/ 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?


I understand that percentage figures given for mobile coverage relate to population. 98% for example, which of course still leaves over a million people without a signal, but also huge swathes of the country.

The TU app offered by O2 does offer a good service for texts and outgoing calls using wifi when there’s no signal, but I have yet to manage to answer an incoming call using it. It rings just once then cuts off. Is it just me, or do others have the same problem?

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I read with excitement Which report on mobile phone reception. I thought the ‘free’ Signal Box’ from EE would allow my family to be able to use our mobile phones at home (we have no mobile signal from any provider at home). I looked into it further and was so disappointed. Firstly, I have a Sim only contract with EE and therefore would have to pay £90 for the Box rather than it being free. Secondly, there are minimum internet requirements for the box to work (2Mbps upload and 5Mbps download). Our internet speeds do not come anywhere near those values. The very people who are most likely to need this service due to poor mobile reception, usually the rural community, are the same people who have pitiful broadband speeds so the rural community are no better off.

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mike says:
29 July 2016

duncan lucas is quite correct in his appraisal of repeater/amplifier devices. They are illegal to use (but not merely to own) in the UK. However the one legal device he mentions does work (presumably the Nextivity Cel-Fi). I have been using one (bought second hand on ebay for £120) for more than a year now and this provides me with a 5 bar EE signal indoors from an outdoors 1 bar signal. It works for 3G data, voice and SMS and although apparently EE are able to remotely disable it, so far they have not one so and I do not see why they should ever want to as it is built so as not to cause the same interference as repeater/amplifiers can cause. This is why they are legal to use. In fact the latest Cel-Fi version does work with 4G but is very expensive as new and very rarely available second hand on ebay. Incidentally I have no financial interest in promoting Cel-Fi devices but make these comments so as to provide a remedy of sorts for others who, like me, live in a rural location which will probably never get fibre boadband and so for whom the mobile over internet devices/ software will never work well.


Seems good.

I’m on O2 using a the latest Sony Xperia Z5 Compact smartphone. I have 4G capability but rarely have the opportunity to use it.

I have been stuck at home and the local area for several weeks now having had a very traumatic triple heart bypass which I am now convalescing from. My wife has been looking after my needs but she needs to go out occasionally to shop, walk the dog and do her own thing, if only for a short while or she’ll go crazy!

My wife is on Tesco Mobile PAYG. her phone isn’t smart. Tesco Mobile uses the O2 network so she is in the same boat as me.

Neither us have a signal at home. Even when we go outside we still find in certain areas close to home we are still devoid of signal. We don’t live in the back of beyond, we live in a coastal village between Conwy and Bangor, both of these areas enjoy 4G. In fact if I go down to the promenade about half a mile away, I can get a 4G signal, but not up the hill where I live.

Obviously whilst I have been recovering from my operation, this has been worrying. I can’t contact my wife when she goes out locally. If she goes to Conwy, Llandudno, Bangor or Colwyn Bay then I can get her but it has to be by TuGo, (voice over internet using our wifi router). Because my wife neither has a smartphone or a monthly contract she can’t use TuGo, but that’s only of any use if you next to a wifi router anyway.

I have complained bitterly to O2 but they insist that there’s either nothing they can do or that nothing is at fault. O2 claim that they mast sharing with Vodaphone but this seems to make no difference.

When I was in hospital in Liverpool awaiting my procedure, I tried to phone my wife. You would have thought that from a major city from within a hospital, there would be no problem but I couldn’t get a peep out O2. No signal whatsoever and messages telling me “No network coverage”. Yet the guy next to me was happily chatting on his Samsung. I asked him what network he was on and he replied, “Vodaphone and I’ve got 4G”. So this mast sharing statement is absolute rubbish!

Because my operation was largely unscheduled and things did not go smoothly, I was kept in for a fortnight. I had little or no signal whilst laying on my back unable to move for the best part of that fortnight not being able to phone my wife or anybody. It added to my anxiety that put me there in the first place!

I have gotten nowhere on the O2 chatline/email/messaging. When I am feeling better, I off to the shop where I did the deal and I’m really going to complain bitterly. The least I’ll demand is a reduction in my monthly charge.

