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24 Aug 2011

Despite operator claims of 90% or more 3G coverage, there are still many notspots, including in major towns and cities, according to the map.

Those testers able to receive a data connection only got a 3G signal 75% of the time.

For nearly a quarter of the time they had to rely on older 2G technology.

2G is typically around ten times slower than 3G "mobile broadband".

Mobile coverage has become a huge issue as people rely increasingly on their smartphones to surf the web and send email as well as making phone calls.

Last month the BBC invited people to download an app that would collate the 3G coverage their Android handsets were getting.

The experiment aimed to offer a snapshot of coverage

44,600 volunteers took part, providing testing firm Epitiro with some 1.7 million hours worth of data from around the UK.

"The BBC has undertaken a crowd-sourcing survey that is well beyond any scale seen by the mobile industry in this country or any other," said Gavin John, chief executive of Epitiro.

"Over 44,000 volunteers from the Shetland Islands to the Isles of Scilly participated with 42 million locations tested from every county in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."

For the first time consumers have the means to see 3G coverage precisely where they live, work and travel," he added.

Operators too were broadly pleased by the initiative.

O2 said it "welcomed the crowd sourcing experiment", but added that more detail - for example signal quality - would have been useful.

"The issue of coverage is no longer about covering the land mass to meet a percentage target, but about depth and quality of experience," said an O2 spokesman.

"The results don't show the 'experience' on each network - for example, speed or the ability to hold a connection. Simply having coverage does not guarantee a good service."

Everything Everywhere - the parent company of Orange and T-Mobile - said it "was a step in the right direction" for offering consumers transparent information about coverage.

"It is a little too early to tell how much it tallies with our own maps or how we would use the information," said James Hattam, director of service management at Everything Everywhere.

Three was concerned that the picture painted by the map was driven as much by the number of people from each operator taking part as by actual coverage.

"Three has the UK's largest 3G network, but as a newer operator with fewer customers, is necessarily less well represented on this map at a local level," said Phil Sheppard, director of network strategy at Three UK.

The results suggest that the performance of different operators varies enormously from region to region.

Windsor Holden, an analyst with Juniper Research, homed in on West Sussex.

"There are substantial differences in Chichester where, for example, O2 has poor coverage to the west while Vodafone has issues in the east," said Mr Holden.

"There is probably a correlation to their base station configurations. When these networks were rolled out there was not the attention paid to planning and so networks aren't as efficient as they should be."

The map underlines the need for people signing up to mobile broadband to research coverage in their local area, according to Michael Phillips of

He warned that the quality of 3G data services across the UK still varied widely.

"Mobile broadband swings between where fixed broadband was from 1998 to 2003, but many people are expecting the same speeds for their smartphones as they get at home," he said.

"The reality is that 3G is a good service in major cities but it is failing to deliver on trains and in the countryside."

Among the worst places for mobile coverage are the UK's road and rail networks.

"A whole stretch of the A3 has little or no coverage and there are substantial blackspots when people are travelling," said Juniper Research's Windsor Holden.

"Mobile's key advantage is that you should be able to use it anytime and anywhere and that is not the case at the moment. There is no reason why coverage could not be improved in these areas," he said.
Train journey

The BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones took a train from Cardiff to London to test the quality of service for commuters.


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