/ Technology

No service: is mobile coverage meeting your expectations?

Most of us are increasingly dependent on our mobile phones – Ofcom has found that 78% of us could not live without our smartphone, but is the signal you’re getting good enough?

We want to have good quality mobile coverage wherever we are, at home, work, outside, or on the move.

While the coverage of 4G mobile networks has increased over the past year, there are still many areas of the UK that experience no coverage, or only have coverage from some (not all) of the mobile network operators.

As you’d expect, it is a particular issue in rural areas and while on the move, but it can also prove to be a problem in some urban areas.

Ofcom plans

Ofcom is looking at measures to improve coverage in those areas that don’t have mobile coverage. However, these measures will only go so far to address the issue. It will be up to the government to decide what further steps should be taken to achieve near-universal mobile coverage across the UK.

When we have a connection, the quality of it is important too, so that we can quickly and easily send messages, stream music and watch videos on the move – this can often become a problem when many users try to use the network at the same time, such as when you’re at a busy train station.

Network congestion

This network congestion means that we can experience slower data speeds, meaning it takes longer to upload Instagram photos or download emails.

We’d like to hear your experiences ahead of Ofcom’s consultations; have you experienced problems when you are using your phone, such as being unable to make calls, send texts or emails, or make use of apps such as Facebook or Instagram?

How did the problem affect you – for example, did it stop you getting in contact with family and friends, or being able to work on the move?

Please do not post your exact address or full postcode when commenting. Thanks.

Paul says:
9 December 2018

I live between Poole and Bournemouth but due to the local topography we are slightly in the shade of a great signal. We are with 3 and can get a signal if we stand in the front garden, currently not yet 4G. We compensate through our broadband service and 3’s ability to accept calling over wifi which works most of the time. That option is not available on my wife’s Windows phone however.

Disgruntled says:
10 December 2018

Alston, Cumbria and mobile signal is very patchy, and I still use a Sim purchased in 1998! Garrigill, a village nearby, has ZERO mobile coverage. All these providers are encouraging us to buy their 4G service yet they cannot offer it nationwide. Why is this allowed?

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But mobile telephony is not a privatised industry as it was never under state control. And it is regulated, by Ofcom. There is criticism that the regulation is too light.

The only government involvement has been the management of the bandwidths for mobile phone signals within the electromagnetic spectrum. Ofcom auctions these to operating companies and successful bidders get a licence with various terms, conditions, and public service obligations.

Nevertheless, it certainly is government policy not to interfere with the industry or lay down specifications [outside the licence provisions] for operating performance, coverage, territory, and general conduct.

If you want to find out which transmitter masts are near to any location you can do so by visiting https://www.mastdata.com/ and inserting the postcode. I just checked my home address and found that I am within close range of Orange, O2, and Vodafone masts but no others although there could be others at longer range. The maps only show the closest masts for each postcode, not a general area coverage. The mobile service providers cannot be required to update the maps with new or repositioned masts.

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I agree, Duncan. I am not supporting the government’s stance, just reminding ourselves of it. The population has a tendency to forget what it voted for and then complain. Mind you, there was no suggestion that any alternative government would have acted differently.

Since you like pertinent quotes, how about this one from David Cameron in 2009 when he was Leader of the Opposition. He was speaking against the proliferation of quangos and said that “with a Conservative government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist. . . . Its remit will be restricted to its narrow technical and enforcement roles. It will no longer play a role in making policy. And the policy-making functions it has today will be transferred back fully to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport“. Of course, since then it has grown and grown and taken on all sorts of communications regulation including over the postal services industry, video on demand, and minimum broadband speeds.

Imogen says:
10 December 2018

I live near Cribbs Causeway, just outside Bristol, and the mobile coverage in my village is dreadful for all networks. I work in the NHS and it’s an absolute nightmare when I’m supposed to be on call but I can’t get a signal inside the house.

If, as a country, we are expected to provide both landline and mobile telephone networks to all populated areas, no matter how remote, is it efficient for those two systems to be essentially independent?

Would it not make more sense to have something more akin to Network Rail or to the National Grid?

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Duncan, I agree that, if such a thing is required by the will of the people, then it would be easiest to implement with the support of Government and associated legislation, e.g. legislation and/or regulations to re-structure our communications industry.

