back to article The 3G coverage picture that can't be published

Today's victory for mobile operator Three against Orange in their advertising spat shouldn't obscure a bigger problem - we don't know the true extent of mobile coverage. Ofcom knows, but won't say. 3G coverage is increasingly important now, with mobile broadband dongles affordable and ubiquitous, and thanks to the iPhone, …


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  1. Dazed and Confused


    Mobile users were making use of 3G internet access before the iPhone.

    Mobile users were making use of 3G internet access while Apple still hadn't worked out how to do 3G and so were flogging 2G kit.

    iPhones might be popular, they might even be good, but they hardly invented mobile data.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      @Dazed and really didn't read the article

      Slow down there D&C. The article said that the iPhone really started the big trend of data rich applications on the 3G network by mobile devices. If you'll read any mobile web report, it'll show that the iPhone started the trend.

      It says nothing else, stop trying to find an enemy or criminal where none exist.

      There isn't a lurking iPhone or Apple fan around every corner or down every dark alley waiting to deride your less than stylish device in your pocket, so stop looking, ffs.

    2. The Indomitable Gall


      "iPhones might be popular, they might even be good, but they hardly invented mobile data."

      I don't think anyone said they did, but they've certainly increased its use -- apps downloads, streaming video, etc etc. They've also made it more mainstream and less geeky.

      The iPhone may be all hype, but the hype is working and placing a load on the networks....

    3. Robert Simpson

      who claimed they did?

      i think the point here is that a lot more people are using the 3G network, as opposed to just GSM. this is a question of carrier capacity, not "who invented mobile browsing?" we need to know which carriers have the best coverage (and thus network capacity) so we can make an informed decision based on facts as opposed to the network's marketing bullshit.

    4. Giles Jones Gold badge


      But they weren't downloading apps, music etc so much.

      I remember Windows Mobile software requiring ActiveSync and a PC to install it. Ok, there were some applications that were in cab form. But you still had to go on the hunt for it and download it with the pathetic Pocket IE.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Consumer friendly ?

    Which consumer ?

    The end-user consumer or the service-provider consumer ?

    And why exactly do we need ofcom to survive the tories ?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Pay attention.

      "And why exactly do we need ofcom to survive the tories ?"

      Ofcom was crippled under New Labour and is about to be castrated by the Tories. If you really need to ask this question it suggests that you have not been paying attention to recent events.

      As a consequence of the last government's policy of deregulation, light-touch regulation, and sweet fuck-all-regulation in the financial sector we are now living through the worst economic crisis for decades.

      The Tories are going to be as business-friendly and obliging as their predecessors so Ofcom will be replaced by a clueless, self-serving bunch of muppets and the communications industry will be able to exceed even their current levels of ripping off the consumer.

      That's why!

    2. Richard 12 Silver badge

      We don't care.

      But OFCOM obviously wants to survive.

      The ConDems have already shown that they'll happily sink any quango they don't think is worth bothering with - so the quangos know that they need to prove that they are worth keeping, and some of them are distinctly worried.

      Whether that is by being genuinely useful or by other means remains to be seen.

  3. Is it me?

    Wasn't there a time

    That mobile companies used to boast about their coverage, and print nice big, relatively accurate, coverage maps for their networks.

  4. JasonW

    I'd like them all to...

    ... publish decent usable maps - down to a reasonable scale where they're useful say 1:50k (or 1:25k). OFCOM have the data, they have the access to the OS base mapping data, just do it or release the data so someone can mash it up.

    Also to publish their plans for expansion - because trying to find out when my particular white space will be filled in by any network is harder than brain surgery.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      @ JasonW

      Perhaps they are trying to cover up just how patchy the coverage is?

      1. Richard 45
        Thumb Down


        Orange haven't a clue, or are employing clueless staff. One of their staff in their Orange store in Shrewsbury has been selling 3G/3GS iPhones to people in mid-Wales claiming that there's good 3G coverage in the various towns and villages there when, one town excepted, there actually isn't!

  5. Stuart Halliday

    Phone up Google?

    Maybe time to contact Google and ask them to release the 3G coverage data they probably have from trawling around the UK with their car?

  6. Martyns

    Actually thanks to the iPhone people are NOT using data rich applications

    Plus, I hate ofcom, what's that an acronym for anyway? Off Comody? Pffft. Useless waste of space. Govt may as well issue them with a tin can 2 foot length of string and they STILL won't know to do.

    1. Andus McCoatover

      Govt may as well issue them with a tin can 2 foot length of string and they STILL won't know to do.

      OOh!! Tin cans and string? Can you run Flash on that device? No? About as useful on the internet as a Jobsworth, then.

