/ 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?


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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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

The advice dates from 2000.

Thank you, Duncan, although I have to admit that I don’t understand most of what you have written. The Intro gave the impression that there was a choice between more of the standard UK masts or a fewer number of higher masts. I am not particularly interested in the technicalities of transmission but if there is such a choice – which you suggest is possibly not the case – then I would opt for higher masts in fewer locations. In fact, from a landscape point of view I would say the higher the better. Even the highest hills and mountains in the UK are not Alpine in scale.

I mentioned concern about radiation because it always comes up when local communities are consulted on the installation of another mast. If they are wrong, it hasn’t registered.

For years, calls from mobiles to the emergency services have been automatically routed via another mobile network even if the callers phone shows ‘No service’. I have never called the emergency services until recently and ended up making six 999 calls in one afternoon to provide updates and receive advice on management of a potentially serious health problem. I wondered why I was not given an alternative number, but with hindsight it would have been useless because neither of my mobiles had a signal.

I would like to see mobile networks sharing networks for standard calls and this would remove a great deal of frustration. If banks can share ATMs and presumably the costs of providing them, surely the mobile phone networks can do the same.

Perhaps there should be a requirement to open networks to sharing/roaming where coverage falls below a reasonable threshold.

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Robert says:
21 July 2016

Everyone wants to be able to use their mobile phone when ever were ever including those living in rural areas but the not in my back yard syndrome kicks in when it comes to the installation of masts.

As regards the height of the transmitters only the engineers who specialise in RF can answer, I don’t want to see beautiful views spoiled by ugly masts, wind turbines or any other clutter but surely locations close to electricity pylons and or discreetly placed in/on disused buildings such follies would be good as the revenue raised from leasing the space would help finance the upkeep of these old buildings.

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So the proposed higher towers, if approved, would be 25 metres tall [around eight feet]. That does not seem too bad, especially if one high tower can substitute for a number of standard mast. taking a cue from Robert above, we could even build new follies in especially sensitive landscapes to incorporate transmitters. Most landscapes are fairly ordinary and the Victorians had no hesitation in covering them with windmills, chimney stacks, viaducts and gasometers.

Just noticed an error and too late to edit: I meant to write “eighty feet” in the first line of my 13:36 post above.

Robert says:
21 July 2016

A few years ago I moved into a lovely flat and the phone signal was excellent, after a couple of years the signal suddenly went from full strength to practically non existent. After a couple of weeks I contacted my mobile provider who claimed that according to their system reception was good to which I informed them that the system was incorrect.

Approximately six months later while dealing with a small issue regarding my phone I again commented on the lack of signal at home, the person dealing with the other issue checked the system and informed me that the mast had been deactivated due to pressure from local parents as it was located near to not next to a school.

The stupid thing is that the same parents give the children mobile phones to microwave their brains and then moan because they don’t have a signal to make calls. So now a huge area of properties has next to no signal and residents complain but it is their own fault.

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Perhaps my comment is in the wrong forum but I feel that it is very relevant to the mobile phone signal debate. Earlier this year I took up the option to have a smart electrical meter installed and all looked well until the engineer pulled out his mobile phone signal meter to see if the signal was strong enough to allow the meter to be installed. Now apparently all smart meters are now fitted with a Vodafone SIM card, they apparently have an exclusive contract, and lo and behold the signal at the meter was below the admissible level to allow the smart meter to be installed, although two other networks signal was strong enough. This is apparently a known issue both with the smart meter installers and Vodafone but doesn’t help me to get a new smart meter to help with reducing my energy costs. There are several issues here:
1. The largest one being why is the Government pushing so hard to get these meters installed when poor network signals are a known issue and there appears to be no action being taken to resolve the issue.
2. Why are engineers visiting houses in areas when it is known that there is a poor signal.
3. Why are the smart meter installation company lettering people inviting them to have a smart meter installed knowing it might not be possible.
4. Why was a contract given to one mobile network and not left open for the engineer to install a SIM for whichever network has the strongest at the location of the meter.
5. Why was one mobile phone network company allowed an exclusive contract when there are know ‘dead’ spots for each network across the company.
6. Why is one utility currently able to offer, on a selective, basis free power on either Saturday or Sunday knowing that smart meters cannot currently be installed in many houses across the UK.
I realise that this post is primarily aimed at voice and text users but why not join these arguments together to put more pressure on the Government and mobile network companies to advance the speed at which coverage is being improved/extended.

Ian says:
21 July 2016

Competition hasn’t worked, and couldn’t possibly work, to improve coverage. Providers will concentrate on covering areas where population density is high and avoid areas where the masts would lose money.

The only solution is for there to be ONE physical network upon which any number of providers then offer their services to the paying public. With one physical network, you could be guaranteed that every provider will be available in every location there’s a signal.

