BBC BLOGS - dot.Rory
« Previous | Main | Next »

Who's mapping 3G?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:16 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Whose network should you choose if you want the best 3G coverage for your phone?

According to Orange, it's obvious. "The Orange 3G network covers more people in the UK than any other operator," boasted the company in a newspaper advert.

But its rival network Three hit out at that claim, insisting it had better coverage of the UK.

Now the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled that the Orange advert was misleading.

Screenshot Ofcom map reportThe dispute centred on the difference between population coverage and geographical coverage, and the ASA went to the only source of information about these issues, Ofcom's maps of each network's reach [667.34KB PDF] published last year.

What those maps show is a very broad brush picture of the geographical reach of each network, rather than any data on how many people each of them can reach.

They do show that Three has more coverage of the UK than Orange, but there is no information on how many people they reach.

Orange says its network is ahead of Three on that count, using statistics published by each network.

While Ofcom has done some work on measuring 3G population coverage, it has not published any findings. So the ASA ruled that Orange was not in a position to claim that it was ahead of Three.

Confused? I don't blame you, and this all goes to show how difficult it is for consumers to get reliable information about the quality of the networks.

When people are buying very expensive smartphones they need to know whether they will be able to use them in their area - and right now they just have to take the word of the retailer or the network.

What's needed is a lot more data about people's real life experience of getting a decent 3G signal.

At the moment all we have is anecdotal evidence - like the story from a colleague who's just turned up at my desk to complain that a brand new top of the range smartphone can barely get a signal from the Orange network in London.

So isn't it about time someone undertook a large-scale comprehensive and objective study of how the different UK mobile networks perform for their customers?


  • Comment number 1.

    Tell your colleague with the "brand new top of the range smartphone" to start holding it properly and then they will have no problems.

  • Comment number 2.

    Why dont you / the BBC do such a survey like they did a few years ago over broadband speed and quality of service?


  • Comment number 3.

    The 3G connectivity in Canary Wharf is scandalous from all parties. I can sit in my office with my iPhone3GS on O2, with barely a standard phone signal(let alone 3G), whilst my iPad with a 3 sim gets just 1 bar.

    In Canada Square, virtually no signal from any device...

    And yet they want to charge us £44 per month contract (£10 rolling pay as you) go for this.

    Call the helpdesks and the standard matra is "bear with us, we are upgrading...."

    Trouble is, they have been upgrading for 2 years, with no improvement...

    People need to start commencing actions against these guys in the courts, for them to start sitting up and paying attention.

  • Comment number 4.

    Even though I work for one of the networks I always advise my friends to asks their mates to see which networks give signal at their home address and at their work address. No point signing up to one which can't cover both.

  • Comment number 5.

    With the modern use of smaller and smaller cells with presumably lower power, the signal seems to have become more granular than ever. I have a T-Mobile HTC HD2 and the signal goes from HSPDA in the back garden to 3G in my bedroom upstairs to barely getting a signal in my study depending on the rotation or placement of the phone on the desk.

    It would seem impossible to provide a national map with this changing level of signal.

  • Comment number 6.

    Vodafone have an interesting and revealing user-generated map of signal strength at [or search for Vodafone UK Signal - result was about fifth in list for my search engine]

    At least they are being honest enough to show what users find rather than what their theoretical maps claim. I wish that other providers would do the same.

    The reality is rather different from any network's claims, I suspect.

  • Comment number 7.

    I have moved from T-Mobile to O2 to Vodafone in the last six months just trying to find halfway decent 3G coverage. It doesn't exist, so essentially it's a case of plumping for the least worst option based upon getting enough coverage where you think you need it. I'm currently trying Orange on pay as you go as I'm fed up of porting my number around.

    The site is a great idea - this idea should be expanded to cover all of the networks, maybe this kind of thing could be achieved with an app for iPhone, Android etc.

  • Comment number 8.

    Totally agree that the networks wishful maps were brought under further scrutiny.

    I have experienced Orange, 3 and O2 networks and all are similar. Namely the maps state the signal type (3G, HSDPA, etc) but get the phone home and the strength is dire.