      (C'mon, downvoters, I await ya!)

      1. Number6


        Provided you remember to remove the label from the tin can, it's a relatively shiny one and the sun is visible then yes, you can have flash. It provides a fall-back communication mechanism in case the string breaks.

      2. Kay Burley ate my hamster


        How much is Steve Jobs worth?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          $1 per year apparently

          Read somewhere that's all he pays himself in salary.

          I don't consider myself a vindictive man, but i will laugh when everyone falls out of love with apple and his stock options are worth squat.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Can't Google do it?

    Send the street view cars out again, with a handful of 3G dongles per car. How could the telcos stop that being published? The telcos wouldn't want to argue with Google's lawyers (they know they can win against Ofcon).

    Something like Netstumbler modernised, but for 3G.

    Actually there's probably already code to do it in Google Maps for Mobile, maybe it already is doing it each time it phones home...

  8. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse


    Have an online map service where customers can report their own reception results for both voice and 3G comms directly back to them. The web link is here:

    But I'm sure there was also a better version that used Google maps.

    1. SteveK


      Funny, I'm on Vodafone, in the middle of a city, where you'd expect decent coverage. Their map claims I should get excellent indoor 3G signal. Several of us with different phones on Vodafone don't get any 3G signal at all, indoors or out.

      Whether that's due to the number of tall buildings interfering or just the number of people fighting for signal I don't know, but regardless of what their model says I should receive, I'm not...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        It probably is the buildings, but mobile signals are very complex to model in complex environments.

        For a background, may I suggest the entertaining read "The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin" by Francis Spufford.

        It covers several engineering topics but the relevant chapter is the one on how a young upstart comms company (Racal), found a way to break into mobile comms. It covers the modelling of mobile phone cells.

        Racal's comms business became Vodafone.

    2. John Sturdy


      How about putting it on

      In fact, it might be a good place to put all sorts of publicly discoverable information that the goverment and its friends choose not to publish.

  9. takuhii
    Thumb Down


    Three complain about Orange to Ofcom, and you can't even use a Three handset inside a building. Three are awful. I live in Milton Keynes, covered by the Three turbo network, apparently, and my phone only works outdoors. Soon got rid of that one!!

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Title Required

      Three are a lot better these days - well apart from their call centre but those are all much of a muchness.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      MK is in the stoneage for comms

      3G coverage is shite here on all the networks, the city centre has a WiFi network that no one can use and the cable network is crapola.

      Truly the city of the future.

      1. Danny 14


        3 are fine in Penrith. O2 is off, orange is 3g only not HSDPA and tmobile are HSDPA but you wouldnt think it with the (lack of) raw speed.

      2. chr0m4t1c

        @Mike Richards

        But it is the city of the future.

        Unfortunately it's closer to the Blade Runner/Ridley Scott dystopian one than the Star Trek/Gene Roddenberry shiny happy one.

    3. Rob Beard

      So by your logic then...

      ...just because YOU can't get reception, the whole network is crap?

      I could say the same about Vodaphone, I can't get any reception where I live, so the entire network is crap.

      Erm... no, there's bound to be areas where you get patchy reception. Not to mention it's not always the network, it could be the hardware. I used to be on Virgin Mobile with a Samsung phone, couldn't get any reception in my house whereas my wife on the same network with a different model Samsung phone got full reception.

      At the end of the day it happens, doesn't mean it's a crap network, just might be a case of some networks having better coverage in some areas than others. We'd probably have much better coverage in our area if the bloody campaigners round here didn't campaign against a mobile phone mast (chances are they'd be the first to complain about the lack of reception!).

      Back on topic, I think Ofcom should make the information available, but hey since when have Ofcom actually thought of the consumer. They're nearly as bad as Oftel before them.


    4. Tony Humphreys
      Thumb Up


      Thats why I got my wife one - keeps her quiet, and the bills down.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Is Orange correct?

    I thought it was pronounced "zero Range"

    Mines the one with the secret coverage map in the pocket

  11. Simon 79

    Well the answer is easy!

    Why would Offcom formally put out the figures and make them official when they could just be taking back handers off of the lower3Grated mobile operators to NOT publish the data and give hard evidence for the poor schmo who cant get 3G data so they can cancel their contract?

    The lower3Grated mobile operators would rather someone blindly buys their contract instead of being informed enough to make the best decision.

    Conspiracy Theories FTW.

  12. uhuznaa


    Someone write a simple app for the iPhone/Android that checks 3G signal power and sends it along with GPS location data up to some server which compiles maps from that data then. Should be easy to do and you'd get better and more honest data than you'll ever get from the carriers.

  13. oldcodger

    3G Pah! 2G or any service would be good!


