Mallinson: Why are there a lot of 'not-spots' in the UK despite mobile coverage obligations?

Keith Mallinson

The term "coverage" in mobile communications for voice and data needs to be carefully redefined and goals for it revised in light of rising expectations and the desire for ultra-reliable networks with the coming dawn of 5G networks.

According to a January 2015 report by UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, "coverage of mobile voice services has remained at or above 99 per cent of premises over the last [10] years." This high percentage figure is rather misleading. The UK communications regulator also stated that "while these aggregate figures for mobile household coverage are encouraging, patchy or non-existent coverage in some locations ('notspots' and 'partial not-spots') means there is significant room for improvement."

In terms of actually getting connected where and when people want, as opposed to at a notional location "where a customer standing outdoors can make a call," the percentage is a lot lower. Similarly, 9 per cent of the UK's A and B roads, let alone minor roads, are not covered by any operator with 3G data coverage. Anecdotal evidence reveals that call and data connections are awful on many rail routes, including main lines.

Raising the bar

One of the UK's LTE spectrum licences was sold with a national coverage obligation to Telefónica UK (for use by O2) without much of a discount for that condition. There is great confidence and it seems self-satisfaction on the part of Ofcom that the coverage target will be achieved. This operator is obliged by Ofcom "to provide a mobile broadband service for indoor reception to at least 98 per cent of the UK population (expected to cover at least 99 per cent when outdoors) and at least 95 per cent of the population of each of the UK nations--England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales--by the end of 2017 at the latest."

Nevertheless, there are still a lot of places where people have poor prospects for obtaining decent service quality any time soon, including deep inside buildings and on rural roads, as well as on trains. Coverage usually refers to signal being available outdoors where people live. But even where "indoor reception" is promised, the meaning of this is unclear. The signal might be available somewhere indoors, while being so poor in most rooms due to thick walls and signal shielding that service is unreliable and unusable as a means of being reached. What is relevant to users is the level of availability where they are when they need to use their devices. Most mobile usage is indoors and a very large proportion of the rest is while inside cars, buses and trains.

In my regular FierceWireless:Europe column here in October 2011, I criticised the poor and very intermittent mobile service availability on my two-hour train commute up to London from a major urban area on the English south coast. Nearly four years later, I lamented my continuing inability to maintain a phone conversation or data session on this heavily used main line as I made my way to a UK-oriented policy conference on "the future of mobile: networks devices and 5G," organised by the Westminster eForum.

As ever, at the conference I heard references coverage in some speakers' remarks to high levels of mobile network coverage, in marked contradiction to my personal experience. One conference questioner described a similar commute experience to mine that morning. He said he took a train and then the London Underground (where there is no mobile network coverage at all). He estimated his phone was in service for only 10 per cent of the time. The audience seemed empathetic with his frustration. In response, Brian Potterill, Ofcom's competition policy director, described this as another example of "market failure" in the UK mobile sector. He had already explained how Ofcom had fixed other purported market failures including excessive prices for call termination and roaming--through price controls.

With 5G, the emphasis will move away from an entirely "best effort" approach, with peak speeds possible, and toward quality-of-service assurance with average or even minimum speed and performance guarantees on ultra-reliable networks. The latter cannot only be for devices which remain static in areas of high signal strength. 5G networks will be mobile. For QoS metrics to have meaning, availability must be maintained while moving around within buildings and beyond. Self-driving cars, for example, will probably need high-availability connections. This will be very difficult and costly to implement on a widespread basis; for example, including minor roads as well as major roads and motorways.

It was so much easier in fixed networks. Once a fixed connection is established it is relatively easy to maintain sufficient network resources to maintain QoS. In contrast, mobile sessions need to draw unpredictably upon different network resources as calls or data sessions progress while terminals are on the move. 

What's the fix?

Barriers to improving coverage are manifold. At the Westminster eForum conference, David Lister, Vodafone's principal researcher of 5G Technologies, complained of red tape which makes it difficult to access, improve or add sites. There are also major economic barriers. Land and infrastructure owners seeking to extract monopoly rents from operators can make expansion unviable, particularly for small cell sites which provide only modest returns.

For example, many underground railway systems around the world, where demand for mobile is massive, proven and supplied with good services, put London's to shame. Plans to build coverage prior to the 2012 Olympics did not lead to an agreement, seemingly for a variety of reasons.

Ofcom recognises in its recently published strategic review of digital communications that "as consumer expectations tend towards universal availability and always-on capabilities, this poses significant challenges to mobile network investment." It states that "unlike fixed services, a wider range of factors affect the mobile user-experience. These include network coverage and capacity, mobile users' circumstances (e.g. outdoor pedestrian, in-car, or on-train use for example), the level of demand, the optimisation of the network for certain services, and the capabilities of handsets."

Marginal financial returns can be very poor or negative on investments for penetrating deeper into buildings and further into regions where few people occasionally travel. There is a limit to how much of that operators can justify doing on the basis of improving overall customer satisfaction, given their other competitive pressures and fiduciary obligations to shareholders. Improving network infrastructure, including cell sites and backhaul to macro and small cells indoors and outdoors, is a very costly endeavour.

The UK is not unique. If nations are to get broader coverage and higher service availability it may need to be on the basis of much more exacting service obligations. Universal service on fixed networks was achieved as a matter of government policy with significant cross-subsidisation from monopoly-priced international and long-distance services. As I mentioned here last time, it seems regulators and governments prefer impressive-looking obligation targets which are actually rather easy to achieve, while taking as much money as they possibly can out of the mobile sector in spectrum fees.

Instead, it would be better to find ways of keeping more money in the sector by reducing auction transfers so that investments in infrastructure and service quality on a more widespread basis can be increased.

Keith Mallinson is a leading industry expert, analyst and consultant. Solving business problems in wireless and mobile communications, he founded consulting firm WiseHarbor in 2007. Find WiseHarbor on Twitter @WiseHarbor.