/ Technology

Does a lack of mobile coverage push your buttons?

Screen shot of mobile coverage map

With 3G and 4G the mobile networks are keen to tell us how we can stay connected wherever we go. But that’s not always the case, and finding yourself stuck with a bad phone signal can be deeply frustrating.

I remember being amazed the first time I used a mobile phone to get on the internet. Now, like a lot of people, I take it for granted and think nothing of checking the latest news when I’m out and about, or going online to check out the restaurant I’m on my way to. Becoming so dependent on our phones can mean it is increasingly frustrating if you can’t get coverage from your provider.

We’ve teamed up with mobile coverage experts, OpenSignal to show you how well each of the mobile networks’ 3G and 4G services performs, based on the actual experience of mobile phone users from the data that OpenSignal collect. Three has the best 3G coverage, but is the worst for 4G, while EE had the best 4G coverage and Vodafone users enjoy the fastest 4G speeds.

Coverage mapped out

We also found huge differences in coverage and speeds across the country, with London the place to be for a good signal, and Wales the worst. It’s all part of our work with OpenSignal, helping people to find out what phone coverage is like in their area. Our interactive map shows you which network has the best – and most reliable – signal in your area.

The culture secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced plans to eliminate poor mobile coverage, suggesting that in a fifth of the UK, people can’t use their phones to make a call because of poor signal (4G, 3G and even 2G).

Good news for a bad phone signal?

The Government has published a consultation with proposals for how the industry can improve coverage in these ‘partial not-spots’, from ‘national roaming’ – what happens when you’re abroad when you switch to another network’s signal when yours isn’t available – to forcing the mobile companies to share their masts, or obliging the networks to cover a minimum percentage of the UK.

Do you get frustrated by poor phone signal? Have you ever been stuck at home, at work, or on holiday, unable to make calls or texts, and wondered what you’re paying your monthly bill for? What do you think the solution should be?


My biggest frustration is not problems with calls or texts but frequent difficulty with accessing websites, either on the phone or when tethering.

Sophie Gilbert says:
7 November 2014

Our descendants will wonder why on earth for so long we just accepted (among so many other things) not being able to roam easily and companies not sharing their masts. Why, why, why?

Shareholders will probably tell us that competition is good. 🙁

We already have network sharing for emergency calls, so surely it would help all customers if the same could be done for other calls. The companies could reimburse each other for use of other networks.

It took a while for the railways to agree on a standard gauge for rail track, so don’t expect too much.

Its a pity they chose 4′ 8 1/2″ – Brunel’s 5′ gauge, made a lot of sense for speed and confort. The railways eventually found a way, through a clearing house, of sharing revenue equitably when issuing tickets that covered travel on different companies.

Competition is good – it drives innovation and service, Would you like to go back to the GPO with a 6 month wait for phones, shared lines, operator-connected long distance calls?

By the way, if you have a pension you are almost certainly a shareholder – indirectly; it’s where your income comes from.

Yes, life was simple, but neither efficient nor economical when the GPO ruled the wires [except in Kingston upon Hull which had a more advanced municipal telephone system – and still has an independent system]. When we lived in Enfield Town [now regarded as part of north London] we had to ask the operator to connect us to all numbers, both local and trunk, right up until around 1963 because the telephone instrument had no dial and the exchange was not equipped with a modern mechanical frame. So an amicable battery of well-spoken ladies perched on swivel high-chairs plugged all calls in on a panel. One benefit was their willingness to tell you the time without putting through a charged call to the Speaking Clock; in return they wanted to know what the weather was doing because inside the exchange they could not see out of the windows.

Brunel’s Broad Gauge on the railways [a little before my time] was actually 7’0″ [or 7’0¼” in later years] and in my opinion was far superior to the standardised gauge. If retained, it would have meant that modern carriages would ride much better on the tracks and carry more passengers in more spacious accommodation. But the Great Western Railway’s Broad Gauge had to go, towards the end of the 19th century, because it was an impediment to the long-distance carriage of goods [which had to be transferred between trains at intermediate points]. Luckily though, we have inherited a magnificent legacy in the form of capacious bridges and tunnels which have aided modernisation of the system and, even today, some of the trains running on former Broad Gauge lines are a little wider than standard trains to take advantage of the commodious infrastructure giving passengers a bit more space and comfort..

