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?