    I would always get my phone direct from the network store (or franchised outlet) after shoddy Teflon shouldered sale of inappropriate mobile Internet dongle from Charlie's Wonderous store.

    I get 3G in my kitchen but ranging from no signal to 2 bars of 2g in dining room or front room within line of sight of the antenna


  • Comment number 9.

    3G?? The burning issue is 4G. The US now have 4G networks rolling out - but Europe and the UK is being left behind due to delays in rolling out the necessary infrastructure. In the UK, this is partly due to the networks still not having gained a return on the crazy 3G licence prices obtained through the auction a few years ago. Europe has led the US in the past in terms of cellular technology rollouts, but it looks like we've been leapfrogged.

    When it comes to 4G, I trust the UK networks will agree on a single standard (LTE or WiMAX) so people can easily port their devices between networks when they want.

  • Comment number 10.

    I think the most depressing thing to come out of this article for me is that if you overlay the maps from the OFCOM document on top of each other they show huge areas with supposedly no 3G coverage at all, including most of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwal and big gaps in Norfolk and Northern England. There are even a few areas around London!

    Admittedly a lot of the area is countryside but even so all the networks should be ashamed of it if the OFCOM maps are accurate.

  • Comment number 11.

    Who's mapping 3G coverage?
    No company (site) that I could find.
    ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) & Orange over network claim:
    Three, the network owned by Hutchison Whampoa, challenged whether the claim "The Orange 3G network covers more people in the UK than any other operator" could be substantiated, because 3G believed that it had the largest 3G network in the UK.
    Judgement - Upheld
    Rationale: Orange had not shown that the population coverage data they supplied for competitors was collected on the same basis as their own.
    Conclusion: We concluded that the ad was likely to mislead.
    Breaches: CAP Code clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness) and 19.1 (Other comparisons).
    Orange was warned not to re-post the advert in its current form.
    Orange was also told that it must not compare their population coverage with that of competitors unless they could demonstrate that such claims were based on comparable measurement and reporting.
    The ruling should set a precedent that will stop other companies from making such claims.
    But essentially, consumers are in the dark when trying to get a clear picture of how 3G networks compare.
    It is certainly in the interest of consumers for there to be “a site” that they could reference, but dang if I could find one.
    I'd love to do your full-scale, comprehensive study, but I have all the expertise of a landline user.

  • Comment number 12.

    I think it is the networks responsibility to accurately map their coverage. Im in Exeter, which has mostly good 3G, but at my place of work, which on all the networks maps is claimed to be covered, i get very little or no 3G outside. O2 is dead, T-mobile is marginal, Orange is a lottery from day to day and Vodafone is marginal. 3 usually works ok, just (one bar, maybe 2), but their product range is rubbish outside the mobile broadband dongles.

  • Comment number 13.

    @Jamie Burrell, comment 1 - It must be a slow news day, when the commentards have to insert their own references to *that* phone, in order to make snarky remarks about it.

  • Comment number 14.

    What we actually need are decent 3G coverage maps from all of the providers, they need to be more forthcoming with their network expansion plans and also when OFCOM publish their maps (which they should do more frequently) they should do so at a larger scale - as it is the OFCOM maps are totally useless.

    I'm in the "lucky" position that only one network is actively expanding their 3G coverage around here and they have chosen to upgrade the neighbouring cell that covers approximately 28 buildings (I think 5 are inhabited) and not the two villages (population combined of 2500) with a significant number of customers (in my direct circle of friends there are twenty or so) eagerly awaiting the possibility of broadband without a landline.

  • Comment number 15.

    The phone companies are pushing headline figures but you're right, coverage figures are largely meaningless.

    It's easy to attain 99.9% 3G geographical "coverage" by placing masts strategically, which is what Orange and 3 have done. What's not easy is providing a signal strong enough to actually use 3G at even 50% of it's maximum speed.

    Orange and 3, by utilising cheaper, lower power, less well positioned masts actually provide worse reception in the majority of cities for both voice and data than their counterparts O2, Vodafone and T-Mobile, who tend to share urban mast locations.