I cannot imagine any way that any Conservative Government would ever entertain the thought of driving forward any such national interest, i.e. against the wishes of the national and international business community, but it might fall within the remit of a proper traditional Labour Government to “put Britain first” in this kind of way.

So, for the immediate just now, while Labour continue to opt to be unelectable, a case of “dream on”. But sooner or later, times may change…

I think so, Derek. The overlap and duplication in the present set-up is incredibly wasteful and the fact that despite the vast investment in providing many thousands of mobile phone masts we still have hundreds – if not thousands – of significant not-spots is evidence of a badly distorted market.

It is possible that there is a need for the overall actual number of transmitters in order to carry the volume of traffic but it is also likely that some areas are oversupplied due to unnecessary competition so there is a net excess of capacity in some places which could be redistributed to provide adequate cover everywhere instead of overlap in some areas and a lack of cover in others. It is hit-or-miss whether a connection will be available as it depends on each separate network having their infrastructure in the right place.

Whereas a large proportion of the UK population has access to service from all four networks, a significant proportion only has access to one, or two, or three networks and some with none at all. Ofcom recognises that, and that as a result the UK risks falling significantly behind other countries in terms of connectivity. We compare unfavourably with many other countries in Europe and one has to consider that the reason is the absence of central direction and the overall laissez faire attitude. Ofcom is trying to do something about it but it does not have much leverage, let alone any power, to change the way the market behaves.

One side-effect of the growth of mobile phone technology, beneficial but largely unacknowledged, is that it has enabled the transfer of a vast amount of voice, and an increasing amount of digital, communication away from the landline telephone network thus releasing capacity within the system for the increased demand for more broadband and for higher speed broadband. It is highly likely that a high percentage of the calls currently being carried by the mobile networks would not be generated at all if they had to be made entirely by landline [especially when at least one of the parties is on the move] so it’s a case of a habit expanding to take up capacity, but nevertheless we would have been in a worse mess without mobile phones since there is no way that the basic BT infrastructure could have been enhanced at the pace required to keep up with the digital revolution.

In terms of infrastructure, there is in practice a nationwide system operator akin to National Grid or Network Rail. Nearly all the telecom towers and masts [as well as broadcasting transmitters for radio and terrestrial television] are operated by a company called Arqiva and they provide them, maintain them, and service them under contract to the different users whose traffic they carry. The philosophical problem is that if we legislate for all traffic to be shared so that the four networks effectively become one operationally there is no need for the separate companies to exist; there would be no need for the multiplicity of tariffs and bundles, no coverage advantages of one network over another, no need for dozens of phone shops in every town and city centre, in fact nothing but customer service to distinguish them and that is largely related to contracts, billing and the selling of devices – and we must be reaching saturation point on that.

…perhaps Douglas Adams almost got it right with his concept of “the shoe event horizon”, except that the reality is more like “the fone shop horizon”

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That’s a good analogy, Derek.

We have already gone through the shoe event horizon as there are precious few dedicated shoe shops left, certainly of the traditional kind. Trainers [or similar] have replaced shoes and as many are probably sold on-line as by shops. They have also become comfort purchases and status symbols to give reassurance among the peer group that you conform, that you know what is on trend, and that you can afford to keep up to date.

Smart phones are inheriting similar characteristics where appearance, style and brand are the dominant considerations rather than price or functionality. Rolling contracts have made it easy to update to a new model very easily and seemingly economically. Being seen to have the right stuff is probably one of the most powerful consumer influences yet little exposed to public discussion because we don’t like to admit that we are so easily manipulated by the crafty wiles of commerce.

Duncan – Prime Ministers have a special capability: they can self-destruct, and you can watch it happening on BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, Ch 4, Ch 5, etc, all day every day. I can almost hear the sepulchral tones of young Mr Attenborough commenting on this strange experience as she slowly reverse-pupates from a butterfly to a chrysalis and eventually back to a political caterpillar of little appeal except to the starlings.

There is no mobile phone reception at all in the busy SE Dartmoor village where we live – although we have broadband the nearest mobile phone reception is about 2 miles away.

