In order for the UK to stay competitive in today’s digital economy, ubiquitous coverage and reliable mobile network performance have become a necessity. Last year, Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to provide Londoners with 4G access on the Underground by 2019; a clear sign that the government is serious about eliminating mobile ‘not-spots.’ For operators, the higher-than-expected amount raised for spectrum at the recent 5G network auction (£1.35bn) demonstrates that they too are fully engaged and pushing for improved, expanded connectivity.
What do the consumers want?
Today, consumers are looking for uncompromised network coverage everywhere. Operators respond to these demands by filling in the not-spots and expanding their networks as well as improving data throughputs and voice call quality. There is a lot of attention currently on providing ultrafast mobile network speeds, even though a majority of consumers are more interested in robust signal with as little downtime as possible. It’s no surprise then to see media stories frequently highlighting consumer frustrations with inconsistent coverage in rural areas, urban dark-spots, and on public transport.
Suffolk, for example, has regularly been reported as an area where locals are enraged by dismal network coverage, finding it nearly impossible to contact their loved ones. While the situation may be better in major urban areas, consumers are still frustrated by mobile not-spots found in heavily populated areas where they live, work, and play. Londoners, for example, still have no connectivity in the Underground, while evidence suggests that high streets (shopping areas) in both Richmond and Peckham continue to suffer from spotty signal.
Technological challenges – it’s not as easy as it looks
GWS is working hard to bring these common frustrations to the forefront of the UK wireless industry; take, for example, our TV appearances on London Live and the BBC’s One Show where we demonstrated how to test network performance and coverage as experienced by customers. Conducting controlled, scientific testing that captures key data is important because operators have several factors and choices to consider when making improvements to mobile coverage and the customer’s ability to access the network. For example:
- Site reconfiguration: perhaps a particular cell site could better serve demand if more capacity was added, (i.e., add radios, antenna sectorization, reuse spectrum, etc.);
- Connectivity to the network (backhaul): Is there enough capacity from the site to the network to carry the traffic load?
- Deploying a new site: When adding a new site operators not only need to consider technology and network features to deploy – 3G, 4G, 4G LTE-A, but also need to factor in the logistics and regulatory requirements involved in building a new site.
- Network planning: Now is the time for most operators to consider “small cell” network architecture so they can be ready for 5G but can they in today’s regulatory environment (i.e., what’s their ability to efficiently secure approvals to use public street furniture and other sensible locations)?
- Optimum site location: Whether you are outside, inside a building, in a tunnel, in a shopping centre, etc., manmade objects (such as building materials) and natural obstructions (such hills, groves of trees, etc.) all negatively impact signal strength / coverage.
- Feasibility: All of the above require capital investment and have resource costs which further drive how an operator will address the need to expand or improve network coverage.
Public initiatives – keeping up the momentum
On December 31st, 2017, all UK network operators self-certified that they had achieved 90% UK landmass coverage. That being said, consumers are still experiencing dropped or blocked calls as well as not-spots in some of the UK’s largest cities. As we’ve highlighted many times before, the real test of reliable network coverage and performance involves measuring consumer satisfaction (i.e., consumer experience testing). Public / private projects to address these issues are showing promise; for example, the trial on the Waterloo and City line, saw all four operators successfully carrying 4G signal in transit and now it’s all systems go for full coverage in the Underground by 2019. In addition, the Mayor has improved the opportunities for street furniture to boost signal, with a network of smart cells being deployed to overcome urban not-spots.
Public initiatives, partnerships with industry players, operator network planning, spectrum auctioning, deploying new technologies, simplifying the process and easing (where warranted) regulatory requirements – all of these activities can make a difference, can enhance coverage and network reliability, and can significantly improve customer experience. But are they occurring – are they being implemented, funded, coordinated, etc. in a way that’s making a difference now? That answer requires a whole new blog!