It would also be much easier for the regulator to dictate far higher levels of coverage than currently seen.

Thanks Ian. That surely is the answer. It works for gas and electricity so why not do it for phones? There could still be regional franchises to preserve an element of competition, or at least to enable efficiency and performance comparisons.

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We’ve got the worst of all worlds at the moment – token privatisation of a nationally vital infrastructure [the mobile phone signal network] with service providers cherry-picking and squabbling over their access and coverage. Result > communications failure. As I said above the, network does not have to be state-run any more than the electricity grid is but it should at least serve the people. What is there for TM not to like about that? The national carrier need not be restricted to one signal bandwidth – they could still have separate packets for each service provider’s traffic. That would help with measuring and charging anyway.

One of the benefits of having a common carrier company operating the transmitter masts and carrying signals for any mobile service provider would be to lower the barriers to entry to the mobile phone services market and thereby increase potential competition. The Big Four would not want that so they will stick out for keeping their own masts for their own traffic and not sharing with anyone else, thus leaving big gaps in territorial coverage. So much for customer service.

Windydick [further down] has highlighted the problems brilliantly.

Your feature writer sayd, “Most of us expect to be able to use our mobiles whenever and wherever we want”. What world does he live in, and who are his friends? Certainly not my world where I have a weak O2 signal in and outside my home in a large village.
However, it is worth mentioning that the ability to use wifi signals from ones broadband router does allow web use indoors and sms messages come and go too.

The feature writer obviously lives in London, for their sins!

Just read of using Mobile over internet. Thought what a great idea, but foiled by O2! You cant sign up for their O2TU app without a mobile signal> Kafka would have been proud of them.

Three network is the same, I understand from the app reviews. Might not be too much of a problem if you only had to register once, but apparently Three insists you log on repeatedly – over the mobile network. You couldn’t make it up.

There is an essential feature of cellphone technology that affect signal and causes variability.
We all know that each network covers the country with cells, centred on masts, that reuse the relatively small number of available channels over and over again. Cell size will depend on user density – more users, smaller cells. Ideally coverage will be pretty comprehensive, apart from sparsely populated or difficult terrain.
When usage in any given cell increases that cell may run out of available channels, causing problems. To get round this the network can reduce the effective size of the cell by the simple expedient of reducing mast transmitter power. Users bumped off the edge of the now smaller virtual cell will be seemlessly served by adjacent cells, the system morphing flexibly best to use available resources.
When I first read of this innovation a couple of decades ago I marvelled at its simplicity, its elegance and effectiveness. Except that it doesn’t really work. If one cell is getting overloaded, say at 10 am on a Monday morning, the chances are its neighbours will be feeling the strain as well. Poor sops in the gaps, as in our semi-rural Cambridgeshire village, will be left with “No Network Coverage” just when they most want it! At the dead of night I have 3 bars signal downstairs in the kitchen. At peak times I’m lucky to get a fleeting service upstairs at the other end of the house, line of sight to the mast two miles away.
I believe that it is this unreliability, the capricious nature of mobile coverage that is most infuriating. And of course it is always the same mugs, those distant from several masts, who suffer. This also explains why coverage gets worse – more users, smaller virtual cells, more gaps.
I know what causes this, though I don’t know if that makes me feel any better! However, I think that attempts to improve signal mapping, however big the “crowd”, will be of limited use if this essential system characteristic is not taken into account.

I take with a pinch of salt any assertion by an operator that a mast has been de-commissioned as a result of public pressure. Most such removals from service have been a result of network amalgamations and consequent removal of “duplicate” masts – saving costs! Of course, service to individual users inevitably suffers.

As Robert and Duncan point out, little Johnny’s (or, more likely, Joanna’s) brain is at far greater risk of frying from the mobile phone than the base station. But phones automatically crank up the power the weaker the base station signal, ie the further away it is. So, logically, the best way to protect our kids from fried brain syndrome would be to put a weak base station on the roof of the school. try running that past the PTA!

What I find most depressing about this subject is that all the networks do pretty well the same thing. In a good, if not perfect, world I would hope for some synergy, complementarity, between the networks. But no, they are all chasing the same market with very similar coverages – and the same gaps!

I am reading in the August magazine about what Which? is calling a ‘femotocell’ . I now live in a village where there is no signal from any network.
I tried the Three InTouch app on my iPhone 6, but it is a long way from being of much use. However, I got a Three Home signal box (femotocell) from Three a couple of months ago (foc) and it works perfectly.
On the other hand, my daughter, in the same village, uses the EE native wifi system on her iPhone, but that is a much more expensive network to use, especially if you use your phone abroad a lot, as I do.

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