Mobile coverage information for consumers

Published 10|08|11

Executive Summary

Context and scope of Ofcom's role

1.1 Mobile coverage is important to UK consumers and citizens. Furthermore, the extent of mobile coverage raises wider public policy concerns as the reliance that society places on mobile phones increases.

1.2 Mobile not-spots - areas where people cannot access mobile services due to lack of coverage - have been raised frequently by stakeholders as an issue of concern, warranting further Ofcom investigation.

1.3 As set out in our 2011/12 Annual Plan , we have an ongoing work programme to look at how, within the scope of our powers, we can help improve mobile coverage across the UK.

This work focuses on consumer information about coverage

1.4 In November last year, we published Mobile not-spots: An update on our research - exploring the reasons that not-spots exist and their impact on citizens and consumers. We said we would look at whether there was a need to ensure consumers are better informed about mobile coverage and what Ofcom's role should be.

1.5 The mobile network operators already provide a range of coverage information to consumers. One of the main forms this takes is through online postcode checkers. Coverage checkers are derived from mobile operators' models of predicted coverage.

1.6 The aim of this work has been to test the usefulness of this information for consumers. Our role has not - at this stage - been to provide information about coverage ourselves given the mobile network operators all provide freely available coverage information. Our preferred outcome is one in which operators themselves provide accurate and comparable information.

1.7 Such consumer information may help consumers choose the best operator for their area to mitigate the impact of partial not-spots. It may also encourage operators to compete more on coverage. However, we recognise that consumer information is not a complete solution to mobile not-spots, since it is unlikely to lead to operators providing coverage in areas where it is uneconomic to do so.

Scope of research undertaken

1.8 In this context, we have undertaken a research programme to understand the different factors that determine the consumer experience of using a mobile - with a focus on voice issues at this stage.

  • We asked consumers about how they use coverage information provided by mobile operators and postcode checkers in particular.
  • We undertook desk based research to review how operators present coverage information to consumers and to understand how comparable they are.
  • We commissioned research to measure mobile signal strength using Devon as a case study of a rural region - aimed at testing whether the operator data underlying coverage checkers is accurate and comparable.
  • We commissioned research to consider the effect of the performance of different handsets on the consumer experience of using a mobile - and whether there are any implications for the accuracy of operator coverage data.

1.9 The full research reports are included as annexes. We set out in this report the key research findings, our recommendations, and next steps in related work areas.

Key findings

Consumers' views of today's provision of coverage information

1.10 Mobile operators' coverage checkers are a useful way for consumers to test the coverage levels they are likely to receive from each mobile operator where they live or work. We commissioned quantitative research to understand consumers' information needs and what they think about coverage checkers.

1.11 We found that in terms of availability of information, more than three in ten consumers are aware of coverage checkers. Of those that had used coverage checkers, more than nine in ten found them easy to use and relevant, and eight in ten found them useful in making supplier comparisons.

Comparability and accuracy of coverage information

1.12 We have undertaken desk based research to review how operators present coverage information to consumers and to understand how comparable they are. This review highlighted a number of presentational differences across the market. As an example Vodafone, O2 and Three show results for indoor and outdoor coverage, whilst T-Mobile and Orange show only outdoor coverage levels. We believe these types of presentational differences make it harder for consumers to compare like with like.

1.13 Mobile network operators predict the signal strength of their networks using 'propagation models'. These models form the underlying data for coverage checkers. We commissioned a study in Devon to measure the signal strength of mobile network operators in order to understand how accurate their models for estimating mobile coverage are.

1.14 For outdoor coverage, the study found that measured signal strengths were generally in line with the operators' predictions. This led our consultants to conclude that the operator propagation models are reasonably accurate. 2G readings (suitable for voice and text) were generally conservative on average. The consultants noted more variability for 3G readings (suitable for data and mobile internet).

1.15 From initial discussions with mobile operators, our work has identified some differences between mobile operators in the way that they translate their propagation models into coverage checkers.

1.16 Although absolute measurements of coverage levels were not the focus of the research, the Devon study also provided an indication of coverage levels on the road network. As would be expected, all the 2G operators have widespread coverage of the roads that were surveyed with relatively few not-spots. 3G coverage is much lower on the roads driven, likely reflecting the stage of network rollout in Devon at the time of the study. All the operators offer good coverage in the major conurbations - with service degrading with distance from the central areas. We summarise these findings and how they relate to other sources of coverage data in annex 1.

