/ Technology

Do you lose your cool when you lose signal?

Man mobile signal

You pay, they provide. That’s how I think my mobile contract works. In return for my £20 a month I get to make calls, send texts and use the net from time to time. But what about when your provider doesn’t provide?

We regularly get complaints from readers who have signed up with a mobile provider only to find they can’t get any service. But getting out of your contract is far from simple. Few providers will let you cancel and, in our experience, many will make it difficult for you to leave without paying a hefty exit fee, even when you can prove that you’re not receiving a signal.

Bad reception isn’t just a problem for those living in a house boat on the Norfolk broads or halfway up Mount Snowden. It’s also a problem for those in Birmingham who can’t get signal in their front room, or for the person wandering round their garden in Guildford just to get reception.

You do have rights under the Supply of Goods and Services Act to cancel your contract if you’re not getting a signal, but this can involve the regulator, an Ombudsman service and almost certainly a lot of your time.

Hello, hello?

Your provider should at least accurately tell you whether they provide good coverage where you live before you sign up. But they don’t.

Providers do have network coverage maps on their websites, but these are based on computer predictions. Quite simply they often aren’t accurate enough, so inaccurate that last year the Advertising Standards Agency ordered EE to change its coverage map after a customer complained.

Coverage maps don’t, for example, take into account things such as trees or buildings blocking the signal. So, if you live anywhere in the UK that has, well, buildings or trees these maps aren’t for you.

By the time most people discover they need to lean out of the upstairs bathroom window to take a phone call, it’s already too late to cancel.

Help us map the UK

That’s why we’ve published a mobile phone network coverage map based on real life data. Powered by OpenSignal, the map is based on millions of real signals with data collected by users of OpenSignal’s free app. This gives a more accurate picture of which provider offers the best coverage where you live.

However, there’s more work to be done. If the UK is to have a truly accurate coverage map, OpenSignal needs more data to cover the whole country in more detail. You can find out how to help us and Opensignal by visiting our mobile coverage map.

Are you frustrated by bad signal on your mobile? Do you have to hang out of a window just to get good coverage? Tell us about your signal woes.


I have a spare phone on a different network when I am out in the country. Lack of mobile broadband signal is even more frustrating.

For years it has been possible to make an emergency call on a mobile even if there is no signal on your own network. This is possible because the call is routed via another network. I would like to see networks shared in this way for non-emergency calls, which would be a great help to the consumer.

Assuming that the chief purpose of using a mobile telephone is to be able to make and receive calls when you’re out and about, having a good signal at home is only half the story. Even having a landline at home does not overcome all the mobile signal outage or deficiency problems because some callers might only have the mobile number on which to contact you. At our previous house we had a poor signal in parts of the house and it got worse the closer we got to the nearby water tower that was bristling with transmitters [I expect there is a plausible scientific explanation for that]. We have subsequently suffered prolonged outages at our new house. Each of us is with a different mobile phone network and we have not given up the landlines, so belt and braces all in place. But when out and about in the car or on the train in East Anglia we often encounter a signal problem at some stage, even in inhabited areas. Looking at the coverage map, it would seem that, cotrary to what you might supose for sparsely populated areas, the Norfolk & Suffolk Broads have much better signal coverage than the rest of those counties!

I agree with Wavechange on transferability of connection. All significant settlements seem to have multiple network coverage, the remainder of the countryside has almost nothing so there needs to be a way of making sure there is some form of overlap and alternative signal route to fill in the empty spaces on the coverage map. There is one very large tract of countryside near us that is practically devoid of all coverage yet it contains several villages each with just one little transmitter covering a tiny spot and many villages with nothing at all.

Being on PAYG I haven’t looked into this, but I should be interested to know whether there is a cooling-off period after signing a mobile phone contract such that if you find when you get home that there is no signal or a very weak one on that network you can cancel the contract. The interactive coverage map just published by Which? should help a lot and it ought to be a network licence condition that any customer in a mobile phone shop has the right to view it Looking at it on-line before even entering a shop would make network selection less fraught, but other factors might still affect the decision – like tariff preference, commonality of network between callers, and previous network experience [especially in the light of the fixed-price-contracts price hike fiasco].

Bundles should be banned. Networks should be forced to charge only on a consumption basis (e.g. 1p/MB, 2p/text etc), either on a postpaid or prepaid basis, so that they receive revenue only when and where they actually provide the service. Three UK already does this on prepaid and such consumption-only charging is common in some other countries.

Bundles serve only to charge consumers for usage that they don’t use, because most bundles are not fully utilised. If you go over the allowance of your monthly bundle, you are often charged at a much higher rate than pro-rata. Even without bundles, networks could still give volume discounts but would be prevented for charging for usage that wasn’t used. Imagine if we had to buy energy in bundles; it would be absurd, so why do we tolerate it with mobile phones?

Tesco, who use 02,claim 99% coverage and include the coverage map checker so you can see what 2G, 3G and 4G is like in your area – inside and outside. They also offer as 14 day (contract) or 28 day (payg) returns policy if the phone is undamaged – presumably this would cover you if lack of signal is contrary to what the map shows? I’m not sure what more they could do.
The option of using all networks when your own lacks coverage is, in effect, asking for a single network provider that all use. Or allowing you to choose provider at any one time depending where you are – bit like when you go abroad. Why does this not happen?
If we only had one national provider we would then complain about lack of competition (and innovation) of course.