Back to the topic, it astonishes me that after twenty years of almost universal mobile phone ownership, just a handful of operators, and the investment of tens of billions of pounds, we still have a creaky system that gives patchy coverage, especially in rural areas and that, according to recent posts on another Which? Conversation, EE users have actually suffered a deteriortaion in signal coverage as the former Orange and T Mobile transmitter networks have been
“rationalised”; just as well the company has dropped its previous moniker of “Everything Everywhere”.

Correction – Brunel’s 7′ 0″ gauge. Wish we could edit for fat fingers!

Your comment was on the right track and I understood the point. 🙂

I understand the value of competition but where competition leads to unfair treatment of consumers, something needs to be done. Many of our Conversations are prompted by companies treating us unfairly and occasionally acting illegally.

Taking mobile phones as an example, we have examples of companies being unsympathetic to people who cannot even use their phones in their own homes due to lack of a reliable signal. Most of the networks have been pushing up prices of monthly payments for customers during two year contracts, something we are thankfully not accustomed to in the UK. And so on.

Competition is good but it can turn cancerous. Some companies become greedy, some sportsmen cheat, etc.

Yes and fixed price contracts come with a financial penalty when choosing to opt out where unfair practices are evident, which also stifles competition once locked into.

Richard Brown says:
8 November 2014

Let’s get back to mobile phones: roaming. The point I have is that, living in the Highlands, roaming wouldn’t do the slightest good up here. There are so few masts placed up here and, even though some of them are shared, the coverage is hopeless. Even if the population density is low compared to the big conurbations, there are plenty of people visiting or temporarily working in the area – even if only driving along the A9. Sajid Javid should know that roaming will not cure our problem until we get better coverage.

There continue to be horrific stories about mobile phone fraud as well as huge unintentional roaming bills.


These companies are amongst the worst around for ruthlessly pursuing profit without any consideration for their customers. Any whiff of regulation provokes an instant hysterical reaction and prophesies of doom for the industry. Look how long it’s taken to impose EU roaming charges on them.

Of course there should be national roaming and of course they should be required to provide a certain level of service under pain of losing their licences.

The government should make it compulsory for all networks to provide coverage in key parts of our transport infrastructure, particularly railway lines and tunnels (road, rail and the Channel Tunnel). This recent BBC article explains some of the problem: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-29641950

We still don’t have mobile coverage on the London Underground, only wifi in the stations. Other capital cities implemented coverage on underground train tunnels years ago, so why do we lag behind?

The Channel Tunnel is another case in point. The networks of the country from which each tunnel departs are responsible for providing coverage, i.e. UK networks in the southbound tunnel and French networks in the northbound tunnel. The French implemented their coverage in time for the London 2012 Olympics, but UK networks only managed to do so earlier in early 2014, with the exception of Three which has still not got round to it.

Networks in Switzerland provide high quality coverage in every road and rail tunnel. The lack of similar coverage in the UK is a disgrace.

John P says:
14 November 2014

Signal issues plague very urbanized areas too. I live on the fringe of a sizeable town in the South East near a motorway. When I moved there 8 years ago Vodafone sold me a 3G contract stating I had good coverage. The only thing that has changed is that they now admit indoors coverage is poor and 4G is available. Since I bought an iphone 5C, the lack of 3G became more serious as it refuses to access the web with GPRS or Edge (with Vodafone UK at least). Complaints led to an upgrade to 4G but now calls fail even when 4G signal is strong. This I discovered is because 4G is not used for voice with the iphone 5 so the signal strength indication can disguise lack of service. The solution proposed by Vodafone: toggle off 4G. This is 8 years of progress under a supposedly competitive regime!

My biggest bugbear is “Contention”. EE for one does not have sufficient capacity for me to be able to connect to ordinary 3G, let alone 4G for much of the day. The signal strength shown on my phone can be fine, but try to connect and the connection drops out, often before I even get to the requested site. Sometimes it drops out in the middle of a voice call. In effect I have the mobile access I pay for for 60 – 70% of the time that I want to use it.

Richard says:
20 November 2014

I’ve tried the Open Signal mapping. Sadly OpenSiganl don’t update their data so there is no point in running their app.

I tried to work out coverage in a rural area that was blank. So I ran the app for a month, the area is still blank. The last update was 1 Oct, the previous dataset was 9 months old. Also according to their app they don’t have any record of O2 masts in areas where the heat app shows good coverage.

They do have a forum for feedback but rarely reply to that.

I hope that which stop associating themselves with a product that wouldn’t have a hope of making it only a best buy table. A better product is Sensorly. They might have less UK data but you can fill in the gaps because they update their maps on a daily basis.