Raise the bars – Eight in 10 areas in the UK lack full 4G coverage

Millions of people are at risk of mobile signal blackouts because they live in the four-fifths of UK constituency areas that suffer from patchy 4G mobile coverage, new analysis from Which? reveals.

The consumer champion found that while rural Scotland and Wales still have Britain’s lowest levels of mobile coverage, many areas that include large towns and cities are also poorly served when it comes to receiving comprehensive 4G mobile coverage.

The research found that parts of Sheffield, Essex, Brighton, Cardiff, Milton Keynes and Leeds were among areas that did not receive mobile signal from all four major operators.

The Which? analysis of Ofcom’s Connected Nations data looked at the whole of the UK to see how many areas have 4G mobile coverage from all four operators – the only way to ensure consumers have a choice of providers that can offer a consistent level of service throughout their area.

The research comes amid discussions between the UK Government and mobile operators over how to boost mobile broadband access in poorly-served areas and ensure the government meets its target of extending 4G coverage to 95 per cent of the country by 2022.

Currently, only 67 per cent of the UK’s geographical area has 4G coverage from all four operators, while 8 per cent has no 4G mobile coverage at all.

Overall, the Which? study found that in 524 out of 650 UK parliamentary constituencies (80%) 4G coverage is not available from all four operators in the whole constituency.

The most poorly-served city-based constituencies – each with less than 80 per cent of the constituency receiving coverage from all four operators – were Rochford and Southend in Essex, South West Devon, and Romsey and Southampton North in Hampshire.

Among the worst affected town-based constituencies for mobile coverage – with less than 60 per cent of the constituency receiving 4G coverage from all four operators – were Clwyd West in Wales, Barrow and Furness in Cumbria, Ribble Valley in Lancashire and Scarborough and Whitby in North Yorkshire.

Across the Home Nations, Which? found that only three constituencies in Scotland had complete 4G coverage from all four operators – Aberdeen North, Glasgow North West and Glasgow South West.

In Wales, only the constituency of Central Cardiff had 100 per cent 4G coverage from all four operators. 

While in Northern Ireland not a single constituency area had 4G coverage from all four operators.

In England, a quarter (23%) of constituencies have 4G coverage from all four operators. Among those who are well-served are the Loughborough constituents of Nicky Morgan – the new Culture Secretary, who is responsible for delivering the government’s 95 per cent coverage target. 

In a separate survey, Which? found that half (49%) of people said they experienced patchy mobile phone signal at least once a month.

Over half (57%) of those who experienced a lack of mobile phone coverage in the last three months said they experienced a significant impact as a result – the most common being the inability to make or receive important phone calls or messages.

A quarter (23%) of those who experienced a lack of mobile phone coverage in the last 3 months said they felt stressed as a result.

Discussions between the government and mobile operators in recent months have centred on a plan to expand digital infrastructure in specific areas into a single network asset that all operators can use and share. 

This so-called ‘Shared Rural Network’ would take 4G landmass coverage from all operators from the current level of 67 per cent to 92 per cent – but plans are yet to be finalised.

Which? believes the government must stick to its 95% target and ensure it includes 4G coverage from all four operators – so that people have access to reliable coverage at home, work and on the move from a choice of operators, and are able to get a package that suits their needs.

Without swift action from government, Which? is concerned the current deadline will be missed, leaving too many people without decent access to the basic 4G coverage they desperately need.

 

Caroline Normand, Which? Director of Advocacy, said:  

“Millions of people are finding it difficult to get a reliable mobile connection and risk missing out on digital services we increasingly rely on like online banking, maps and NHS information – while some even struggle to receive important calls and messages. 

“To tackle this unacceptable and widening digital divide, the government must act now to connect the UK with truly comprehensive mobile and broadband by swiftly putting in place a plan to give communities the infrastructure they need.”

ENDS

 

Notes to editors:

 

  • For the purpose of this release Which? refers to UK constituencies lacking ‘full’ or ‘comprehensive’ coverage where there is not 100% geographic (outdoor) 4G signal from all 4 operators
  • The rural-urban classification of UK constituencies combines two data sources for the UK:

Great Britain classification available here:

https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-8322

Northern Ireland classification available here:   https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/urban-rural-geography-documents-2015   

  • The importance of coverage from all four networks is paramount to ensure consumers have access to coverage wherever they are and have a choice of network operator. Furthermore, other providers ‘piggyback’ on one of these four networks – Tesco Mobile, giffgaff and Sky Mobile use O2, Asda Mobile and Virgin Mobile use EE, TalkTalk and Voxi use Vodafone
  • In the 2017 General Election, the Government committed to achieving 95% UK geographic coverage by 2022
  • In June Which?, alongside four rural organisations, wrote to then Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright calling for legal obligations to ensure operators improve 4G coverage in rural areas. This was followed by seventy-seven MPs from across the party divide letter signing a letter urging Wright to support a proposal by the mobile industry to create a ‘Shared Rural Network’.
  • The proportion of mobile phone users using their phone for web and data access has doubled in seven years, from 35% in 2011 to 76% in 2018, according to Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2018

Data analysis

  • Which? Analysed coverage of 4G services by geography as well as whether each constituency had access to all four operators using Ofcom’s  2018 Connected Nations report
  • 266 (40%) of constituencies do not have complete (100%) geographic (outdoor) coverage of 4G services from at least one operator, although 546 constituencies (84%) have at least 99% access. 
  • Access is generally poorest in rural areas (especially rural Scotland), which is to be expected given the low population density rates in these areas and how the data is constructed. 
  • 524 constituencies (80%) do not have 4G coverage from all 4 operators in 100% of the constituency by geography.

Which? consumer survey results

  • 41% of mobile phone users who have a landline at home pay for it but never use it.
  • 81% of those with an active landline and a mobile phone said their mobile phone was of equal or higher importance than their landline
  • Consumers do a wide variety of activities on their mobile phones. Two thirds (68%) of consumers with a mobile phone use it whilst connected to 3G/4G whilst out and about at least once a week
  • Those who said their mobile phone signal whilst at home was bad were asked what they did as a result. Half (50%) connect to their home wifi network instead
  • A quarter (23%) of those who experienced a lack of mobile phone coverage in the last 3 months said they felt extremely/quite stressed as a result.
  • Over half (57%) of those who experienced a lack of mobile phone coverage in the last three months said they experienced a significant impact as a result – the most common was the inability to make or receive important phone calls or messages.

 

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