    I live about 10 miles south of Reading, this is not the middle of the Sahara, but as far as mobile coverage it is a desert,

    I can just get a signal if I stand out in the drive, between the gate posts, and do not wave the phone about.

    This is because a few years ago, the Nimbys in the village managed to get a local cell site abandoned. The operators wanted to stick the antenna on the local water tower. Since then our village is "The Village of the Damned"!


    Yours with 2 tins and a piece of string.

  14. John Fielder
    Gates Horns

    Freedom of Information

    what happened to the freedom of information act, or doesn't it apply to Ofcom?

    1. StephenD


      Section 43 of the FOI Act exempts from its provisions information the release of which might prejudice someone's commercial interests (it's bound to prejudice someone's). Admittedly there is a public interest clause to set against this, but you're starting uphill.

  15. James Cooke
    Paris Hilton


    I can't for a moment believe that the majority of 3G data isn't from dongles. As whizzy as the iPhone is these were well on the rise before the iPhone popularised smartphone 3G data use.

    1. Number6

      Waste of Money

      I wouldn't buy a dongle until there's decent coverage to go with it. It's a lot of money to be tied up in something that's useless most of the time around here. No, I don't have an iPhone either, an E71 works just fine for me.

  16. Joe Blogs


    Well, that would work, unless the data cam from iPhone4 users who haven't had the operation to remove the offending part of their hand that touches The antenna.

  17. Graham Marsden
    Thumb Up

    Excellent article...

    ... factual, informative and rational and no personal attacks.

    Perhaps someday all El Reg articles will be written this way...

  18. Steve Beesley

    You get data as well?

    My 3GS struggles to keep a phone connection let alone a data connection. O2 coverage near where I live is not good at all.

  19. NX1977
    Thumb Up

    Yup we need an app for that!

    Real people recording real results to throw back at the networks.

    1. Kay Burley ate my hamster

      I challenge El Reg!

      Make us an Android app and run a database for it to connect to, oh and if you could do some jazzy google map shading effect that would be nice, and bit-torrent distribution for the raw data?

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    3G coverage maps.

    Go to the Site Finder site and fill in their enquiry form, asking them why they will not publish "our" data in a usable form.

    Don't complain to The Reg, complain to Ofcom.

  21. JBH

    As an Orange customer, I'm already aware of how patchy their network is.

    To be fair, reception is actually pretty good around London, but back home in Nottingham I often struggle to get a good 3G signal. It seems to depend which way the wind's blowing!

    Nottingham? It's hardly the middle of nowhere... is it?

    1. Anonymous Coward


      ...but some might suggest it should re-located there post-haste.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    "No Service Please: We're British"

    Here in Finland all the three network operators have a very usable websites that show the coverage in minute detail (at least compared to the laughable Ofcom picture), including 2G, Edge, 3G (900&2100MHz). Judge for yourself, the URL's are below.

    In fact, the coverage information is a good sales tool - are the providers too thick to understand that? (<- English version)

    1. Danny 14


      but it all the reindeer with their big antenna arrays on their heads you would surely get a better (albeit migratory) signal.

  23. Catherine Keynes

    Not a defence but..

    WCDMA cells coverage change as they get busier. This is known as breathing. But of course the networks know exactly what their coverage is, if only from knowing when they drop a call.

  24. Anonymous Coward


    Sent a request to my MP to look in to it... so lets see what happens.

  25. Dave Bell

    It's always been erratic

    Even the old voice-only phones, coverage was patchy. I was lucky to have mobile coverage when I was a farmer, partly because where I worked had a clear line of sight to a phone mast. Half a mile further to one side, geography got in the way.

    I now have a second-hand smartphone thingy, and a mobile broadband dongle, and they work where I live, because of a good line of sight. But, when I got the chance to check while being driven along the local motorway, the 3G signal went down more often than the Luftwaffe over Kent.

    We have some promises of better coverage in these parts. At least I don't need to rely on them for backing up my wired broadband.

  26. Alex King

    Population coverage.

    Population coverage is irrelevant anyway, as it refers to where people live. I think most people have a better-than-3G connection in their homes anyway. I want to be able to use my 3G when I'm out, on the train for example. Generally (on O2) I can't. If they could tell me that I'll always get coverage on mainline rail then whichever provider would get my contract tomorrow.

  27. Tom Kelsall

    "Population Coverage"... meaningless. I don't want to know how many people I can talk to where I am standing - nor do I care what network someone is on, when I call them. I want to know where I can stand in this country and get a signal - be that a 3G signal or a GSM one - I want to know about LAND-MASS coverage of MY operator, NOT population coverage.

    1. ravenviz Silver badge

      Re: "Population coverage"...

