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…