4G mobile network coverage along the UK’s motorways has seen substantial improvement, with Greater Manchester’s urban M60 having 100% availability and the Birmingham to Carlisle M6 seeing the greatest growth in coverage

The availability of 4G mobile networks along the UK’s motorways has substantially improved in the past couple of years, according to statistics produced by mobile network benchmarking firm Global Wireless Solutions (GWS).

Even though it is highly dangerous, extremely stupid and illegal to use a mobile device in any way while at the wheel of a motor vehicle, mobile network availability along Britain’s motorways and major A-roads has become an important metric for mobile operators – at least in part because passengers, particularly children and teens, are increasingly streaming video content and gaming on long car journeys.

Travellers on the urban M60 motorway in Greater Manchester can now expect to be able to receive a 4G mobile signal 100% of the time. On the M1, M4 and M62, this fell to 98%, on the M11 97%, the M25 96%, the M2 and M6 94%, the M3 and M37 92%, and the M23 90%.

The data showed that in comparison to tests conducted two years ago in early 2017, 4G performance has improved across all tested locations. GWS noted that the worst performing motorway at present is the M23 between Hooley in Surrey and Crawley in Sussex, with 90% availability, whereas in early 2017 the best performing motorway was the M60 with only 82% availability.

The M6, running between the Midlands and the border between England and Scotland, showed the most improvement on test, with 4G availability doubling in over a year and a half.

“There’s no denying that 2018 has been a busy year for operators, and while everyone is getting geared up for 5G, it’s great to see the significant strides that have been made towards improving 4G coverage levels across the country’s motorways,” said GWS CEO Paul Carter.

“We’ve seen investments made across the networks with operators deploying advanced LTE [long-term evolution] features to help enhance connectivity, help manage network loading, and pave the way for 5G deployment in 2019.”

Roadside network availability is set to become even more important with the advent of 5G mobile networks – which are expected to begin to roll out later in 2019 in the UK – because 5G is expected to support the much-anticipated (and much-hyped) features of autonomous or self-driving vehicles, which will require constant connectivity in all situations in the interests of public safety.

Besides roadside network testing, GWS conducted testing on all four UK mobile networks across the entire country during the course of 2018 to build up a picture of the state of connectivity. It collected more than 2.6 million data points, as well as held a number of focus groups and conducted polling among consumers, small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and enterprises.

Overall, it found O2 to be the UK’s most consistently reliable mobile network, followed by Three, with EE and Vodafone tied in third place. UK consumers are twice as likely to consider network reliability than browsing speeds, said GWS, based on YouGov polling.

On the business side, 76% of IT decision makers polled by Vanson Bourne said their businesses suffered with anything less than “excellent” mobile coverage. The ability to make voice calls is still considered the most important criteria for businesses when selecting a mobile operator, and while this shows little sign of changing, 64% of businesses now report using mobile devices as Wi-Fi hotspots to support remote workers, suggesting priorities are changing.

GWS’s business survey revealed a notable north-south divide in mobile coverage for businesses, with the best regions for mobile business connectivity being the North East and North West of England, the East Midlands and Scotland. The three worst regions were Greater London, and South East and South West England.

“In unstable economic times, it’s also important to look at the difference between business and consumer requirements from their networks – while a dropped call for a consumer is an annoyance, it can have damaging ‘bottom line’ consequences for a business,” said Carter.

“The government has committed to driving forward technology for businesses across the nation, not just the South East, and our regional Business OneScore results indicate that the network investments operators are making in the north of the country are beginning to pay dividends in helping to bridge the economic north-south divide.

“However, the fact that London comes last should alert to challenges ahead in serving the UK’s biggest working population, and this is something that must be addressed in 2019 and beyond,” he added.