    In the countryside, it depends where you are as to what kind of signal you will get, rural areas are generally served best by whichever company has positioned their mast highest.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    The issue isn't really maps, although, as someone who moved to Leeds to find his LG phone on Orange had virtually no signal the moment you walk in a building, decent information would be great. The issue is that our coverage is generally poor across the board relative to some other countries. It's notable that the US has much lower population density than us, but still seems to manage better signal. Is it due to less competition in the market, allowing the big boys to roll out decent networks with larger profits?

    If so, we need to have a serious think about is our current structure is fit for purpose.

  • Comment number 18.

    (ie review of 3G network) when will the powers that be get there heads together and seperate the 3G mobile phone network from the 3G mobile broadband network or hasnt any one told them that the two do not mix simply becouse the one crowds out the other so how about having one 3G broadcast band for the mobile broadband and one 3G broadcast brand for the mobile phone? GET ON WITH IT AND THINK FOR A CHANGE

  • Comment number 19.

    This OfCom site is interesting - you can find who runs all the local masts to your location and where they are -

  • Comment number 20.

    Not being completely up on mobile mast technology, this may be naive in the extreme, but wouldn't the public be better served by the mobile companies sharing masts? So rather than having 4 or 5 competing masts for each area we had 1?

    Presumably that would deliver potential health benefits too, buy reducing the amount of radiation floating about our heads?

    Like I say, not up on mobile technology, so this may well create capacity issues in certain locations/conditions?

  • Comment number 21.

    @ iProduct (posting at 3:16 pm) - Orange providing "99.9% geographical coverage"?

    Maybe within a mile of Shoreditch or the Square Mile in London, but try getting 3G signal (or even 2G) across parts of rural Scotland!

    A colleague pointed out that 3G coverage by geographical area is greater in the seas off Scotland rather than on the land itself... check out the OfCom maps....

    3G coverage has a long way to go.

  • Comment number 22.

    I was an O2 (/Bt Cellnet) customer for 10 years, and switched to Orange at the end of last year.

    So far I have been very unimpressed. The coverage map offered by Orange was a joke, and the signal is very temperamental. It seems to be hugely affected by seemingly minor obstacles, for example in my kitchen I could get full 3G signal, whereas in my bedroom I couldn't get anything. Our house stands fairly alone on a hill, and the layout of the house meant there couldn't be more than 2-3 walls making all the difference.

    Furthermore, in 10 years of O2, I NEVER had a call drop out without good reason (moved into a no signal area), but on Orange it drops about a third of all calls even though I still have signal.

    Once you find a network that is good in your area, stick with them.

  • Comment number 23.

    P.s. @mgaved The very simple reason there is more signal in the sea is because there is nothing in the way to block the signal.

  • Comment number 24.

    @RB the problem is that each cell can only take a finite amount of traffic, so by sharing it around your customers would have worse signal.

    The main issue for 3G is that you need a lot of cells in urban areas to provide coverage using the 2.1mhz frequency, however residents are rather NIMBY when it comes to putting a new mast on their road.

  • Comment number 25.

    Don't you just love statistics, especially those that attempt to mislead, confuse or be economical with the truth.

    While Orange may be correct in saying they cover more people in the UK, I assume that is based on where people live?

    So what happens as soon as people move around, say, to go to work or a trip somewhere else in UK?

    Therefore, I would personally prefer coverage to be based on geographical combined with signal strength for each area.

