actual coverage. Where a network claims excellent outdoor and indoor coverage, when the reality is intermittent indoor coverage, and outdoor is prone to drop out. Locally EE seems worse than Three for overstating coverage.

  7. Avatar New_Londoner

    There is a fundamental problem with this “market research” from Which and some of the accompanying comments here. Which mobile network operators committed to provide 100% geographic coverage and by when?

    To the best of my knowledge the answers to the above questions are none and never, but please correct me if I’m wrong. Assuming that I’m not wrong then it’s a non-story, generating outrage about something that was never promised so ought not be a surprise if it hasn’t happened.

    Yet more nonsense from the Consumers Association to generate outraged headlines in the Daily Mail then.

    • Avatar SimonM

      Whilst no one operator has committed to 100% geographical coverage, it does seem reasonable to expect that a modern go-ahead country like the United Kingdom (or so we’re told) would be able to offer everyone (eg: 100% of people) access to mobile coverage no matter their choice of network, if there is mobile signal available at all in that area. Not saying the top of a mountain where there may be no coverage from any network (although that’s another issue of complete non-coverage areas), but that if one/some providers have coverage, that it seems reasonable everyone in that location should be able to get the same level of access.

      The fact you can have a mobile service from a provider in one location, travel a short distance (even a few roads in a town) and have no coverage from that provider, whilst the other two or three major networks do have coverage, still seems a bit ridiculous. It was understandable when they were starting to roll out 3G, and then 4G, of course they had a rollout plan that would take time, but it just doesn’t seem to be filling in the gaps that still remain.

    • Avatar Peter

      @SimonM
      Ironically when visiting Wales I can get coverage easily on the top of mountain – becasue then I’m in line of sight of several masts
      But what I cannot get is coverage when in the valleys – my phone goes to emergency calls only.
      Guess where the population is – Ah yes, in the valleys….

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @SimonM
      The problem is that wasn’t included in the spectrum auctions, would have affected the price had it been a requirement.

  8. Avatar Dominic Davis-Foster

    Never mind 4G, I’m still waiting for 100 percent coverage of 2G. In parts of Buckinghamshire it would be easier to communicate using 2 cans and a piece of string

  9. Avatar Ogilvie Jackson

    EE are on the way to near 100% (4G LTE 800) coverage, thanks to there contract with ESN. Also thanks to the Scot Gov.4G Infill programme , Masts are popping up all over remote valleys and glens in Scotland where they would never have been considered in the past.
    Ok, you will be in hock to EE , but beggars cant be chooses ! Just barter with them.

    • Avatar Brian

      Will it be real 100% or calculated, they claim excellent indoor and outdoor 4G coverage, great indoor and outdoor 3G coverage, excellent indoor and outdoor 2G coverage, and by phone next to me says emergency calls only.

    • Avatar Gary

      Nothing planned for us in the SG infill, and like Brian The Ofcom checker has me in a lovely green area for 4G yet we don’t even get a phone signal. ehe entire valley from Cullen towards Keith along the B9018 is missing coverage. Naturally also poor on the fixed line BB front, Never mind USO and R100 here we come , Lol.

  10. Avatar arundel

    “Sheep don’t buy phone contracts”

    • Avatar Ogilvie Jackson

      With Brexit, sheep won’t buy anything!
      Just had a lovely big 4G LTE 800 built at the top of our remote Ettrick valley….that’s three built in the valley now ! It’s overkill.

  11. Avatar Jackie Chan

    Our country isn’t even that big so it shouldn’t be this difficult to get 100% geograpic coverage.
    Like another commenter says, I think it would be a good idea to force roaming on all carriers at their own expenses. Not only would it pay the carriers who have the most coverage but it would obviously also promote those carriers who roam a lot to focus on spreading.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      As posted above, the problem is that this wasn’t included in the spectrum auctions, would have affected the price had it been a requirement. Trying to add it on retrospectively would simply result in court cases.

  12. Avatar Jackie CHain

    A bit off-topic but does anyone else think that traditional ISPs should be retooling their fibre/dsl networks to function as the backend for mobile networks instead of fixed home internet?
    For example if Virgin converted all of their superhubs to 4g/5g hubs wouldn’t that service home wifi and also boost mobile signal everhwere? Why are we still laying down fibre for wifi rather than fibre for 4g?

  13. Avatar Packet Switched

    Jackie CHain

    Using a mobile signal for data. I often recently find when I have 4G and a strong signal – plenty of bars, four or five – it is coming in
    really slowly. This has to be some sort of bottleneck, it isn’t always so. I have assumed it is backhaul but whether it is that or the
    local antennas there now seems to be take off for a greatly increasing demand for data transfer this way.

    Scant backhaul will destroy the assumption that a strong signal means good prompt reception for gaming, trading, high definition video, big software, cloud backup or merely basic internet use – Wikipedia, Amazon, email attachments.

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