      It's got to do more with where you're likely to be, rather than who you can talk to. If you're lifestyle takes you to remote areas then better get a network that works there, or two phones on different networks, We all have to make compromises until everything works everywhere, it can't all be done at once.

  28. Martin Nicholls


    "Ofcom's refusal to think of things from the customer's point of view"

    What's new? I mean seriously. This is the way it's always been with OFCOM - if it's not BT's comms strangehold and persistent monopoly and gouging of customers, it's mobile phones; lets not even discuss the 3G auctions.

    Also you can get reasonably useful charts from a few years ago that show how useless Vodaphone and O2's networks are - if everybody relied on those it would push them to convince OFCOM to update their publicly available charts - assuming they've bothered to improve their respective networks.

  29. Jesthar

    Re: 3G Pah! 2G or any service would be good!

    You don't even have to go three miles south or Reading before coverage gets next to worthless. My Orange phone only usually gets a signal upstairs in certain places, and then only a couple of bars. Which means unless I leave my phone upstairs in a certain area (defeating the object of having a mobile phone) I get all text messages in one lump when I go to bed. A successful voice call is an absolute miracle!

    It also seems to have a problem with my new place of work - outside the building I get full strength signal, but inside there is no signal strength at all. And it's not even a concrete bunker, the whole place is pretty much one big window!

    My 3G dongle (bought for visits to relatives who don't have internet, where it works fine) gets no signal at all, even when you get next to the M4.

    And the sales staff always wonder why I'm still on ancient PAYG at around £3 a month. I would change network, but all the modern tarrifs are way more expensive!

    1. Anonymous Coward


      "It also seems to have a problem with my new place of work - outside the building I get full strength signal, but inside there is no signal strength at all. And it's not even a concrete bunker, the whole place is pretty much one big window!"

      all that steel holding that glass up will be like a giant Faraday cage?

  30. max allan

    It is tricky

    I used to work in the industry and most operators have extremely hi res "predictions" of coverage based on things like land usage, terrain or building height and maybe ray tracing.

    Where all that falls down is real life.

    So, operators also do "drive tests" where they drive/walk around and measure signal at each location.

    A suggestion above was to read signal and location on mobile devices and publish it back somewhere. The problem with that idea is that generally even GPS accuracy is not good enough to distinguish between being inside a metal building with zilch coverage and stood outside with lovely coverage. Or someone holding their iPhone in the wrong hand and someone with a different phone with external antenna.

    Even getting the google maps car to measure the signals isn't going to be a good guarantee, except for people that stand in the middle of the road to use their mobile.

    As soon as anyone publishes a map with any accuracy, someone will come back and point out the inaccuracies because their phone doesn't work in that location at that instant. Then you're in the game of managing customers, which no doubt OFCOM aren't interested in.

    ("Your map says I should get signal at my house and I don't" "Really madam, do you live in the cellar?" "Yes, I only bought it because your map says I'll get coverage".... that's just not OFCOM's game)

    Ultimately, the vague maps are more useful because they make you realise how vague the promises really are. You think "probably I'll get coverage" or "probably not, lets hope" rather than "If I were to step 3 feet to the left I damn well will get coverage or someone will feel my wrath" which just isn't true, no matter how much measurement/prediction is done.

    All that is compounded by things like "cell breathing" where cells with high load can contract to hand off traffic to less loaded cells. So the boundaries change depending on how many users there are. A measurement at 3PM outside a football stadium during a home game will show completely different results to the same done when the team are playing away. That sort of thing can have effects for quite a large radius.

    So the answer is : there is no answer.

  31. Tron Silver badge

    I bet Google have a map of it. :-)

    We need a regulator for ISPs etc, but given how slow, inept and toothless Ofcom has always been, would we really miss it? They still advertise 'unlimited' services that aren't. If they can simply lie in their adverts, what's the point of a 'regulator'?

    Much more competent, effective and necessary organisations have been axed by the Tory/Tory-whore coalition. Their ultimate survival will depend more on how cosy senior folk there are with those in power. Ultimately these sort of things are decided by politics more than anything else.

    Surely the net is a perfect medium for allowing the creation of a coverage map based on user supplied data, independent of the ISPs and the quangos.

  32. dervheid


    That is all...

  33. Anonymous Coward

    Dynamic Coverage

    Coverage maps would be useless anyway.

    3g cells scale coverage based on load. Low load on a cell, wide range of coverage. Start loading the cell with 3g devices downloading at full capacity and the coverage starts to shrink.

  34. ShaggyDoggy


    Who pays Ofcom's wages ?

    Yes so whose data is it then ?

  35. Avatar of They

    As a "consumer focused" agency

    Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha....

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