Coverage and reliability at the wireless edge
Rob Bamforth, Principal Analyst
Coverage and reliability at the wirelessedgehttp://www.quocirca.com © 2013 Quocirca Ltd
With the latest round of 4G rollouts now takingshape across the UK, many living in or travellingthrough more remote and rural parts will onceagain be wondering about coverage andreliability of signal.Early mobile phone users were so grateful forbeing able to make phone calls away from a deskor office that they were willing to carry suitcasesized lumps of electronics with them. Asnumbers increased and mobiles shrank to merebricks, many would wonder why mobileoperators’ coverage plans extended across cities,but signals were lost on huge stretches of thetransport system. (Remember the M4 betweenJunctions 3 and 4 in the 1990s or perhaps theGWR route in Berkshire in the 2010s?)Eventually the core voice coverage of networkscoverage grew to the point where most peoplewould expect a signal, even in remoteenvironments.When 3G was first launched, its networkcoverage didn’t create much of an issue. In fact,because many handsets supporting it didn’tenter the market close to launch, it was a muchslower start than many in the industry hadwanted or predicted.Most mobile phone users at the time were farless accustomed to using data on the move –those who did often saw anything better than thebasic GPRS data connectivity indicator as abonus, not a right.With the emergence of Apple’s first iPhone,initially exclusively on the O2 network, attentionsharply turned on data. This was, after all, aneasy to use data device running apps thatexpected connectivity, but a pretty lousy phonefor voice calls, a feature shared by many early ‘smart’ phones. O2’s EDGE network – a step upfrom GPRS, but well below 3G data rates – justdidn’t really cut it.Despite that, somehow the iPhone made a bit of an impression, and 3G network coverageeventually filled out despite the heavy cost borneby operators in the 3G spectrum licenseauctions. 3G licenses did come with coveragerequirements, not always met in time, leading toat least one operator being threatened with afine for missing its target – but this was for 80%of the population (again, not the areas inbetween where these same people lived).Fast forward to today and we have all the 3Gcoverage we need, right?Well, not really. Urban areas are pretty good(population centres, the industry’s favoriteindicator), although some ‘hotspots’ arecongested and the data throughput is poor. Ruraland remote areas are a bit hit and miss.Compared to other countries in Europe, manyare poor, but at least more transport links arenow better covered.Often, poor coverage is a problem of localgeography, rather than just the willingness of operators to place masts.In the edge of South West Wales where I live, itis picturesque – i.e. hilly, tree covered andcoastal – not great for radio signals. In the locallifeboat service, we are dependent on four typesof radio signals – each of which demonstratetheir frailty at different times. The Bluetoothhelmet intercom didn’t work well when bouncingaround on waves at speed, so a wired alternativehas to be used, but the problems with the othernetworks mostly revolve around coverage.The pager messages used to call out crew in anemergency do not always reach everyone;mobile phones work in different zones dependingon which operator you are with; and even VHFradio coverage is occasionally missing – partlydue to landscape, partly an affect of governmentcutbacks in coastguard services.