I’m embarrassed by how bad 3G is in this country. 

There. I’ve said it. I’m fed up with our patchy-at-best 3G networks. 

The mobile phone networks have apparently met their 3G coverage obligations, as set out in 2010 when the government instructed Ofcom to tell operators they should cover 90% of the UK population. That’s up from the initial 80% coverage that the networks were told they should offer when they bought the 3G spectrum back in 2000. The deadline for 90% coverage was last June, and Vodafone was the only network not to achieve it by that deadline, but it had by January 2014, as per this Ofcom press release.  

So everything should be great yes? Unfortunately it’s not. There are a few reasons why 90% coverage doesn’t really mean 90%. The population of the UK is around 63,182,000, and almost one-third of that lives in the southeast, 83.9% in England. To achieve coverage of 90% of residents the networks only really need to cover the most populated areas of the country. 

That’s one reason why, geographically, the reach of 3G is so patchy. That 90% coverage doesn’t mean 90% of the landmass of the UK. According to a Guardian article from last December, only 21% of the landmass of the UK is served by all four of our mobile networks. That report claims that: “Nearly 23% of the UK has no 3G at all, and in nearly 13% of the country making any kind of mobile call is impossible.” The Guardian’s report was based on a survey of its readers.  

Cut off in Cornwall, muted on the motorway

It will come as no surprise that there are areas of the country that lack a good enough data connection. We’ve all had a trip to Cornwall, or somewhere similarly cut off, and have had to tell our colleagues we might not be contactable due to lack of signal. But why do we accept it? And why are our friends and families who live in these corners of the country putting up with this state of affairs? 

What is the point of an iPhone if you can never get a decent data connection? 

Large parts of Cornwall are still without 3G, let alone 4G...

But it’s not just people who live in the middle of nowhere that lack 3G coverage. An OpenSignal study performed last October and published in May 2014, shows that 3G coverage on our roads and railways is also a cause for concern.

If you have frequently had your efforts to work on your commute to and from the office thwarted by the lack of data connection on the train, this revelation won’t surprise you. Nor will you be shocked to learn that even the London-circling M25 doesn’t have full 3G coverage. How many time have you tried to use Google Maps for directions and failed because you couldn’t get a signal? 

According to the OpenSignal report, rail passengers were without a 3G or 4G signal 28% of the time, while on the motorway mobile phone users were unable to get a 3G or 4G signal 24% of the time. On A-roads the signal failed 33% of the time, according to the study. 

Ofcom has performed similar research and concluded that just 35% of the UK's A and B roads were served by all four mobile networks. That October 2013 report states that 9% of roads have no 3G coverage at all. 

We appreciate that the signal while on a train is never going to be great - the train carriage itself is likely to degrade the signal. And obviously you are moving whether in a car or a train, so your smartphone is having to work hard to maintain connection to your mobile network. But our expectations of mobile broadband are high, especially as we struggle to control our addition to our smartphones. People expect to be connected, and we are paying for the privilege. But even more frustrating is the tendency of the phone to show 3G to be available when it clearly isn’t. Is it just toying with us? 

It’s not just when we are in a moving vehicle that 3G coverage suffers, and it’s not only when we are in the depths of Cornwall that we can’t get a signal. We expect to get good mobile coverage in London - it’s London. However, we’re frequently disappointed. Due to crowd congestion there often isn’t  enough bandwidth to go around, and as you find yourself battling with those around you to grab the signal that’s available, switching Airplane Mode on and off in an effort to reboot your aerial and give it the power to seek out the illusive signal, you are likely to wonder what the solution is.    

Yet again, no 3G coverage...

Is 4G the solution? 

The government isn’t oblivious to the 3G coverage shortfall. An auction of the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum for 4G mobile broadband services took place in February last year and the winners (who spent a cool £2.368 billion) were awarded the spectrum on the basis that they would ensure 4G coverage for 98% of the population. 

This auction is one reason why 4G roll out has been slow in the UK when compared to other countries. Part of the auctioned spectrum - the 800MHz band - was previously used by terrestrial television, so it wasn’t available until the digital switchover was completed, and that didn’t happen until October 2012. 

Added to that, due to a European Parliament ruling, the band couldn’t be used to deliver wireless broadband services in Europe until 2013. 

As a result, the roll out of 4G in the UK has fallen behind other countries. A study of 4G LTE penetration by Juniper Networks, and published by Bloomberg, projected that 62% of people in South Korea would be using 4G by the end of 2013. Japan was in second place, with 21.3% of the population predicted to be using 4G. The US was in third place with 19% of citizens expected to be using 4G by the end of 2013. 

The UK was in 7th place in the study, with a 5% of residents projected to be using 4G by the end of 2013. Coverage and availability is clearly one factor holding the adoption of 4G back, but it’s more likely that people are put off by the higher priced 4G contracts. 

Now that the 4G roll out has commenced in full, the UK should catch up quickly. Vodafone and O2 have promised to offer 4G to 98% of the population by the end of 2015, while EE believes it is on track to achieving that target by the end of 2014. EE had a head start with its roll out of the 1800MHz band last year, but crucially the 1800MHz band cannot offer the same reach as the 800MHz band, or the same capacity as the 2.6GHz band, both of which were only available following the auction. 

This 800MHz is the reason why the networks should be able to reach out to 98% of the population with 4G. This part of the spectrum can travel over long distances so it will be able to bring broadband speeds to rural areas. The other part of the spectrum that was sold off, the 2.6GHz band, offers greater data capacity - so it can deal with the congestion we have been experiencing in London. 

So it looks like 4G will solve our problems, on paper at least. But for how long? It is thought that by 2030 demand for mobile data could be 80 times higher than it is today. Ofcom is taking this projection so seriously that it is already in support of the release of further spectrum for possible future ‘5G’ mobile services. 

As technology improves it seems we are designed to never have enough. 

As for 3G, the good news is that as 4G is rolled out, and the masts are upgraded, the networks have promised to upgrade the 3G equipment too, so the result of the 4G should mean that things improve for those who choose to stick with 3G, which should make it possible for the population coverage for 3G to rise to 98%, which has to be good news.