Testing handset performance

1.17 We have commissioned research to consider the effect of the performance of different handsets on the consumer experience of using a mobile - and whether there are any implications for the accuracy of operator coverage data.

1.18 The technical study was conducted using mobile handsets from two different categories. One category consisted of smartphones (which support 3G and 2G networks) and the other consisted of feature/entry-level phones (2G only).

1.19 The study found no statistical differences in the performance ranges between handsets of the same type for call completion and voice quality. For example, all handsets in the survey recorded call completion rates of over 95%.

1.20 However, in the more rural areas that the phones were tested, the feature/entry-level phones generally returned somewhat better performance than smartphones for call completion and call setup. This may be due to the reduced complexity of antenna on these devices and 2G phones not having issues in switching between 2G and 3G networks. These performance differences are likely in practice to be modest, and not necessarily a factor that consumers should base their choice of phone on.

Research implications and recommendations

1.21 In summary, there are a number of positive things that we can conclude as a result of this research: mobile operators freely provide coverage information to consumers (online and in-store); the underlying operator coverage data is reasonably accurate for outdoor predictions; and consumers find coverage checkers easy to use and helpful in making supplier comparisons.

1.22 However, we believe that there is scope for some improvement in the comparability and availability/awareness of coverage checkers to set better expectations with consumers on coverage and enable them to make better purchasing decisions. We therefore make the following recommendations.

1.23 Presentation of coverage checkers and their underlying modelling processes. Our work has highlighted presentational differences between mobile operators' coverage checkers and differences in the processes they use for translating propagation models into coverage checkers.

  • In relation to presentational differences, all postcode checkers provide predictions for outdoor coverage but there are a number of other features and areas of good practice that we would like to see adopted. We set these out in section 6.
  • In relation to differences in modelling processes, we believe that there is no single 'right' way of estimating coverage and a degree of difference in modelling between operators is to be expected. These processes are unique to each operator, from both a technical and commercial perspective. However, the research we have done has greatly increased our understanding of these issues and has also given us comfort that the underlying propagation models that the operators use are broadly accurate and that coverage checkers are useful for consumers. Based on the evidence to date, further work to harmonise modelling processes may not be proportionate at this stage - given the potentially high costs in implementation and the likely difficulties in reaching a single 'right' way of estimating coverage.
Our research to date helps us conclude that the operators have a reasonable foundation on which to build coverage information tools - such as online postcode checkers. Our priority at this stage is to address the more immediate presentational issues that directly impact on consumers' ability to compare providers. We would encourage operators to explore ways to make their coverage checkers more comparable to consumers. We will continue the dialogue in this area.

1.24 Making coverage information more widely available and comparable. There may be some additional value to consumers being more aware of coverage information and being able to access it in a more comparable way. To do this we believe third party websites that aggregate consumer information could play a role.

We would encourage mobile operators to explore options to work with third parties to make their coverage information more comparable and widely available to consumers. We will continue to engage with relevant parties in this area.

1.25 Coverage checkers at the point of sale. Several of the mobile network operators have stated that they already provide coverage checks at point of sale as a standard part of their sales process, whilst other mobile network operators do not.

1.26 We have been encouraged by the adoption of returns polices by the mobile operators which allow consumers to try a phone and return it if coverage levels do not meet their expectations. This is clearly a positive industry initiative. The Communications Consumer Panel highlighted this issue last year .

1.27 However, we are keen to see all mobile operators discussing coverage and using checkers when they sell services to consumers, especially in areas where it is known that coverage is poorer. We are also keen to ensure that consumers affected by changes in coverage levels, when they already have a service, are given prior notice.

We are engaging with operators on these issues to explore how they can be resolved.

Next steps

1.28 We will take forward these recommendations with mobile operators and relevant third parties. We also have a range of periodic research publications such as The Consumer Experience Report that we can use to provide updates as appropriate. Section 6 sets out our recommendations in more detail, our other related work areas.

1.29 We have also updated our consumer guide Maximise your coverage to set out more clearly our recommendations to consumers. This guide is available to view or download from our website .