You’re covered: What operators mean when they talk about coverage

Last week EE CEO Marc Allera made a bold pledge. He promised to expand EE’s 4G umbrella to 95% of the U.K.’s land mass by 2020. At first glance, that may not seem very aggressive considering EE already claims its LTE network reaches 95% of the country. But what Allera is talking about here is a different kind of coverage.

EE’s 4G network currently covers 95% of the U.K. population, but that only equates to about 60% of the total geography of the country. By installing new towers, Allera wants to reach 95% geographic coverage, which means bringing into EE’s 4G footprint a lot of open space that currently doesn’t see LTE signals. EE implied that the current government-mandated definitions of coverage – which are based on population – are outdated.

EE makes a good point, and it raises some interesting questions about how the mobile industry defines coverage. OpenSignal definitely has its own views on the subject so it’s worth a discussion on the different ways of measuring coverage and what they mean to consumers. Let’s look at how these different kinds of coverage are defined:

  • Population coverage: When operators say they have a certain percentage of the population covered, what they mean is that based on a predictive model, that proportion of the country’s residential doorsteps are in range of one of its cell towers. Basically population coverage follows the general boundaries of where people live, not where they work and play. Nor does it account for all the spaces in between or measure indoor coverage.
  • Geographic coverage: If you’re measuring coverage by land mass, you’re accounting for all those roads and railways, buildings and parks, and fields and farmland outside of where people live. While networks built with population coverage in mind take in a lot of these places, they don’t take them all into account, especially in rural and remote regions of a country. Attaining a high level of geographic coverage can be difficult depending on the country. For instance, it’s a lot easier to cover the land mass of a compact and flat country like the Netherlands than it is to cover all of Chile, which is 80% mountains, or Algeria, which is 80% desert.
  • Time Coverage: This is the term OpenSignal coined for our way of measuring coverage, and you can think of it as an indicator of network availability. Essentially time coverage measures coverage from the user’s perspective, not the network’s, tracking the network’s availability wherever mobile users happen to go. While networks with high population coverage or high geographic coverage often have high time coverage, that isn’t always the case. Most U.K. operators have nearly 100% of London’s land area covered by 4G networks, but any Londoner can tell you they don’t see a 4G signal 100% of the time. It doesn’t matter whether a user is indoors or out, standing still or driving or if the network is overloaded or uncongested, time coverage measures signal availability wherever and whenever subscribers use their phones.

Obviously we’re pretty partial to time coverage for benchmarking 3G and 4G because we feel it reflects the typical user experience. Instead of mapping a network footprint and then predicting how many users fall within its borders, OpenSignal maps where users actually go and then tests to see if a particular network is available. That said, population and geographic coverage are plenty useful as metrics in their own right. A high population coverage would be an important consideration for business people traveling extensively from city to city and town to town. Meanwhile a high geographic coverage would be key to those who spend a lot of time between cities and towns or off the beaten track.

Coverage can be a tricky thing, and the metrics anyone chooses to use have to be interpreted. Your network can have the highest population, geographic or time coverage in the country, but there’s still no guarantee you’ll see a signal in the places you frequent most, whether that’s in your basement, in the corridors of your office or on the commuter train you take to work. Ultimately the coverage map that matters the most is your personal coverage map.

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