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mike says:
1 August 2016

brian123, So sorry to hear of your current distressing health problems (hopefully soon to be a thing of the past for you and your wife). For what it’s worth , my advice would be to forget 4G (I’m assuming that you do not really need this for data as you mention only voice – and clearly your wife doesn’t, using a non smartphone) and concentrate on getting your wife’s phone unlocked from the Tesco(o2) network (maybe subject to a small charge) and then using it to test which network gives you the best 2G/3G service both in your home and where ever else you regularly visit, by obtaining PAYG SIM cards from each network (often available free), putting each in your wife’s phone to test which does give the strongest signal. Incidentally, I would expect it to be EE but in advance you can never be sure. Then, when you know which network is best for you, do your best to cajole the store which sold you an unsuitable expensive smartphone contract to unlock the phone for free ( Sorry to say but I doubt you will have any success in negotiating anything more, sadly it’s a sellers market) thus enabling you to use the best performing network PAYG SIM in it instead of the o2 SIM. You will still have to continue to pay for the o2 contact until it runs out but think of this as installments for the purchase of the phone itself. An added benefit, if I’m right about EE turning out best, then with them you will get 4G as well , if it’s available, at no extra cost.
As regards the use of a Cel-Fi device, a word of caution here. In spite of my praise of these devices in my earlier post, I do not think it is cost effective ( some £700 ) as a way for you to get an o2 4G service in your home. A second hand unit for 2G/3G only (say £150) is perhaps a viable option but only if you can get at least a single bar 2G/3G service somewhere in your home for it to amplify. Obviously even it could not amplify a non existant signal.
Good luck for the future.

Terrible signal at home.
Download a wifi app from your provider we are told in the august magazine ( page 21) Nope that’s only if you bought an EE phone they told me in the shop…but you did not sell this one and I have had your sim on payg for many years….Sorry can’t help EE say.

Hold on here these mobile phone people are wanting our money but can’t give us a reliable proper signal ! Can they really not get together and sort this out? Where is the Regulator in all this ? Doing nothing it seems.

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Valerie Thurlow says:
10 August 2016

A new mast for us wouldn’t do any good as we back onto a wood. We cannot have a dish for the TV either as no signal can get past the trees. I feel that something could be done like putting a small mast on the street lamps. We were paying the TV licence and could not get any programs, thank goodness for Virgin. My wish would be that they could install a gadget to get a signal for our mobiles.

hello, At last someone is speaking out regarding mobile phone coverage, wish I’d have know this piece was coming I would have willingly contributed towards it!
I have been with o2 for over 10 years and found their service great and would have happily recommended them to anyone, that is until recently.
about 2 years ago I started to notice that the phone signal was getting worse, this combined with the onward progress of the likes of 4g etc.
Today I sit at home with 2 o2 phones (one for my partner and my own) both with no signal, sometimes there is one bar on the meter but for the most of the time there is none.
I have checked with open signal app and there is a mast very close, less than half a mile.
I have checked with neighbours and they too report poor signal using o2.
I spoke to o2 about this and they suggested turning off 4g and also to use the tu go app, this did very little as most phone calls were laggy and poor quality(I do have very fast broadband)
I suggested they come to the location to test for themselves as they say there is no problem with their signal(they probably have a quick look at open signal too!) so, after the usual procedure of letters and replies now we are at the deadlock stage.
To conclude, what is the point of having a “mobile” phone if you can’t receive calls!
I have taken o2 to the ombudsman, I don’t want compensation, just an explanation as to why and maybe a fix, It’s so frustrating when all you get fro o2 customer services is the standard “it says it ok here” response,
The case is ongoing and expect a response within a few months.
update: today my partner received a text that I had sent at 21;35 on Tuesday, she received it 12.58 Wednesday!

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I took out a contract with O2 involving a new mobile phone. It became apparent that the signal in my home was very weak. I entered into discussion with O2 both by phone and email. O2 were not exactly sympathetic at first and suggested I downloaded their app which might help. It didn’t. Eventually I wrote a formal letter (using wording from the Which? website sample letters) clearly stating that I considered O2 to be in breach of contract by failing to provide me with a service based on reasonable care and skill. In the meantime, my wife, who was using EE as her provider, complained about her lack of signal and was immediately provided with a ‘booster box’ which works extremely well. The service received from EE was excellent (though customer service is not highly rated by CA members). I asked O2 for a similar device. O2 said it didn’t supply them (unlike several other providers).
My letter, however, seemed to get a reasonable result. I was allowed to keep my phone and my contract was cancelled. In addition, I was offered compensation which I accepted. I now use EE and both my wife and I enjoy a full signal 24/7. Incidentally, so does any visitor to my home who uses EE or any of its associated providers.

