Coverage and reliability at the wireless edge

With the latest round of 4G rollouts now taking shape across the UK, many living in or travelling through more remote and rural parts will once again be wondering about coverage and reliability of signal.

Early mobile phone users were so grateful for being able to make phone calls away from a desk or office that they were willing to carry suitcase sized lumps of electronics with them. As numbers increased and mobiles shrank to mere bricks, many would wonder why mobile operators’ coverage plans extended across cities, but signals were lost on huge stretches of the transport system. (Remember the M4 between Junctions 3 and 4 in the 1990s or perhaps the GWR route in Berkshire in the 2010s?)

Eventually the core voice coverage of networks coverage grew to the point where most people would expect a signal, even in remote environments.

When 3G was first launched, its network coverage didn’t create much of an issue. In fact, because many handsets supporting it didn’t enter the market close to launch, it was a much slower start than many in the industry had wanted or predicted.

Most mobile phone users at the time were far less accustomed to using data on the move – those who did often saw anything better than the basic GPRS data connectivity indicator as a bonus, not a right. 

With the emergence of Apple’s first iPhone, initially exclusively on the O2 network, attention sharply turned on data. This was, after all, an easy to use data device running apps that expected connectivity, but a pretty lousy phone for voice calls, a feature shared by many early ‘smart’ phones. O2’s EDGE network – a step up from GPRS, but well below 3G data rates – just didn’t really cut it.

Despite that, somehow the iPhone made a bit of an impression, and 3G network coverage eventually filled out despite the heavy cost borne by operators in the 3G spectrum license auctions. 3G licenses did come with coverage requirements, not always met in time, leading to at least one operator being threatened with a fine for missing its target – but this was for 80% of the population (again, not the areas in between where these same people lived).

Fast forward to today and we have all the 3G coverage we need, right?

Well, not really. Urban areas are pretty good (population centres, the industry’s favorite indicator), although some ‘hotspots’ are congested and the data throughput is poor. Rural and remote areas are a bit hit and miss. Compared to other countries in Europe, many are poor, but at least more transport links are now better covered.

Often, poor coverage is a problem of local geography, rather than just the willingness of operators to place masts.

In the edge of South West Wales where I live, it is picturesque – i.e. hilly, tree covered and coastal – not great for radio signals. In the local lifeboat service, we are dependent on four types of radio signals – each of which demonstrate their frailty at different times. The Bluetooth helmet intercom didn’t work well when bouncing around on waves at speed, so a wired alternative has to be used, but the problems with the other networks mostly revolve around coverage.

The pager messages used to call out crew in an emergency do not always reach everyone; mobile phones work in different zones depending on which operator you are with; and even VHF radio coverage is occasionally missing – partly due to landscape, partly an affect of government cutbacks in coastguard services.

The dangerous reality is that it is not just the crew that depend on these radio services working, but others who for whatever reason are in jeopardy on or near the water. For them it is of no comfort that the local population centres have good coverage.

Will the approach to 4G be different, and extend the total reach of radio connectivity? It might and it was good to see Ofcom propose to reduce the number of rural ‘notspots’ by increasing population coverage requirements from 95% to 98%.

Initial indications for 4G coverage had looked promising, and first operator out of the blocks, EE, has had a rapid ramp up of coverage from the outset. Still more needs to be done as the focus is understandably urban first, but many smaller towns have been included already. The launches by Vodafone and O2 set a different tone, with Vodafone in particular focusing more on content than coverage. Time will tell if this alternative approach will work for 4G, but even 3G coverage needs to be improved.

After the recent news that it is possible to make mobile phone calls from the top of Mount Everest, many in rural Wales with poor radio coverage (not just lifeboat crew) will note the irony. The mountain was named after the man who completed the survey that measured it, Sir George Everest, from Crickhowell in Powys, Wales.

If you’d like to add your support a West Wales lifeboat, independent of the RNLI, but run 100% by volunteers and donation funding, please donate via