Having visited the sparsely populated north of Scotland a few months ago, I saw clear evidence of poor cellular service as perceived by the local community. As with many countries, the UK suffers from limited coverage in more rural areas. Deploying new spectrum may seem to be a quick fix, and may satisfy regulators, but might not answer the whole problem.
Ofcom report confirms limited coverage
Focussing purely on the road network, this Ofcom report demonstrated that almost 5,000 miles of roads don’t have any cellular coverage whatsoever. While that’s just 2% of the national road network, these will typically be in the most remote and least populated areas where help won’t be so close at hand.
A further 12% only has partial coverage – so service isn’t available from all four networks. Emergency calls will work (they connect through any available network), but normal calls to breakdown services may not.
At the end of 2015, only 18% of the road network was served by 4G from all networks and 56% had no LTE at all.
Although headline figures commonly focus on population coverage, which often exceeds 98%, the high cost of covering lots of sparsely populated areas has a more difficult to justify business case. At the end of 2014, full geographic coverage by all operators sat at just 69%.
A promise to improve rural coverage
The UK government and all mobile network operators came to an agreement in 2014 to address this wider coverage issue, with commitments that each operator provides at least 90% geographical coverage by 2017.
A closer look at this first commitment identifies that
- It’s voice and text only. No mention of any particular technology, so could be 2G/GSM or 3G or LTE as the operator sees fit.
- Since operator coverage may not overlap, full coverage by all operators may only reach 85%
- The deal involved no cash payments, but did involve legally binding licence conditions for spectrum use which are enforceable by Ofcom.
A further commercial driver to improve rural coverage relates to the Emergency Services Network, which will migrate from TETRA to LTE over the next few years. The current TETRA network has excellent geographical coverage, partly down to operating in the even lower 450MHz band.
Making use of the Digital Dividend
One of the ways to solve wide area rural coverage has been with the use of new lower frequency bands, made available by decommissioning analog terrestrial TV. The 800MHz band was auctioned off for use with LTE and has been deployed in many existing sites. The lower frequency combined with more advanced LTE technology significantly increases the range from existing macrocell sites.
Three UK has been particularly vocal about this. Its SuperVoice program now reaches 65% of the population and helps improve service, both indoor and in more remote areas.
Furthermore, Ofcom don’t require nearly as strong a signal for LTE as 2G – allowing a huge 34dBm margin. While LTE is good, it’s hard to believe it’s really that much better.
How does that translate to end users?
What I noticed during my trip was that cellular service remains a bit of a mystery to many people. The reasons why it might or might not work for them were unclear. While those of us immersed in the industry may be fully aware of what LTE or new spectrum bands offer, many don’t.
Using one of the latest devices which support LTE at 800MHz is clearly going to make a huge difference. But few realise this and continue to use (and complain about) their existing device. Even where a new smartphone could technically support the service, it doesn’t mean it has been configured to do so or will.
For example, Three UK state that “Right now, 4G Super-Voice doesn't work on phones bought from other networks, even if the manufacturer has stated that it's VoLTE compatible.”
Those living in rural areas may have less disposable income and may not prioritise a smartphone upgrade in the same way as more wealthy city dwellers.
Visiting a local supermarket, where many people might buy a prepaid phone alongside their groceries, you can still see plenty of 3G or even 2G only basic devices at rock bottom prices. In these remote areas, I wouldn’t see these as good investments.
[Perhaps you didn't know that John O'Groats isn't the most northly point on the British Mainland - it's just the furthest from Land's End]
The need for 3G and LTE service nationwide
In order to deliver good service, you need to have both the cellular network and smartphone handsets taking advantage of the same technology. It’s really not worthwhile deploying 800MHz LTE if everyone still has GSM or 3G devices.
So either operators need to run extensive education campaigns to encourage users to upgrade (possibly with an incentive). Or they need to deploy 3G/LTE multimode with similar coverage footprint. Or both.
This applies to indoor small cells too. 3G remains highly compatible with existing devices in use today and can deliver very reasonable data speeds and performance. LTE is the future and may be seen more in Enterprise/business environments. This may explain why UK operators are sticking with residential 3G Femtocells in the short term at least. It may also encourage them to deploy 3G/LTE multimode capable rural small cells when resolving in-fill coverage in these remote areas.