Is the UKâs 4G mobile phone coverage really worse than Romania, Albania and Peru, as a report suggested last week?
Yes and no. The report by the National Infrastructure Commission used data on how much of the time a personâs mobile is connected to 4G. On that measure, the UK scores worse than 53 countries, many of which we might expect to have far worse mobile networks â not just Romania, Albania and Peru, but also Georgia, Latvia and Mexico. UK phones were connected to 4G barely half the time.
But the rankings didnât measure geographical coverage, ie where you can get a signal, or speeds, which will vary even on a solid 4G connection. According to the same researchers who produced the data on availability, the UK ranks 29th globally for average speed, and in terms of 4G coverage of where people live and work, in 2015 Ofcom put the UK ahead of all the EUâs largest economies except Germany.
So is there actually a problem?
Yes, because people are still spending a lot of time unable to get fast internet connections. The full NIC report cited figures showing that around 20% of buildings in cities and towns, and almost 80% of those in rural areas, donât have 4G. Roads are also often âdigital desertsâ, with just 8% of A and B roads fully covered, and almost half having none at all.
Why isnât the UK better at making sure I can get a good signal?
The report cites the UKâs comparatively late auction of the 4G spectrum â whereby mobile operators and networks bid for space on the airwaves used to carry calls, texts and data â as one of the reasons coverage isnât up to scratch. While the US held its auction in 2008, the UK took until 2013 (though EE was allowed, controversially, to repurpose some of its spectrum earlier). One explanation for the delay was that the spectrum up for sale was previously in use by analogue TV services, which werenât fully switched off until 2012.
But while this did delay the 4G rollout, there are a range of other factors that have held back better coverage. The type of frequency band within the spectrum the operators have, and how they use it, is one. Lower-frequency bands, particularly under 1GHz, travel further and are better at penetrating buildings, while higher-frequency bands carry more data. The ideal situation for any mobile phone company (and its customers) is to have a range of bands so it can provide both wide coverage and fast speeds. However, the UK government has been criticised for not doing enough to make sure each operator got a large slice of lower-frequency bands.
So all we need to do is shift some frequency bands around?
Unfortunately not, because the other big issue for improving coverage is even more thorny â the UKâs planning laws.
The closer to a mobile mast you are, the better and more reliable your connection, and the more masts an operator has, the better the coverage they can offer. But rules such as how high a mast can be, and where it can be built, make life difficult for operators and the companies they pay to manage their network.
Add in local concerns about the (unproven) health impacts of living near a mast, and occasionally belligerent landowners charging fees for access or denying it altogether, and the process of putting up more masts can be lengthy and costly.
Will 5G solve the problem?
Not really. 5G, which will be rolled out after 2020, will make mobile data connections faster â probably much faster. But similar limitations imposed by what frequency bands it travels over, and where the masts are, will apply. As the NICâs chair, Andrew Adonis, said about the 5G rollout when the report was released, ânone of this will matter unless we bring our mobile network up to speedâ.
So what needs to be done to make sure I get better mobile signal?
Things are already set to improve in coming years. More of the low-frequency spectrum that is good at providing wider coverage is being used, and the EUâs recent freeing up of some of the 700MHz band currently used for digital TV is likely to help further.
Ofcom has set a target that all indoor premises will have more than 98% 4G coverage by end of 2017, from at least one mobile network (though there are doubts about whether that will be achieved), and the NIC has recommended universal service obligation for operators for no later than 2025. How Ofcom handles the 5G auction, and the distribution of frequency bands, could also make a difference.
Planning issues are likely to be tougher to deal with and in some cases that will mean people deciding which they value more, the video on their smartphone or the view out of their window.