/ Technology

Government and mobile networks plan to drive out not-spots

3D illustration of cellular network over Europe map

In a Government deal, EE, O2, Vodafone and Three Mobile have agreed to dramatically improve mobile coverage across the UK by 2017. Are you ready to see the back of not-spots?

I witness the same scenario every day on the way home from work. I’m sitting (more likely standing) on the train and someone’s on their phone. Somewhere just outside Croydon, the conversation will take a familiar turn.

It will start with words being repeated, then an apology along the lines of ‘sorry, you’re breaking up’, and finally a moment of confused and frustrated silence as the commuter stares at their phone and wonders why it’s stopped working. I give an understanding nod – we’ve just entered a ‘partial not-spot’.

Plans for better mobile coverage

Soon, however, such areas of poor mobile coverage should become much rarer. The culture secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced a landmark deal with EE, O2, Vodafone and Three. The four mobile networks have committed to investing £5bn to improve coverage.

At the moment, only 69% of the UK has full mobile coverage from every single network. The deal requires this to hit 85% by 2017. Each operator must also individually guarantee coverage across 90% of the country.

Don’t forget about the data

It’s not just having signal to make a call that’s important; many people told the Government that better data coverage should be on the agenda. Ian said:

‘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 60 – 70% of the time that I want to use it.’

The new plans outlined today will also improve data coverage, so things are looking up for Ian.

Will it benefit you?

The Government says the deal will halve the number of partial not-spots and reduce total not-spots (where there’s no signal) by two-thirds. We now want to see swift action from the mobile providers, with financial penalties if they fail to deliver on their commitments.

Do you suffer from poor mobile coverage? Check out our interactive map to find the network with the best – and most reliable – signal in your area.


It is a great pity that the operators seemimgly refuse to allow roaming where you use another provider if your own’s coverage fails. I’m sure these days an electronic clearing house is simple to operate – but if each operator covers 90% of the country does it really matter if charges are not distributed? Most would come out in the wash and the user benefits.

What I don’t understand is why a national coverage has to be duplicated by each company – I would have thought a revenue sharing solution generally would have been a much more sensible solution. Or have I got this basically wrong?

It would be interesting to know if the increased coverage will be achieved by network sharing, as already in use for emergency calls. This would benefit users on all networks and improve the reputation of the service providers.

Tethering is very important to me. In some places, mobile broadband is faster than my home broadband but more often it is poor or unusable. Hopefully the planned improvements will address this problem.

Coverage on all networks in the UK is poor, particularly on Three which doesn’t have a 2G network to fall back on but also on EE which has been decommissioning thousands of transmitters over the last couple of years.

Coverage problems in the UK are worst on train lines, where the networks haven’t invested in building sufficient transmitters. This is not the case in many other countries. Switzerland is an obvious example where every road and rail tunnel is covered perfectly, but even Spain doesn’t have this problem. When I took a high speed AVE train from Barcelona to Madrid earlier this year, I tethered my laptop via my iPhone’s 3G signal, and Telefónica (which owns O2 in the UK) gave me a continuous internet connection for the 330-mile journey at 193mph.

The lack of coverage on the Tube is also pathetic. No other similar capital city lacks coverage on its underground train system. I’m not too bothered about voice calls, but I do want a continuous data connection. It’s all well and good having free wifi in nearly every Tube station, but the tunnels between stations aren’t covered at all.

Perhaps the UK has got it right by giving low priority to coverage on the Tube. Public transport may be better than cars but it uses natural resources and causes other environmental damage. We should look forward to more people living within walking and cycling range of where they work.

Talking to people on journeys is a way of relaxing and offsetting the stress of the hectic lifestyle that has become more common in the past few decades.

Though searching in vain for signal can be frustrating, being out of communication is sometimes a good way of decreasing stress.

Wavechange – I would agree totally with your comment about people travelling too far from home to work if you had made it with regard to mainline trains, but not with regard to the Tube. Londoners use the Tube for relatively short distances, and there just isn’t space for homes in London’s workplace centres, most notably the City, which has around 7,000 residents but around 300,000 workers. When working in Canary Wharf, I can walk to work in 15-20 minutes, but working in the City means a DLR journey, the last part of which goes underground without coverage and even without wifi in the DLR part of Bank station.

NFH – We are both wanting better coverage but sometimes I wonder if society is focusing to much on technological achievements, or doing things simply because we can do them. I remember learning to program in BASIC in the early 80s, at a time when a significant part of the population was doing the same. At the time, most home computers were not particularly useful for anyone other than the enthusiast.

