August 24, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka
All of the major operators in the United Kingdom claim that they offer fast, widely-available, and reliable coverage – some as high as 90 percent coverage. Yet in a survey conducted by the BBC, which mapped 3G speeds and availability throughout the UK, none of the networks live up to the hype.
The BBC has released conclusions on a crowdsourcing project that sought to create real-world 3G coverage maps to compare with the maps shown by network operators. More than 44,000 people downloaded an Android app that pinged networks to gauge 3G availability and performed speed tests. After looking at results from everywhere “from Shetland Islands to the Isles of Scilly,” – 42 million locations tested throughout the UK – 3G is not as ubiquitous as operators would claim.
The BBC’s survey was informal and doesn’t account for critical factors about network strength such as whether the user is indoors or outdoors, or what time of day the phone is used (networks are more congested at certain hours). However, as a “snapshot” of coverage, things could have been better. Urban areas were generally well-served for 3G coverage, but rural areas and those just outside of urban centres were predictably poor.
In other instances, an operator would have good signal strength on the west side of town and poor results on the other, while a competing operator had the opposite results. An interactive map of the data allows UK residents to enter their postcode and see a map showing these problem areas of little to no coverage called “notspots.”
OpenSignal Maps conducts similar informal surveys through an Android app and recently released similar conclusions to that of the BBC. It found that 3G is available to 58.3 percent of the population, there’s an average transfer speed of 1.65 Mbps down and 0.4 Mbps up, and North Wales is the county with the worst coverage. Network comparisons also yielded something interesting: Vodafone had the fastest 3G network but trailed in signal availability; T-Mobile had one of the slowest but most available networks.
The 3G picture is not as good as it could or should have been in the UK. Auctions for 4G spectrum will begin next year and will present an opportunity for operators to improve upon the failings of the last generation of technology. Of course, it could also be another opportunity to come up short and create a new generation of notspots.