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Mobile operators are overstating 4G coverage, claims Which?

UK mobile phone users can access 4G services just over half of the time on average, says Which? publisher and charity, The Consumers' Association

Mobile phone users can access 4G mobile network services on average just 53% of the time, according to statistics produced by consumer affairs watchdog Which? and OpenSignal, a supplier of mobile network testing applications.

The study collected 60,436,228 data points from 31,525 users of the OpenSignal Android and iOS apps between 1 November 2015 and 31 January 2016. The app takes a background reading every quarter of an hour to find out the proportion of time a device can access 4G services.

The data showed that EE users have the best 4G coverage in the UK, with customers accessing 4G signals 60.6% of the time. This compared with 57% on Vodafone, 56% on O2 and 39.8% on Three. For speed, Three led with an average of 18.7Mbps, followed by EE at 17.8Mbps, O2 and 12.1Mbps and Vodafone at 11.8Mbps.

However, Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said that, with users falling back on slower 3G services 47% of the time, there was clearly much work still to be done to achieve Ofcom’s 98% coverage target.

“Almost everyone now uses a mobile phone service and it’s not good enough that the UK is lagging behind so many countries with our 4G network coverage. Increasing 4G access s​hould be a priority for mobile providers and Ofcom must continue to push them to make this a reality,” he said.

Real world conditions

Which? claimed the OpenSignal time coverage measurement methodology provided a more accurate and valuable picture than the data provided by the mobile operators on their coverage checker websites, or by other network testers, such as RootMetrics.

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It said that other reports tended to be based either on drive-by testing, simulating a typical experience by using the same devices to measure performance in limited locations; or on computer models.

Data collected from regular consumer smartphones and recorded under normal conditions of usage painted a more realistic picture of what users could expect.

Indoor coverage remains a problem

Ofcom had initially hoped to have 98% of the UK population covered by 4G services by the end of 2017 – indeed this obligation was set out in the 4G spectrum auction in 2012, although it should be noted that condition only applied to O2.

As the deadline date draws closer, Ian Langley, general manager at Cobham Wireless, said operators needed to start thinking beyond mobile mast infrastructure to hit the final few.

“One of the key issues preventing reliable 4G coverage, as highlighted in today’s Which? report, remains indoor coverage provision,” said Langley, who pointed out that many common building materials prevented high-capacity radio frequency signals from getting in.

Glass, for example, tends to reflect signals, and many office blocks in places such as Canary Wharf have installed repeaters to get around this problem.

“Modern coverage enhancement solutions are required to allow high-capacity signals to penetrate the walls of many buildings,” said Langley.

"Forward thinking operators around the world are already partnering with facilities managers at a range of sites – from shopping centres to metro stations – to ensure their subscribers can access reliable, high-speed and high-capacity 4G indoors. The UK’s operators must follow suit."

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