I confess to having spent hundreds of hours playing with phones on different networks, swapping SIM cards and putting wireless dongles on window ledges and the parapets of bridges in the hope of using wireless broadband. While in signal-chasing mode, I sometimes reflect on the fact that we have an obsession with communication and travel.

What I feel most strongly about is people using mobile phones when driving. I’ve had to do four emergency stops at one roundabout because of people not concentrating while using hands-free phones in their cars.

While reducing the number of not-spots is good news especially for emergency use, it doesnt help us in rural UK if the coverage is limited to 1 provider.
Scenario – 1 network for home, a different network for the journey into town or work and maybe another one for when you get there !
With dual SIM phones not readily available in the UK this is a real problem.

The problem is not the lack of availability of dual SIM phones in the UK but that mainstream popular phones such as the iPhone are not available in dual SIM versions anywhere in the world. We might eventually move away from physical SIM cards and instead use a simple login. For example, why shouldn’t you be able to sign into your mobile phone account on your phone in the same way that you sign into your Skype account? Skype doesn’t need a SIM card to identify you to the service, so why should a mobile network?

We also need an abolition of bundles. Bundles allow the mobile networks to charge for a service even when they don’t provide sufficient coverage to supply the service.

I’ll take Giffgaff as an example, which has some of the more favourable pricing and is a Which best buy. Giffgaff charges £7.50 for a 1024MB data bundle, with any usage over this costing £0.02/MB. This means that Giffgaff charges for the full 1024MB, even when the customer experiences insufficient coverage to be able to use the full allowance. If bundles were abolished, then Giffgaff would have to charge per megabyte actually used (e.g. £0.01/MB), and it would receive revenue only where its parent O2 provides coverage. Bundles serve only to allow mobile networks to charge for more than is actually consumed; they do not benefit consumers.

On the other hand, Three on PAYG charges £0.01/MB, so Three receives revenue only where it provides coverage. This simple and fair charging should be the norm and not the exception.

The networks could continue to give volume discounts, e.g. £0.01/MB for the first 1000MB, and then £0.005/MB for the next 3000MB etc, but charging for more than is actually consumed should be outlawed.

I certainly agree about that. I’m paying for 5GB data a month and most of the places I want to use it there is not an adequate 3G signal indoors, never mind 4G.

Agree , I use Three’s PAYG and its very good value for my usage pattern with credit not expiring after 30 days, even got 4G in Bham the other day.

Credit does not expire after 30 days on any UK network. On nearly all UK networks (including virtual networks), credit expires 6 months after the last change in credit balance. The most notable exceptions are Lycamobile (3 months) and White Mobile (2 months).

Credit expiring 30 days after the last top-up is common only in countries like France, not the UK.

It’s several years ago but a PAYG phone I kept in the car for emergency stopped working. I phoned Vodafone and they said that they suspended phones that had not been used for 30 days. It was activated without problem. After that, I put a different phone in the car, after establishing that it would not be cut off after 30 days. In fact, the credit on that phone had been purchased from One2One, before T-Mobile took over. It had belonged to my late mother. At one time I had a SIM on every network when on holiday in the country to maximise my chance of making a phone call. How sad is that?

In the old days, you could only get mobile phone service on contract. There was no PAYG, not even SIM-only contracts. When the networks first introduced PAYG, credit expired unless you topped up periodically. In France they still follow this policy which unnecessarily increases customer churn, but UK networks haven’t done this for at least 10 years.

Eladram says:
19 December 2014

Why were the mobile phone companies allowed to start 5G before the whole country is covered by 3G? It should be a condition of implementing new services that the old ones have full coverage.

No network in the world has started 5G and no handsets have been manufactured. 5G is still in a research and development stage.

Having spent the past week with my phone showing ‘no service’ for much of the time, never mind access to websites I do feel rather deprived, but at least I have had more exercise than usual. It’s a long time since I’ve been out of contact for so long.

Perhaps there should be statutory internet-free days to encourage such activity as yours. Maybe it would help the health of the population?

I can recommend TV-free days.

We live in central London and there is a big building behind us blocking the signal. There is a device call Sure Signal from Vodaphone but we cannot buy it! The Vodaphone site won’t let me (it *may* be out of stock, they aren’t certain), the local Vodaphone shop hasn’t got it and they claim that some shops may have it but they don’t know which ones. They do not allow you to phone the shops, they refuse to tell you the phone number of the shops, so you would have to traipse all over the country to find a shop that has a Sure Signal in stock. Can you do anything about this? Surely this is a breach of the terms of service?

A landline might be a better investment than one of these devices.