An article in Cellular News has attracted my attention. ARCEP, the French regulator, has been conducting an assessment of 3G coverage in the country
on a per operator basis, and has found – quelle surprise! – that in the case of SFR “this level of 3G reception [84%] was below the 87 per cent figure published by SFR in a press release dated July 2010, and significantly below the 99.3 per cent coverage that the company originally committed to achieving by August 2009.” The article also pointed out that the operator might be able to use that fact that “3G coverage in the 900MHz band was less consistent compared with 3G offered in the 2.1GHz band” as a getout clause, but this is rather by-the-by to my mind. The bald fact is that 3G coverage is simply not good enough if we are to have true mobility in our data access; if services such as enterprise, mobile TV, music, even Internet are to reach their potential and meet consumer expectations. Keen-eyed readers of this blog will note that I have, well, something of a bee in my bonnet about coverage. There is an old joke, beloved of working mens’ club comedians in the North of England, which runs thus: Tenant to Landlord: I’ve got a problem with my roof. Landlord to Tenant: What’s up with it? Tenant to Landlord: I want one.
And that conveys my feelings about 3G coverage. I want some. If I want to browse the Internet/watch Doctor Who
/buy an elephant on eBay while away from my desk, I need a 3G signal. But, like the tenant with his roof, 3G coverage is something that I, and numerous others, have to do without, far too often for our liking. And for all the operator proclamations about LTE offerings theoretical data speeds of 100 Mbit/s, there is the nagging doubt at the back of my mind that you won’t be able to get anything like that in my neck of the woods. Or anywhere in the woods for that matter. If a portal or app store is the equivalent of, say, Sainsbury’s or Walmart or Cineworld, then connectivity is analogous to the planet that we (and Sainsbury’s, and Walmart, and Cineworld) exist on. In our analogy, when connectivity goes down, then Planet Earth might as well not be there. So now try to get to the shops. In a recent report, UK regulator Ofcom has helpfully and instructively provided us with a map of England, showing us which areas have “90% or higher” 3G coverage. The map beautifully illustrates the problem: in vast swathes of the country – pretty much all of Devon, Cornwall, Wiltshire, East Anglia, the Welsh borders, Northumbria and Cumbria, together with large chunks of Lincolnshire, Hampshire, Sussex and Yorkshire – not one operator offers this level of coverage. Only in parts of central London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool do four or more operators provide this. We all have personal experience of this. A recent nadir came on Sunday, when my cricket team (Skulking Loafers CC) ventured into a small village called Milland which sits approximately where the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and Surrey meet. It is fair to say that Milland is a dead zone: it does not appear to be topographically challenging in the sense that, say, a village in a south Wales valley might pose problems; perhaps the operators simply got lost en route to installing base stations. Many visiting cricketing teams have done so. But the upshot is that only one player in the team was able to get a 2G, let alone 3G signal for the seven or so hours we were at the ground. Milland is not exceptional in this; numerous other small communities suffer similar problems. Rail and road networks provide a wealth of similar examples. I know that; you know that. So – what to do about it? Some operators have been engaged in well-publicised campaigns to upgrade their networks, although these have not always been wholly successful: one recently had a poster at Winchester Station proudly advertising these upgrades; rather unfortunately, Winchester Station stubbornly remained a dead zone for the network in question. It is not necessarily an easy problem to solve – but if data revenues are to provide the solution to operator ills, then it is one over which operators must spend a little more time…