  • Comment number 26.

    i remember an app for my nokia n95 a few years ago, which you could use to send your location, network and signal strength, and the idea was that the data would be used to create a map of coverage. i think the project fell through because of a lack of funding and time. if this idea could be recreated for all mobile phones and operators (NOT JUST IPHONES!!!), i think with government backing, the coverage map could be made. im suprised ofcom havent released the map sooner, espicially with operators charging extra for data. i have found London to be particulary bad when your traveling through it, as the signal can get very patchy in places. im on t-mobile and they have given me the best 3g coverage for the areas i live/work and travel to frequently, but their coverage map for some of these areas says my 3g signal will be low. ive never trusted the network maps or sales people. i go by what friends have said and what network is based near me (i live near the t-mobile hq in hertfordshire). alternativly get one of the free pay as you go sims and test them to determine which is best for your area.

    another thing i would add is that many people complain about poor 3G signals, yet the uproar that comes about when an operator wants to put up a new mast prevents coverage from being improved. if you want the signal u need the masts-simple! i do agree that networks should not be allowed to say 'best signal coverage in UK', because currently it varies too much, so while some areas have strong signals, others do not, which could mislead consumers. i also agree with the commetns that a survey conducted by the bbc, similar to the broadband survey, would be a very good idea

  • Comment number 27.

    All I know is my own area, and I can confidently say that Three provide better coverage in Wales than Orange. This was not true even a fairly short time ago, but Three have clearly put a lot of effort in and I'm getting 3G coverage in a lot of areas I wouldn't have even a couple of years ago - even fairly near to my own village, which would probably have 3G coverage too if it wasn't in a valley.

  • Comment number 28.

    SENSORLY ( offers a free Android app - and an iPhone app coming soon, apparently - which records the signal strength at your location and uploads it to their servers. You can then view the resultant coverage maps, compiled from your data and everyone else's data, on your phone.

    I don't know whether this is actually the same app mentioned by Matt Harmon in commment #26, but it sounds like it does the same job.

    If smartphone users (and technology journalists, dare I say?) were to get the word out about Sensorly - with which I have no connection other than as an eager user - then the coverage maps we all want would become available much more quickly.

  • Comment number 29.

    I switched from 3 to T-Mobile last year. The T-Mobile network is abysmal and their customer care I have found to be appalling. Their coverage map is, as far as i can tell, pointless and they are unwilling to ever admit that their network simply does not work. I have looked for T-Mobile radio masts near to where I live and there are none but I am surrounded by O2, 3 and Orange masts. Does this reveal another problem ? Is there a lack of investment by T-Mobile in their infrastructure or, as I rather suspect, are they hoping that they will be able to use the Orange network now that they are one and the same company ?

    The placement of antennas in modern handsets is almost always in the base of the unit, the part which you are most likely to hold. I believe this is for health reasons (i.e. keeping the radiation away from your head). The recent iPhone 4 signal issues are not unique to that device but affect, I believe, most phones made in the last few years.

    I think it is easy to confuse operator network issues with phone design issues ?

  • Comment number 30.

    @29 I believe that US law dictates that antennas must be at the bottom of the phone (away from the ear) to protect the brain from the percieved dangers of radiation from mobile phones, despite the lack of scientific evidence. As far as reception goes, I tend to get decent 3G most of the journey to uni on the train (other than when the train enters a tunnel/has high embankments on both sides). At home I get decent reception though I tend to use the wireless network anyway. Just did a test and I got a 2Mbps download speed and 0.3Mbps upload speeds, using the app for Android. I believe they have one for most mobile OSs. I'm on Vodafone, living just outside Paisley.

  • Comment number 31.

    Just found this:

    App for Android (and shortly iPhone) that uploads coverage data to build a map.

    Presumably no good unless enough people use it.

  • Comment number 32.

    I am a T-Mobile customer of many years. On a recent vsisit to the Lake District there were times when I couldn't get a phone signal let alone 3G.

    I regularly use my HTC Desire on buses in South London going to and from work. In places, partcularly Kennington, 3G just disappears. I was hoping when T-Mobile and Orange merged it would get better but so far not.

  • Comment number 33.

    My experience is that it doesn't matter what network you are on, if you live in London then 3G is a waste of time. I turned the 3G off on my old Nokia when I was on vodafone and then eventually did the same when I got and iPhone on O2.

    3G in London just doesn't seem to be able to cope. I find 2G is quicker and more reliable.

  • Comment number 34.

    The theoretical availability of 3G is nowhere near as illuminating as information on network load might be. I've found that 2G in places with low population density and/or not many network users can match and even outperform 3G in a city.

