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3G Only Available Three Quarters Of The Time In UK

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The BBC’s crowdsourced survey reveals that 3G is generally unavailable 25 percent of the time in Britain

Large parts of the UK still do not have adequate access to 3G mobile broadband, despite billions of pounds worth of investment in the technology, according to a study which the BBC produced from crowdsourced usage data.

The BBC  survey – which gathered information from an app running on volunteers’ phones – gives the lie to operators’ claims that 90 percent of the county can get 3G. Coverage is still intermittent – even in the centre of some major cities. On average, testers were only able to get signal 75 percent of the time, with the rest forced to use 2G technology.

“What’s striking is that while overall coverage is pretty good, it’s still far more patchy than the maps provided by the mobile operators would suggest,” said the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, commenting on the results.

Snapshot of 3G coverage

The BBC study does not paint a complete picture, as only people with an Android smartphone who had downloaded a special app made by measurement company Epitiro could take part in the survey. However, more than 44,000 downloaded the application, with 42 million locations tested.

“For the first time consumers have the means to see 3G coverage precisely where they live, work and travel,” said Gavin John, chief executive of Epitiro.

Unsurprisingly, rural parts of the country fared badly in the tests, underlining the need for further investment in those areas. It is hoped that Ofcom’s forthcoming auction of 800MHz spectrum for 4G mobile services will help to extend mobile coverage to rural areas, as more than three million people are still living in mobile “not-spots”. However, there is some concern that 4G services will not extend beyond the existing 3G mobile coverage areas.

“GSM coverage has largely stood still since the arrival of 3G – most coverage not-spots ten years ago are still not-spots today,” said a report by the Communications Consumer Panel released last month. “The arrival of new spectrum and new technology should not cause a loss of focus on maintaining the standard of GSM coverage.”

Marcus Jewell, UK country manager for networking company Brocade, also warned that the existence of so-called “not-spots” could stunt business growth. “People need to be connected to their networks at all times and having areas where the signal just drops off is far from ideal,” he said. “If business growth is to be encouraged around the country, the infrastructure to develop this must also exist.”

To find out what 3G coverage is like in your area, enter your postcode on the BBC’s crowd sourced map here.

Simplistic research

Where the BBC's data came from

While the BBC initiative has been broadly welcomed by the UK’s mobile operators, most of them pointed out that more research would be needed to establish differences in the quality of experience on each network.

“With more people using their smartphones, tablets and laptops to access the Internet while on the move, a clear pattern of service-affecting congestion has emerged in the high street and other busy areas,” said Stephen Rayment, chief technology officer of BelAir Networks, commenting on the results.

“These areas may show up as offering 3G services in tests, but the user may not actually be getting the true mobile broadband experience, due to the high number of users vying for the finite bandwidth available.

“To get a more accurate measurement of the user experience, speed tests along with identifying Wi-Fi availability need to be included. Given that even the new 4G LTE technologies will not be able to handle the current growth rate of mobile data traffic, any study of mobile broadband availability needs to look at measuring capacity as well as coverage.” he added.

Epitiro previously carried out a survey of mobile broadband for the telecom regulator Ofcom, which found that O2 had the fastest service.