The days when mobile phones were classed as a luxury item, afforded only by the few, have long gone. They are now integral to everyday living and are replacing our wallets, our computers, our travel documents, our cameras, our alarm clocks, and are relegating landline phones to history.
Why then, in this smartphone age, when 93% of the UK adults own a mobile phone, when there are more handsets than people, and when smartphones take precedence over laptops as the internet users’ device of choice, does the UK rank 54th in the world for 4G coverage, according to a new report by the National Infrastructure Commission, the Government’s own watchdog?
We are blighted by mobile “not spots” and calls dropping for no apparent reason, and have countries like Panama, Albania and Peru ahead of us in the mobile coverage league tables. For a nation that boasts the birth of telecommunications, the fact that we haven’t even made the top fifty is a cause of serious concern.
London ranks 16th out of 20 big cities and towns
If taking 54th position globally wasn’t bad enough, London ranks 16th out of 20 large cities and towns in the UK when it comes to satisfactory 4G coverage, with large discrepancies in download speeds, according to Which? On top of this, uSwitch claims that one in three mobile users experience poor to non-existent coverage in their own homes, that one in every five of those calls are patchy, with voice cutting in and out, and that one in six of those calls are prone to dropping out all together.
You could be forgiven for thinking that these figures are referring to sparsely populated areas, but they’re not; the situation in rural Britain is even worse, with only 50% of mobile users reporting good coverage. According to the uSwitch survey, the urban/rural disparity is so stark that for 9 million Britons, moving to the countryside is completely out of the question for fear of living in a digital desert.
The numbers don’t stack up
With Ofcom stating that “coverage of mobile voice services has remained at or above 99% of premises over the last 10 years” and 50% of rural Britons claiming to live in a digital wilderness, this is a classic example of total statistical bewilderment.
Why is there such a mis-match in numbers? Because the majority of statistics, no matter who is conducting the survey, refer to outdoor situations. Trying to collate accurate figures for indoor coverage is a bit like opening Pandora’s box; every building is different and different construction materials impact radio signals in different ways. High frequency bands (such as those often used for 4G) simply cannot penetrate through thick metal walls and the deeper inside a building you go, the worse it gets. Lower frequencies have better propagation, but do not have the bandwidth of the higher frequencies.
So, with mobile ownership on the increase, combined with our growing addiction to data-hungry services and smart buildings (not that smart when it comes to 4G coverage), the only way to improve the situation is to take the outside signal indoors using a repeater or signal booster. Thus far this has been highly limited due to strict regulation and control over such equipment by the network operators themselves.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The situation is set to improve, however, thanks to a relaxation in licensing laws for the use of mobile signal boosters, introduced by Ofcom earlier this year. Called the “The Wireless Telegraphy (mobile repeater) (Exemption) Regulations 2018” the new rules mean that any home or business owner can improve their mobile coverage simply by purchasing off-the-shelf devices, which are readily available and affordable.
The only caveat is that any installed booster has to comply with Ofcom’s repeater spec; they have to be network-specific, not interfere with other operator networks, have to be able to detect and mitigate any signal variations in uplink and downlink frequency bands, and must control the system gain (amplification) based on where they are in relation to the serving base station (referred to as Base Station Coupling Loss in the specification). Not all signal boosters can satisfy these requirements.
To conform to the licence exemption specifications requires a smart booster with intelligence built in. This means the device will self-configure according to network coverage conditions and automatically power down if there is a network conflict. An example would be Cel-Fi by Nextivity
Smart repeater technology, together with the relaxing of rules governing their usage could play a prominent role in overcoming the indoor coverage challenge and bring an end to the frustrations and misery experienced by millions.
The only limiting factor is not having an outdoor signal to connect to in the first place, but Government has been tasked with achieving 95% coverage throughout the country, not just in urban areas, and plans are afoot to achieve this.