Ofcom: this website could help consumers get better signal

OK, so Ofcom – the UK’s equivalent of the FCC – didn’t mention us by name, but in their latest study they do show up some of the failings of the networks. More interestingly, the study notes that “third party websites that aggregate consumer information could play a role” in helping consumers – in particular to compare the coverage of different providers.

The study, Mobile coverage information for consumers, highlights a number of fascinating points – one in particular that might surprise you is that 2G phones often do a better job of making calls in rural areas than 3G phones. That is 2G and 3G phones on the same network, this is due to the greater complexity of the 3G hardware. 3G phones do a lot of work “handing over” (transferring) between 2G and 3G and this can cause to dropped calls.

Testing in Devon, the difference in performance between 2G and 3G phones is staggering: the former has 97% call robustness, the latter only 95%. What’s 2%? Actually it means you’re 66% more likely that any given call will fail on 3G. That’s a big difference, and makes me a little nostalgic for my old Nokia 3310, well just a little bit. No word on 4G vs 3G here, as there’s no 4G in the UK yet.

As a quasi-non-governmental-organisation Ofcom is in a privileged position to get information from the networks, consequently the study contains some noteworthy tidbits. We learn that the operators coverage checkers are based on ‘propagation models’ this suggests that the operators use the known power of their antennae and then model the signal falling off as it is attenuated and spreads out. This is in contrast to directly using signal readings either crowdsourced (as we do) or taken by ‘drive-testing’ – where reading are systematically taken as contractors drive around with measurement equipment.

Ofcom found this methodology to be fairly robust – “underlying operator coverage data is reasonably accurate for outdoor predictions”. We do, however, wonder how well the propagation-model approach works where there are lots of obstacles (hilly terrain, buildings) to take into account. Even accepting that the “underlying data” is good, Ofcom found that the way networks present that data left much room for improvement.

“Our work has highlighted presentational differences between mobile operators’ coverage checkers and differences in the processes they use for translating propagation models into coverage checkers.”

What does that boil down to? It means that looking at Vodafone’s coverage checker and O2’s coverage checker isn’t a very useful way of comparing their coverage – even if the data is similar for the two it could appear rather different.

This is where Ofcom suggests that sites like ours could come in:

“There may be some additional value to consumers being more aware of coverage information and being able to access it in a more comparable way. To do this we believe third party websites that aggregate consumer information could play a role.”

We hope so!

Serious about signal? Then maybe you should go back to this.

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3 Responses to Ofcom: this website could help consumers get better signal

  1. John Doe says:

    Good information… thankyou!

    I live in **REDACTED** and have been in dispute with T-Mobile re: selling me a phone (HTC Wildfire) based on their coverage’s software for my address **REDACTED**. I get 2G T-mobile/Orange solidly (shared xmitter) but rubbish 3G T-Mobile (dedicated other xmitter). Does this constitute mis-selling as I was assured a good 3G signal at the time of purchase? Also, why are they telling me that the T-Mobile/Orange only extends to 2G, despite their claims of the benefits of this agreement to the consumer?

    God knows what what will happen with 4G!!!

  2. Stoatwblr says:

    The propagation maps that the cellcos use does use topographical data to model predictions. It’s not so good for built-up areas (urban canyons. etc), mainly because the data points are too coarse for close-in work and most buildings aren’t well mapped.

    25 years ago when I was involved in rolling out analog networks in New Zealand we were asked to manually survey a few areas because the predictions for coverage in one area had big holes in them on long straight stretches of road (20 mile lengths), based on initial rural cellsite placements (which were mostly at existing hilltop sites), so we went out with portable base stations to see what coverage customers would be likely to receive.

    It turned out the road may have been straight and notionally level but it actually had a rise and fall in it of about 20 feet every couple of miles and that was enough to put cell towers on the hilltops over the horizon for vehicles passing through the dips. After that, we tended to believe the software when it predicted coverage blackspots.

    I still remember the sense of excitement when surveying skifields for base stations and finding we could make calls through recently commissioned urban masts 150+ miles away, once we got far enough up the mountainsides (and as it turned out, mobile phones are a valuable resource for hikers and hunters – meaning they can call for medical help quickly instead of taking 4 days to walk back to civilisation…)

  3. alanjenney says:

    I also live out of decent coverage CW2 5RB. I have a 3G smartphone on Orange. Great everywhere on either network, 2G or 3G – except at home. I get mixed 2G and rubbish Orange 3G (no ‘Orange T-Mobile’ shared 3G) coverage.

    Sounds like you have been tweaking the settings. I sometimes choose “2G only” so that it never hunts for 3G and sometimes I choose the network manually, picking either “Orange” or “Orange T-Mobile” that suits best. Slow it might be, but at least it stays connected!

    Unfortunately, there are so many caveats on signal quality that you have no course of action through consumer law.

    In the past, I bought a Vodafone SIM-only and put it in the phone, even though I was still paying for the Orange SIM on contract for a while. Trouble is, that’s not going to help me this time: Orange currently have the STRONGEST signal of all the networks in the area – their 2G mast is the nearest. Here’s hoping for an upgrade of it to 3G soon.

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