An expose in last weeks Sunday Times reveals that networks regularly exaggerate their coverage maps – suggesting customers can get signal where in reality they cannot. The article (paywall) details how the Sunday Times obtained O2 and Vodafone coverage maps submitted to councils as part of planning applications for new towers. The difference between these maps and coverage maps provided to customers is stark:
- O2 were caught out in Rotherham. Their online map suggested ‘good’ coverage, but their application for a new mast included areas without any signal at all. These deadzones were not marked at all on the online version.
- Similarly in Carlisle O2 ignored deadzones marked on their mast planning application, covering the whole area in ‘good’ signal.
- And in an area of Swindon Vodafone’s website claimed an area had ‘excellent’ coverage. However the mast application showed that most of the area had weak coverage where you couldn’t get a signal indoors.
In all 14 of the 20 maps obtained by the Sunday Times catch the networks out in a lie.
Until the end of 2008 coverage maps were collected and (begrudingly) released by Ofcom. However once networks reached the threshold of 80% 3G coverage Ofcom relaxed the requirement, allowing networks to publish their own maps.
This allows networks to produce maps with a great deal of averaging, so that signal looks more consistent than it actually is. Of course when there is a planning application for a new mast the incentive is reversed – the networks are rewarded for producing more granular maps showing as many deadzones as possible. With opposition to new masts rising, networks need to paint as poor a picture as possible to get their application through.
However this wouldn’t explain some of the more shocking discrepancies, like the one near Peterborough shown above.
Which of these maps is closer to the truth we’ll never know, as signal testing data not released. Hopefully our independently produced coverage maps and others can step in to provide information for consumers.