Kiran says:
13 December 2018

I’m in Harrow, London. I frequently have dropped calls, SMS messages, etc not being sent. It’s frustrating. I had Vodafone and now I’m with PlusNet but the problem is the same. It seems to depend on which way the wind is blowing, if I’m lucky the wind will blow in the right direction to take my signal to the mast. Has interrupted meetings when I work from home.

Martin Gill says:
13 December 2018

Only get a patchy signal at home – in North Bolton. I’m with Smarty – great price but I’m going to have to change to another provider

I had not heard of Smarty, but it seems to use the Three network, so you will have to look at the other networks, Martin. Unless you know that there is good coverage from other networks it might be worth getting a PAYG SIM and doing some experiments in your home before entering into any contract. Alternatively if you have a SIM-only contract you can cancel after a month.

I recently went to Spain and could not receive calls or texts. I am with Virgin.

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I spend most of my time with my fiancee in a village in the East Riding and rarely get any kind of signal in our house. At my home it’s fine. My question is can I leave my contract as 5 days a week I have no service?

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I suggest you discuss the problem with your service provider, Billy. If your contract includes a phone they might allow you to pay the balance for the handset and end the contract. You are in a similar position to someone who moves home and becomes unable to use their phone at home. Alternatively, your fiancee might let you use her phone. 🙂

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I realised that the customer is bound by a contract but companies will sometimes use their discretion and help customers, which can encourage loyalty. If a company helps me I am more likely to use it in future.

I would like to see an end to contracts that include a mobile phone. Not only would it help reduce the number of perfectly good phones that are scrapped after two years but it would help people whose circumstances change.

One of the advantages of a mobile phone is that you can keep the number even if you have to change network. When I moved home in 2016 I remained in the same dialing code area and was able to keep my landline number. It had not occurred to me that mobile phones are not classed as utilities.

Whereas Duncan’s comments might be a reasonable explanation of the problem and the lack of contractual entitlement, it is not a good commercial proposition in my view. The issue for mobile phone users when moving home cannot be compared to the situation with a landline where the only questions are whether a landline service is available, what the new number will be, and whether the existing contract at the previous home can be continued on the same terms [which is usually the case]. With a mobile phone there is the much more important question of whether t will be able to connect to the service provider’s network at the new location. Ocom has reported serious deficiencies across the country where only two or three networks provide coverage, and if you happen to be on one of the missing ones you are effectively deprived of a service through no real fault of your own and due to a circumstance that is not realistically preventable. There has to be a get-ut clause to allow customers to terminate their contracts at no penalty in such circumstances; in my view that would be commercially and reputationally beneficial to all the networks if they voluntarily adopted such a provision.

One related problem is the integration of the contract for the handset with the contract for the phone service. Ofcom has also said that it is exploring ways of separating the two elements; I suspect there is a some form of cross-subsidisation between the two which could be difficult to disentangle but so long as there is an overlap a proper response to the lack of signal problem will not be obtained.

Now that mobile phone use is virtually universal and an essential feature of life today – promoted by the operators themselves – I feel the mobile phone industry has to take ownership of the consequences of incomplete signal coverage on their own networks and release customers from contracts that just do not supply a service at their fixed abode. It is not acceptable to effectively say “tough – you’ll have to carry on paying for something you can’t use because we haven’t made the technological arrangements to enable you to do so”.

Wavechange – I was not aware that where was any classification of utilities that had legal significance in contractual terms.

Until Duncan raised this I had assumed that ‘utilities’ are just services that are widely used by the public and subject to some form of regulation.

One of the biggest achievements with mobile phones is the fact that we can retain the same number, irrespective of whether we change phone or service provider.

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Why not ask if you can write a Convo, Duncan?

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We can look at working together on a convo 🙂 Duncan, let’s pick this up by email.

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I live in rural North Yorkshire, not exactly remote though – mid-distance between Ripon, Skipton and Harrogate. Just fed my postcode into the “show services offered” map helpfully given below – there is NOT ONE service offered within 3 miles, no wonder I can never get a signal on Vodaphone! Absolutely disgraceful.

Problem is that everywhere now seems to expect everyone to have mobile coverage, so dentists etc all *expect* you to be able to receive reminder etc texts., and all businesses *expect* you to have a mobile phone – you can’t even complete some forms without adding one! I’ve sometimes been forced to give “00000 000000” just to be able to complete them! We are ruled far too much by the expectation of being instantly available on mobiles anyway.

