There is little more debilitating in a supposedly digital world than the mobile black spots that still plague so many parts of the UK. These are the areas where mobile phones don’t have a signal, and where it is therefore impossible to make voice calls or send texts. Almost as bad are the even larger areas with no 3G reception (let alone 4G, of course) and where it is therefore impossible to access the internet from smartphones or tablets on the move.It's certainly no secret that UK mobile phone 3G coverage is poor in many areas of the country, particularly in comparison with other countries. Cornwall for example which is a popular tourist destination has long suffered with sub-standard coverage - Orange (now part of EE) being one of the only operators for some time to attempt to provide a decent mobile signal. An article in Tech Advisor from May this year expressed a view that in general 3G coverage in the UK was "embarrassing".
OFCOM, under The Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 required that by June 2013 the four mobile phone license holders meet and maintain a 90% population 3G coverage, three providers met the target with only Vodafone missing its target by 1.4% by the deadline - only to meet it this year.
Yet despite the 90% coverage claim there are reasons why 90% coverage doesn’t really mean that at all. To achieve coverage of 90% of the population the networks only really need to cover the most populated areas of the country, leaving rural areas scorned. As the Guardian noted in December 2013:
Today, 80% of the population can get a signal from all of the four operators – EE, O2, 3 and Vodafone – but geographically it remains very patchy, with just 21% of the landmass being served by all four. Nearly 23% of the UK has no 3G at all, and in nearly 13% of the country making any kind of mobile call is impossible.The lack of 3G coverage begins to matter when we consider that with the growth of smartphones, data and the demand for broadband is far outstripping voice as the main means of communication on the move. The graph below (click to enlarge) from the Ericsson Mobility Report, released in June 2013 illustrates this acutely:
With poor coverage in the UK it is understandably that the government is keen to improve 3G coverage at the very least. This though has prompted what appears to be a dispute in government between Sajid_Javid of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport arguing for better UK coverage...
I’m determined to ensure the UK has world-class mobile phone coverage as investment in infrastructure will help drive this government’s long-term economic plan....and the Home Secretary, Teresa May, who seems to be unwilling to reveal "not spots" as reported by the Times (£):
It can’t be right that in a fifth of the UK, people cannot use their phones to make a call. The government isn’t prepared to let that situation continue.
A confidential letter from the home secretary, seen by The Times, advises that plans by Sajid Javid to make mobile phone companies improve their coverage threaten to damage the ability of intelligence agencies to thwart plots.With this in mind we probably for security reasons shouldn't mention that a notable "not-spot" is RAF Menwith Hill with its oversized golf balls in North Yorkshire:
One of the proposals by the government to counter the lack of 3G coverage, (and not unsurprisingly a top down 'solution') is new legislation to force "providers to introduce network roaming across Britain, ensuring that customers automatically switch networks when they have no signal from their usual provider":
National roaming – phones would roam onto another network’s signal when theirs was not available. This is similar to what happens when you’re abroad.But again this demonstrates that technology is simply marching on far ahead of regulators and government. Not only costing the sharing of private mobile networks will be a nightmare, by the time any kind of legislation is invoked technology will have moved on.
Infrastructure sharing – mobile networks would be able to put transmitters on each other's masts.
With the release of the new Apple's iPad Air 2, is the emergence of a programmable SIM card (backed by standards set by the ETSI) which will allow users to switch mobile network providers and plans at the touch of the button which could be the first step towards freeing mobile devices from restrictive mobile contracts, allowing users to switch carrier just by selecting an option in settings.
Thus government legislation may prove to be unnecessary...