BBC 3G map fuels the UK mobile coverage debate

POSTED BY Global Administrator
It’s a Friday, so Holden’s going to go off on one about mobile broadband coverage again. Or rather, the lack of it.

I was provided with further fuel earlier in the week in the form of the BBC map of 3G coverage, which had been built up over three weeks in July by nearly 45,000 individuals across the UK who had helpfully downloaded an Android app which had tracked their phone usage over that period: specifically, where they had used it (or tried to use it) and the level of coverage they had achieved. This data – all 1.7 million hours of it – was then translated into a map for the BBC by testing firm Epitiro.

Now, numerous caveats need to be applied to the map – it represents a snapshot of attempted usage at a given time; any failures to achieve connectivity may be the result of problems at the handset, rather than the network, end; there is no distinction between calls made (or attempted) in-building or outside. But the sheer scale of the data collated (and the size of area over which it was collated) means that it provides – at the very least – a useful indicator as to the relative availability (by network) of 3G coverage.

As such, it also reinforces the widely-held perception amongst consumers (and analysts) that there are still significant pockets of urban areas where 3G coverage is poor, while substantial numbers living in rural areas remain underserved in this regard. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of the major transport routes: road and rail networks (especially the latter) appear to receive particularly sparse coverage.

The point that I have been trying to make for several years is that when we subscribe to a mobile broadband service, we are paying a mobility premium: our expectation is that for paying that premium, we receive coverage when we are mobile. Only, as we all know, it doesn’t quite work like that.

We are currently moving towards (or being moved towards) a cloud-based environment wherein all processing and storage occurs remote from the handset, making ubiquitous access all the more imperative: we will need that coverage on the move to work on the vast majority of our documents, be they personal or business.

Likewise, if LTE really is to become a competitor to fixed broadband access, then those providing it need to ensure that those areas currently underserved by fixed broadband – typically, rural areas distant to an exchange – can receive a strong signal. Which, to judge from the BBC’s map, isn’t the case for many of them as regards 3G.

Ubiquitous broadband coverage is as vital for the MNOs as for the consumers: it will provide those end users with greater confidence to subscribe to data packages, whether as an alternative to fixed or simply to gain the convenience of data access on the move. It will provide the building blocks for that cloud-based ecosystem, enabling MNOs to create double-sided revenue streams as they aggregate SaaS services for consumer and enterprise markets alike.

But, unfortunately, it’s still some distance away.