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M Phillpotts says:
20 December 2018

Recently gave up Virgin on EE because of weak signal at home. Only decent service in my area is O2 so joined giffgaff which works fine.

Signal in my area is awful. I live in Cheltenham and it is advertised on their website as very good 4g signal indoors and out however at most I get 1-2 bars of 3G

I feel given the cost of mobile phones and the rental charges it is a disgrace that mobile coverage is so abysmal outside of many of the large cities in England.
It is certainly something I would appreciate an organisation like Which to take up on behalf of all individual users.

Oladele Osinuga says:
1 January 2019

Seems to be a recurring problem with EE. I live in Dagenham (geographically greater London though historically Essex postcode) and rarely do I have a constant 4G connection as it is usually on 1 bar, something that doesn’t happen to my wife who is on 3 as well as my eldest daughter who is on O2. I also a Lebara line which is always on full bars and hardly experiences loss of connectivity as with my EE line. Most times at home because of the erratic state of EE’s connectivity, I either use wifey’s 3, the landline, WhatsApp if convenient or VOIP via WIFI. I am somewhat puzzled as to what the issue is with the poor connectivity of EE in these parts as it was not something, we experienced years ago. Whilst I am not professionally a techie, I believe the problems are likely due to overload with more subscribers (there has been a lot of regeneration in the area post the London 2012 Olympics with the building of new homes) and the Telcos’ not renewing their infrastructure to cope with the surge in demand.

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I have little coverage with EE in northwest incl a Preston town centre flat and a main road estate in Ormskirk.

My networks are worse now, why??

Well I’ve noticed a network drop when 3g / 4g came along and now again.

I conclude they reduce tower signal strength to make everyone crave the next incoming invention. This time it’s 5g. Just in time when mobile phone uptake has peaked. Now we’ll need 5g compatible phones, especially when the other signals are being reduced like here.

Just in time to save the industry. But what about our health?

On 5G: if you check YouTube, 5g has medical doctors saying it’s dangerous – one cites multiple studies on Pubmed: Rats get diabetes with 5g: Humans get cancer and blood sugar issues.

Plus there’s the mind control frequencies that can be overlaid. And they will be, they need us all as dumb sheep to buy but never to challenge. See the ex military EMF experts turned whistleblowers on YT about that.

Evidence of birds dying en masse near 5G trial sites also on YT.

So let’s just upgrade the existing networks instead and demand any 5g is proven safe within real life EMF levels not just non real world ‘phone temporarily near head’ sales pitch.

Alas our Councils are allowing this stuff for future Smart cost savings without any actual knowledge of the high risk of harm. Good luck to your kids, EMF is even worse for their young brains and bodies.

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Duncan, your linked text is clearly “hurt and rescue” advertising.

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Yvonne says:
8 January 2019

Since early December 2018 when the 02 network went down I’ve had a very sporadic signal on my mobile phone. I’m on Tesco Mobile, but use the 02 system. People have tried to phone or text me or vice-versa, but the signal quality is diabolical.

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A glitch on 3’s website is displaying customers’ security details for all to see.

Yvonne says:
6 February 2019

I haven’t had a reliable signal from 02 since December. I can’t use What’s/App for calls and messages, and internet is cut off altogether. Reception is very bad

Hi Yvonne, really interested to hear your comments. I work on Which?’s Freedom to Pay campaign and am wondering whether this poor signal also affects your ability to use online banking, or receive payment authorisation text messages? Morgan

Christine Andrew says:
6 February 2019

South Godstone, Surrey. Have to go in the garden to make/take calls! And that’s with O2 which is the best in the area (RH9 8 )

Hi Christine, sounds shocking that you have to resort to going into the garden to make and receive calls and texts. I work on Which?’s Freedom to Pay campaign and am wondering whether this poor signal also affects your ability to use online banking, or receive payment authorisation text messages? Morgan

I have used good value PAYG 3-2-1 from 3 in a no-signal area for years, by using their three-in-touch app over the internet. From May 15 this was withdrawn, so my mobile is useless from home, and Banks cannot contact me for urgent messages about fraud on my account.
The Which reviews do not point out that anybody with the same problem should consider moving to O2, who offer the same deal as 3, with 3p/min. calls, 2p/text, and 1p/meg charges.