Home / Opinions / What's Really Wrong With UK 3G Broadband

Congestion Not Coverage

Gordon Kelly



97.5 per cent. 92.5 per cent. 96 per cent. 81 per cent. 84 per cent. After several phone calls we discovered these are the current figures for the 3G network coverage in the UK of 3, Orange,T-Mobile, Vodafone and O2 respectively. So what's the problem?

If you have been paying close attention to the tech news this week you will see the BBC has launched an ambitious project to map the state of mobile phone coverage in the UK. The Beeb will ask Android smartphone owners to download the UK 3G survey app (QR code below) which will run in the background to measure signal strength around the country and whether a 2G or 3G signal is available.


"Coverage is the number one issue for consumers," said Gavin Johns, chief executive of Epitiro – the developer behind the app. "Our coverage app will provide the information consumers need to see if 3G services are available and from which mobile operator. As mobile broadband is important to many of us, we hope people volunteer and make the project a success."

The argument behind the project, which is funded by the taxpayer, is no independent survey has ever been carried out into signal strength - something networks admit. "There is no common standard for measuring coverage and some operators tend to grossly exaggerate," said Phil Sheppard, director of network strategy at 3. "We like to manage people's expectations." This confusion can easily be seen when comparing carrier figures with those of Ofcom. The regulator claims the UK has just 76 per cent 3G coverage and 91 per cent 2G coverage (no UK carrier claims less than 99 per cent 2G UK coverage).

It all sounds very noble, but there is a problem: the BBC is asking the wrong question. As the famous saying goes, it is about quality not quantity. While black spots do exist, and for those living in remote areas they remain a problem, for the majority the real issue is not coverage but congestion.


According to Ofcom there are currently 12m smartphones in use in the UK. The latest estimate puts the population of the UK at 62.2m, meaning one in five own a smartphone. When you eliminate the extreme ends of the age scale - those unable to or uninterested in owning a handset - that ratio rises significantly higher. We are a smartphone obsessed nation and the sector is only in its infancy (well, adolescence maybe).

As we all know, smartphones (arguably a better description would be 'pocket computers that happen to make phone calls') need data and a lot of it. Here is where the real problem lies and what is more worrying is it will get worse before it gets better…

David Horn

July 21, 2011, 5:40 pm

Bit unfair, really, to point the finger at the BBC iPlayer app for 3G network congestion when you consider that it will only stream on a WiFi connection.

Luan Bach

July 21, 2011, 10:16 pm

You can stream iPlayer on a connection from 3.


July 22, 2011, 5:24 am

I disagree that coverage is not important. It is very important. When you step off a train in an area you haven't been to before, and maps won't load, that's a problem.

Hans Gruber

July 22, 2011, 5:43 am

"[F]or the majority the real issue is not coverage but congestion."

Agreed in principle but how do you effectively measure that other than repeated bandwidth testing that would consume an awful lot more data?

I don't know but isn't the 3G part of the radio frequency spectrum (2100MHz) more hindered by physical obstacles like walls and so on due to its shorter wavelength and lesser ability to travel distances compared to longer 2G wavelengths?

Having no real idea about this and turning up practically zero useful info on the issue, I'll point out I could have things completely back to front but if correct, the point is one reason 3G coverage is lessened (even in densely populated urban areas) is owing to degradation of signal strength the further away you are from the base unit and due to weakening of that signal by physical barriers (house walls, hills, emi etc). This would explain why many (like myself) can get 3G only in part of their home whilst in other parts the signal will either often drop out or be completely absent. So surely there is even a flaw in the availability of a 3G signal here even if it becomes rather moot in the greater picture of mobile operator differences.

It's interesting to see your figures for current 3G coverage split by operator but aren't there still domestic 'roaming agreements' still in place with some mobile providers like 3 sharing Orange's (now Ev-Everywhere) masts when out of range? Or is that restricted to 2G coverage only or what? It's all very complicated...

For what it's worth and because I like social enterprises for the greater good, I've already installed the app (as flawed as it is and borked on release). Glad to say they've fixed the always on GPS issue when allowing location services access to GPS. Not a great way to start. Anyway, my own stats are currently 86%:14%:0% (lucky me). And I live in NW5 north London. To tell the truth I haven't been that far away from home at all and 3G is always getting lost when on the bus in the TCR area so that figure is only going to go down!


July 22, 2011, 6:07 am

As Luan mentions iPlayer streams on 3. In fact it streams on numerous UK networks. That said there is a bigger point being made here.

Hans Gruber

July 22, 2011, 6:27 am

Actually (and sorry to post my waffle a second time), the comments section for the original bbc article you linked in your first article (link provided below) made some good points like mast sharing agreements, handset antenna performance affecting results, re-farming of lower frequency bands (not that I understand that) and so on. As Susan Ma (of The Apprentice) famously said, to see better informed and more knowledgeable people thinking along the same lines of me, "maybe I'm not such an idiot after all."

I've just downloaded Open Signal Maps Android app which is hugely more informative both on an individual user level (it shows you which direction your nearest mast is etc) but already provide a usable online coverage map linked below (linked from the BBC article also).


Tony Walker

July 22, 2011, 7:25 am

The BBC have it correct. Lack of coverage IS still the major issue. Both for complete blackspots and places who people would kill for congested 3G, where they are stuch with 2G (not even 2.5G).

I live less than 12 miles east of Manchester and there is only one of the carriers covering our village (thankfully with a nice strong 3G signal). The rest of the carriers are virtually non-existant (you can get marginal signals in some spots around the village).

A way to reduce congestion on the networks in built-up areas would be for the networks to encourage businesses (offices, shops) to install femtocells. Though given the complete lack of availability to home users in marginal areas, I wouldn't hold my breath for them to think in such an intelligent fashion.

And on a lighter note, 3G reception where I work is both fast and lightly used (that's on 3) so nyaaaa, nyaaaa


July 22, 2011, 10:14 am

Streaming happily on 3 here - it does a decent job too. TVcatchup also works well. In fact, come to think of it, I'm one of those people ruining everyone else's 3G experience. Sorry.


July 22, 2011, 6:58 pm

Then you misunderstand Williamn. I'm not saying it isn't important I'm saying that with 99% 2G and 80-97% 3G coverage it now is no longer the primary issue. The focus needs to shift to performance.


July 22, 2011, 7:00 pm

That's a different point. You're correct 3G signal strength has problems penetrating walls - which is why you run into problems in basement flats, for example. But usability of that 3G signal is now becoming the primary issue.


July 22, 2011, 7:05 pm

For those without a signal it IS a major issue, but that is increasingly in the minority. The scenario you explain is common: one provider invests in an area and the others no longer deem it necessary and concede that territory. That does still mean it is covered, though.

You are right about femtocells, but the key to their popularity is being able to install one and make it compatible with all networks. Sadly networks lock them to their own specific signal meaning a household could need 3-4 femtocells unless everyone is going to move onto the same network. Furthermore carriers currently charge users for the data they use on femtocells against their monthly allowance when the data is from the users' own broadband connection. It's scandalous.

PS - lucky *carefully chooses words* so and so ;)

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