Malcolm – What I had in mind is that if a network does not provide coverage the call is routed via another network that does.

If a customer withdraws money from a ‘free’ ATM, they don’t need to go to one operated by their own bank. From the customers’ point of view this works very well and the banks deserve praise for giving us a service that is very useful. Perhaps banks reimburse each other where customers use an ATM managed by another bank, but as a customer, I don’t need to know. As a mobile phone and mobile broadband user, I want a connection and I don’t care how it happens. It is to the benefit of all consumers for the networks to work together. We know that it is technically possible because networks have been shared for emergency calls for the past five years.

Wavechange, I agree with sharing providers under these conditions – perhaps it wasn’t clear when I said “Why does this not happen?”. Revenue sharing would need to be set up (just like the old railway clearing house system). Quite how you would choose the local provider if your own network had no signal I don’t know – presumably from a list of available networks.
This is where the conversations fall down – unless one of the contributors has expert knowledge these questions don’t get answered. We need Which? to help by asking network providers, or other informed sources to contribute.

I share your disappointment, Malcolm. We certainly need expert input and more feedback on comments posted on Which? Conversation. I suspect that some of our previous regular contributors have stopped posting because we don’t have enough input from those can offer an informed opinion.

Rory Boland – Rory, I have some time ago and more recently emailed Which? about the purpose of these conversations if “experts” are not invited to respond to points raised (this includes Which? of course). Otherwise they can lack usefulness when they should be informative for readers. I have received no replies.

wavechange – I have a couple of weeks ago emailed Which? to suggest we have a conversation about “Conversations” to see exactly what they are meant to achieve, why experts and involved parties are not invited to respond to points raised – including adding factual information – and how they can be better used by Which? to support articles in their publications. No response (yet).

Hi both, apologies for the delay in getting back to you. And a personal apology for not responding to your email – it’s a very good one Malcolm with some legitimate concerns.

The chief goal of Which? Conversation is to give people like you a space to share your views on consumer issues, and to debate with one another about them. We then feed your views into everything we do – the number of investigations and magazine articles that have been born from the views on Which? Conversation are now in the hundreds. It’s often very common that posts appear here because our researchers are scoping for a future article – we must be better at telling you this and letting you know when the resulting article has been published.

We’ve also launched campaigns thanks to the views you have shared here, including Costly Calls, Fixed Means Fixed and our nuisance calls campaign. Your views are also very helpful in shaping our policy positions – our investigations into the smart meter roll-out was thanks to the views shared here on Which? Convo.

We also input your views into government consultations, share them with organisations and they help us hold companies to account.

On issues that we have already investigated or we are already campaigning on, we like to show your comments in Which? magazine, or may contact community members to be case studies to share the human side of the issues we work on. Some Which? Convo community members have appeared in newspapers, on radio and on TV thanks to the views they’ve shared here.

Some debates are obviously more useful than others in this pursuit, but we also want to keep the website lively with plenty to discuss and to attract new people to play a part in this community.

What we need to be much better at is showing all of this to you. We need to share how these debates have been useful and where your views have been essential in shaping our work. That’s something I’ll be taking back to our teams.

I also agree that more Which? authors should be replying to comments – especially your questions. This is something I’ll take up with the authors. As for companies responding and being involved in debates – this is also much wanted, but is harder to achieve. We share comments with companies where we can, but they don’t always feel like they want to enter the fray. We’ll try harder.

Thanks again for being patient with us, and for being at the heart of this community.

Thanks Patrick – that’s reassuring. Input from elsewhere in Which? would be useful, such as Which Legal, on occasions. As for companies and trade associations, I have contacted them before, referring them to a conversation, and asking for a view; I have found them helpful – although not making a direct post they did provide information that could be contributed. As Wavechange says, some contributors may be turned off by the lack of informed response to queries or dubious facts, which would be a shame.

Thanks for these comments, Patrick. On the positive side, I don’t know of any other site that succeeds in achieving debate of some rather contentious issues in a civilised way. 🙂

Thanks both 🙂

I agree most comments contain a lot of useful info. I would however like to see more feedback from thumbs down voters so that a healthy constructive debate can ensue. It can sometimes be quite enlightening to hear the other side of a particular issue.

I echo Malcolm’s and Wavechange’s comments and look forward to more input from authors. Sometimes we get useful responses from experts or practitioners and this does make a big difference to the quality of information and the content of the Conversation.

I have to confess that sometimes – with notable exceptions – I think the Which? authors throw a stick in our direction and wait to see whether we pick it up and if so how far we run with it!

I must agree with Wavechange’s appreciation of the conduct of this blog. Without a doubt it is best kept etiquette on the net.

