/ Technology

Why is mobile phone coverage still so bad?

Do you struggle to get enough reception just to receive the odd text or call?

It seems incredible, but many of us still have to put up with terrible phone coverage – although you might not think this from a first glance at official figures.

More than 99% of UK premises can receive a 2G or 3G service, according to telecoms regulator, Ofcom. Well that sounds all right doesn’t it? Except it doesn’t tell the whole story.

That figure is properties that get a signal from any network – far fewer get coverage from all four of them (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone).

In rural areas the situation is even worse. Only 72% of premises actually get a 2G or 3G signal from all four networks.

And believe it or not, that 72% is just for outdoors – fine if you’re happy to take all your calls in the garden, less so if a winter sprint outside to get a signal doesn’t appeal.

In fact only 31% of rural properties have indoor 2G or 3G coverage from every network – a far cry from the 99% you might expect from the headline figure.

What’s being done to improve coverage?

The government has in recent years tried to tackle ‘not-spots’ (areas with no coverage) and ‘partial not-spots’ (areas that have coverage from some, but not all, of the networks). But progress is slow.

To tackle partial not-spots, it got networks to agree to invest £5bn to improve their infrastructure.

And Ofcom designed the 4G auction so that one licence – won by O2 – requires it to offer 98% indoor coverage by the end of 2017 (new licences are likely to have similar requirements).

In 2013 the government set aside up to £150m to improve coverage in not-spot regions.

This was meant to find 600 potential sites for new mobile masts and to build as many as possible. By February 2016, only 16 had been completed.

The minister for culture and the digital economy at the time, Ed Vaizey, was pretty blunt when he admitted in parliament:

I don’t think the programme has been a success.

Why aren’t more masts being built?

The government scheme ran in to many of the problems networks face. Planning laws, combined with objections from local communities, often make it difficult to put up masts.

The effect, when combined with the restrictions on mast heights (typically 10 metres shorter than those in Europe), have left some areas without adequate coverage.

Meanwhile the difficulties in negotiating with landlords can badly delay necessary upgrades to existing sites.

The networks are hopeful that the government’s plans to reform the planning system should make things easier but some landowners have expressed concerns.

What do you think? Would you be happy to see more phone masts, including much taller structures, if it meant better mobile coverage – especially in rural areas?

Comments
Member

Complaints are levied at BT for their equivalent roll out of fibre coverage but their problems arent mentioned a lot in the media which are the same as the Cell-Net operators in that in places like Wales a lot of the land is in private ownership and the owners are -off-shore investors , if you know what I mean. This has hit many places there holding up installation of fibre but BT get blamed but when it comes to other private communications companies a different set of rules seem to apply . I am all for expansion of mobile signals and have commented on this on Which and would go along with non-intrusive towers but when you reach country areas a decision has to be made just like wind generated power masts as to whether land scape is “damaged ” . I know there are powerful bodies on both side of the fence in this issue and I am sure a hot debate will be forthcoming but keep in mind the amount of money and the number of towers that could be built still wont cover all areas just like the fibre debate so I hope this isnt being used as an excuse to hide this fact ?

Member

Sharing masts – just like the railways used to share tracks and apportion revenue – can surely not be a difficult solution, and would help establish more uniform coverage.

As far as cost goes, I don’t see that this should fall on the taxpayer. Let the mobile phone industry fund it.

For “not spots”, as duncan says, many of these might be in remote areas with little traffic and where a mast might be intrusive. We have to balance the environment with other demands.

Member

I was astonished to learn that only 16 out of a proposed 600 new mast sites had been completed since 2013. “Not a success” must be the understatement of the year. “Not trying hard enough” more like it. So many excuses.

I have no objection in principle to taller masts or towers so long as the mast-providers enable as many networks as possible to use them or, as Malcolm says, to share transmitters in order to keep down the amount of clutter on each tower. Obviously the mast has to have power supplies and back-up as well as facilities for both receiving and transmitting signals for each network plus service and emergency communications, and it is this proliferation of apparatus that gives rise to environmental objections. The other issue is radiation risk, but in sparsely populated lightly trafficked areas [which is where the not-spots etc usually are] this should be less of a concern. There is no reason why the telecom mast providing companies cannot design sensitive installations [and I don’t mean an Angel of the North on every hilltop]; if one tall tower can provide enough service coverage for five shorter ones that is better than having a multitude of projections dotting the landscape and probably more economical operationally.

Member

We should note that a farmer can put up the most hideous metal shed or cluster of feed silos in the most sensitive area of outstanding natural beauty without any need to jump the planning hurdles that seem to lie in the path of essential communications equipment.

Now that we know that UK mast heights are ten metres lower than on the continent it would be useful to know what the continental height limits are. I have never felt that communication masts have looked intrusive when I have been abroad. The UK does not have a monopoly of sensitive landscapes by any means.

P.S. The UK will always be part of Europe, Jon – it’s just not on the continent.

Member

Has Which? written a paper on this?

I ask as two options are given – apparently higher masts or more masts – but no information as to trade-off between the two. I would hate to give a view on such scant information.

Incidentally has anyone considered that with so many wind turbines in existence one might look to the use of them, or a dummy one in each array? Simply not enough information available.

Member

John- many towers are needed because they are only operational over a short distance and interconnect with each other to supply a continuous signal over the area covered by them . The frequency range is around –900 Mhz — 2000 Mhz (APPROX ) the draw back of those very high frequencies is that due to the earth,s surface -it curves , UHF frequencies fall off very quickly with distance the higher the frequency the shorter the distance . They are also badly effected by trees/hills etc som it isnt only a case of a bigger output power . As far as radiation is concerned this type is RF radiation that has NOT shown to effect the DNA of human being or to have ill effects due to the very low wattage of transmission , many scientific tests have been performed worldwide BUT do not apply this to actual mobile phones themselves which might ( depending on your thinking here ) might be a different situation . RF energy ,as I am sure wavechange will agree is NON -ionizing unlike x-radiation etc which is harmful to humans . If we bring the military Defence into the situation , think about radar , its transmitted at UHF,s and therefore has to be lifted higher for longer reception -ie- US spy planes with rotating radar and pickup built in to cover a very wideband of frequencies and the UK versions . Thats why I go on about Russia and OHR ( over the horizon radar ) .the latest NOT using UHF but the frequency range 1 Mhz up to 30 Mhz which is the RF frequency of short wave radio because they can bounce it off the ionosphere . I dont want to go on as there is a lot of other defense frequencies like submarine VLF transmission and NO just because of satellites being easy to attack it is not obsolete.

Member

As you say, Duncan, the radiation emitted by mobile phone masts is non-ionising. In science it can be easy to demonstrate a harmful effect but very difficult to prove that something is not harmful. Another problem is that introduction of mobile phones and phone masts are among many other changes that have taken place over the years.

There is a great deal of literature about the possibility that phones and mast could cause cancer but CR UK does not seem concerned and they have an interest in the subject: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/cancer-controversies/mobile-phones-wifi-and-power-lines

I still have the government’s leaflet giving advice on the possible risk of using mobile phones, but phone masts were not mentioned.

Member

The leaflet I mentioned above is available online: liverpool.ac.uk/media/livacuk/radiation/pdf/mobilephone.pdf

The advice dates from 2000.