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I do find it difficult to come to terms with the complaints about lack of coverage and the refusal of people to accept the requirement for a mast.

Masts of up to 15 metres high are permitted development – except in Conservation Areas, AONB or National Parks. People have already commented on favourable planning terms for farmers and wind farms – which stand a good chance of being in an AONB or a National Park.

There is still great opposition to putting masts up because of the danger to health, especially childrens’. Yet there is a huge demand, especially from the young, to have the latest mobile phone.

Unless there is leap into some, as yet, undiscovered technology to replace mobile phones we are stuck with masts. I think it is worth noting that we build roads and railways throughout all areas of the country. Vehicle also kill and maim a lot of people,but there is nowhere near the opposition to this technology.

I agree Martin. I thought it was the radiation from mobile phones held next to users’ heads that was more hazardous than any from masts, so the opposition to masts is not rational. Modern masts do not look much worse than some street lighting columns [and many times better than old telegraph poles with five cross-arms and thirty insulators plus thirty cables strung between them]. In many places the transmitters are sited on tall buildings, water towers, church spires, etc.

It looks like the government is getting tough with the mobile phone companies to make sure they deliver full coverage to 90% of the UK by the end of 2017 in accordance with their network commitments. Ofcom will be empowered to fine companies that fail to comply so I expect there will be cooperation between companies to enable capacity sharing and joint provision of masts and towers with external companies being contracted to provide and manage the infrastructure in many cases.

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That’s right Duncan, the present priority is to get mobile phone signals to nearly all the not-spots. These will largely be in under-populated rural areas where line-of-sight will not be so much of a problem as in built-up areas; I presume that radiation will also be a lesser issue over tracts of open country. I suspect the number of users in these districts will be fairly stable for the foreseeable future so network congestion is unlikely to be a factor. It would appear that the fibre broadband roll-out to most parts of the UK is still very important but not the top priority.

A friend who lives in a rural area struggles with mobiles on two networks. He has a landline but prefers to use the mobiles because he is away from home so much. He has replaced one of the mobiles with one that supports Wi-Fi calling, making use of his landline broadband to make calls, so that he can at least make and receive calls at home.

I have a decent mobile signal at home but thought I would look at Wi-Fi calling so that I could make calls when there is no signal but I have access to free Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, my iPhone 5S does not seem to support Wi-Fi calling. The cheaper 5C model that was on sale at the time does support it. 🙁

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Thanks for the explanation, Duncan. I managed to find why this feature works on the cheaper 5C model. I won’t be changing my phone but I can see that Wi-Fi calling could be very useful to some people.

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Mickey says:
18 June 2019

I’m sorry , but certainly on my part , i’ve found the signal has got worst , not better of late . I live close to an aerial , about a mile away as the crow flies , and where once i was able to make calls with ease , i now struggle to make any calls at all . I use a 3g , Nokia 3310 , linked at first to Vodaphone (whose answer was to switch to a smartphone with a longer contract) , i then later moved to Virgin (who i’m told , run on the back of EE) , coverage increased for a while , but now is what can best be described as useless . My work means i travel throughout the country , where i’ve found pretty much the same story , often having to dial twice to get a useable connection . I’ve used Nokia for year’s , as they has proved to be virtually indestructible , surviving many events that would destroy a smartphone , which in my line of work is really handy so to me a smartphone is not the answer . However gradually over a period of years the signal strength has decreased to a point where i don’t get a signal and i find myself using the landline more . At last count , some 5300 houses are in the process of being constructed around me , which to my mind , will only make this situation worst .

Andy says:
14 August 2020

I remember when I went to Iceland 10yrs ago, I could get a signal anywhere. And their idea of remote is far different from ours. Must cost a fortune to get infrastructure out to those barren areas.
Fact is, the UK is cheap. It’s 2020 and in my view mobile phones are useless for calls unless you live in an urban area. Call quality is so sketchy and poor that it’s an effort to have a conversation.