That’s a good point Beryl – hopefully if we create at atmosphere that let’s people feel they can come in with a different viewpoint, more people will be likely to do so. Another option could possibly be removing the down-thumb altogether – I’m not sure if I’m yet signed up to this idea 🙂

Hi John, our authors do often want to see if a subject flies here to see whether we should investigate it in the future. We want to see you talk through the issues so that it flags up what we should look into. However, for want of better words, I’ll ‘throw a stick’ at our authors every once and a while 😉

I really do think Which should remove the down-thumb’s vote thing. I think over 90% of my comments get voted down just because I have a difference in opinion & it feels like a slap in the face just because I don’t agree with other people’s point of view.

We should all be free to be able to talk about our own points of view & opinions on the subjects.

Lee & Patrick: I agree Lee with your last comment that we should all be free to be able to talk about our own points of view & opinions on subjects, which makes for good and open debate but I would be in favour of keeping the down-thumbs Patrick. For example, if someone doesn’t agree with a comment I made I would be interested to know the reason why, as I accept there is nearly always going to be another side to a debate and there can occasionally be a very valid point I may have overlooked.

To get back to topic, yes I get very frustrated when my son ‘phones me on a daily basis whilst driving on his hands free system necessary for his work. Mid conversation the line always goes dead, sometimes more than once, the reason being he is out of range of the signal usually in a rural or semi-rural area and has to keep phoning me back. It is very infuriating.

I’m with Network Three & let’s be honest, we all know they are bad for mobile signals. But as i needed unlimited data for a good price I decided to join Three.

On the postcode checker map thing 3 houses on my street has bad signal and yep, I live in one of those 3, just my luck. But like I say, I knew this when i took out the contract.

In my home I get no signal at all apart from my bedroom window, so I keep my mobile on the window sill & when I need to make a call, or when someone calls me I stand on the sill & pop my head out of the window. I must look like a right fool to people walking down my street. But I don’t moan about it, after all i get such a good deal something needed to give & it was the signal.

As far as I am aware, mobile phone companies are sympathetic to those who struggle to make and receive calls from home. Malcolm has given us an example.

Signal boosters are available for home users who have problems in their home. They are not cheap but some users have managed to acquire one free of charge. I know you like challenges, Lee, so perhaps try and get hold of one at no cost. 🙂

I did have a little look at them wavechange. But it said the booster box must be connected to a landline / broadband & as I’ve left Plusnet & no longer have a stranded BT line anymore it wont work 🙁

Lee, you can buy a £9 Nokia phone from Tesco and £10 of payg as a standby to your Network 3 phone – if O2 covers your area you could then make calls without embarrassment.

You are right Malcolm, I am thinking about getting a cheap mobile and get a Tesco PAYG Sim for a spare phone, as tesco run on the 02 network, but get clubcard points too.

I was with Tesco before moving to Three, but left due to no unlimited data plan for me & Tesco/02 have a perfect signal in my area.

I regularly take members of the public on trips in areas where I know that my mobile phone may let me down. Though I know that I will be able to use it for emergency calls, I carry a mobile phone on a different network in case I have a breakdown or need to make non-emergency calls. PAYG is fine for this sort of use, but it soon becomes expensive if you use it regularly. That is what forced me to move from PAYG in the past year. My landline tariff covers calls to mobiles, but only in the evenings.

For emergencies, you could keep a non-UK SIM card with a favourable expiry policy (e.g. 6 months since last use). Non-UK SIM cards generally roam on to any UK network. Examples are O2 Ireland or Channel Islands / Isle of Man networks. Intra-EU roaming call charges are similar to UK PAYG rates anyway, often less.

That’s an interesting idea NFH. I recall that Vodafone once cut off my spare phone when it was unused for little more than a month.

One reason for having a second phone handy is that phones can go missing or the battery can go flat. I find it amazing that although I could pop a spare battery into a cheap Nokia I cannot do that with an iPhone. 🙁

Just to update: I have been contacted by Network Three via Twitter DM’s & they are sending me one of those booster box things that will connect to the internet.

My friend who lives next door is also on Three so the box will be connected to his internet & will help both me & him.

Thanks Three…..and Which for posting this story 🙂

Phil says:
6 May 2014

Hi Phil, that was an opinion piece from Catherine with the aim of getting people to talk about why you should pay for a landline when you get fibre broadband. We have no official policy about landlines and know many people rely on landline phones, which we’ve found from previous debates that you’ve taken part in.

Yesterday, Malcolm R. raised the point about revenue sharing between mobile phone networks and mentioned the old Railway Clearing House which made sure that every separate railway company [and once there were lots of them] got the due proportion of the fare paid for every journey if the passenger used more than one company or the trains of one company ran over the lines of another. In the days before computers this must have been a monumental clerical task [it also applied to goods and livestock traffic] but it was achieved quite satisfactorily. A similar organisation exists today to deal with revenue sharing on the railways. It is called Rail Settlement Plan and what it does and how it does it is explained on its website. It has a system known as ORCATS [Operational Research Computerised Allocation of Tickets to Services] which through the accumulation of years of data representing the pattern of use of each route enables the automatic allocation of revenues. I am sure a similar system could be devised to enable phone companies to carry the traffic of other networks without incurring a loss; this has to be worth exploring as the alternative is for every network to cover every square metre of the country with enormous multiplication of resources and expense.