    I think what I'd like to see is information on network capacity and volume of traffic in any given area. Same for broadband, too.

  • Comment number 35.

    @ Ian That's odd. I live in the Lake District, and am on T-Mobile and almost always have signal, outside and usually inside and it is often 3G. Admittedly on the fells I may stuggle to get recpetion sometimes, but honestly, that's the fells, only basic reception (2G) is really needed for emergancies and 2G is available (I don't really check mcuh though).

  • Comment number 36.

    Perhaps Google would have been wiser to map 3G coverage instead of snooping on WiFi networks when they did their street mapping.

  • Comment number 37.

    No network should be boasting about their 3G coverage untill one standard way of measuring tis has been set. 3 measure it differently to Orange. Going by the state of Orange's 2G coverage around here. Cardiff & Vale of glamorgan) their 3G net is proabably crap. Their quality is awfull. my best mate has recently moved to Virgin [uses t-mobile network] after 10 years and i can now have a decent conversation with her. 3 is the best for broadband. I'm back with vodafone after doing the round with t-mobile, 3, O2, & staying put now. I can happily leave my N86 set to 3G only as I potter about the area.
    As for 3 & Orange, mainly 3, they need to grow up & end this. 3 have attacked the other 4 just because of the way the describe their own networks. We just need more indepth details of how HSDPA coverage is in the places we work and play. The only Net: that has made a start on this is vodafone with their new site. [which by the way wont let me add info to the map when i wanna tell it "no signal"]

  • Comment number 38.

    I apologize for my spelling mistakes above!!!

  • Comment number 39.

    Ok here is the basic guides when designing a 3g Network particularly within the uk.

    All coverage maps are showing the coverage in an outdoor state, no operator will guarantee indoor coverage. For indoor door coverage there are to many variables to take into account, the normal losses used by operators is 10 dB Suburban, 15 dB Urban and 20 dB for dense urban losses but again these are only used to give outdoor coverage.

    In regards to the post that was stated to say there where to many holes in UK 3g coverage, all operators have a contractual requirement for x % for POPULATED areas and not AREA coverage. When the licences where won in the early part of this decade I think it was 98% of the population by 2005 or so, but I seem to remember this was negotiated to a lower figure due to the financial state of the operators after the 3g Auctions.

    Ok for 4g and Europes choice for LTE or Wimax, virtually all networks will be upgrading to LTE. Most operators are doing trials now, the only thing not defined is the Radio Spectrum they will end using. The spectrum allocated for 3g services was 2100 Mhz, when Vodafone inquired if it could use its 900 Mhz for 3g services it was told if it did it would have to auction them again as they are for GSM services only!
    As for the reason Europe is behind I would imagine it was stung big time for adopting 3g early, though I know the Big operators are heavily involved in the developement side.

    LTE has been chosen because it is easier to upgrade existing gsm/umts 3g core networks. At the same time I wouldn't hold your breath for alot of handset devices, most of the devices I have seen or been told by people in Ericsson are USB data devices or built into laptops.

    All I can say if you want 3G HSDPA services then get fixed line or cable with wifi in the house. HSDPA is a shared bandwidth, more users slower speed, if it is for using the phone and the odd app or music download 3g is great.

    The same will be true of LTE you can only fit so many bytes into 1 Mhz of RF, but it is better than 3g!

  • Comment number 40.

    #6, @MadAlien, I think the Vodafone user-generated signal map is a good idea, as is Android app from However, I imagine that operators already know the signal strength of their equipment in various locations. They even have better signal testers than mobile handsets, which have varying antennae sensitivities. I guess it's helpful for reporting indoor signals, or useful for users given that operators won't release their measured signal maps.

    #39, @Oddb4ll, I agree with your factual analysis. Signal problems usually occur indoors or in built areas, because RF signals are affected by materials. This is the common factor/problem for all wireless technologies, from GSM to LTE. I guess this is where femtocells come into play. I recall at some point Orange, (I think), was offering devices to offices to boost the wireless signal and carry the traffic over broadband. Not sure if that's still there.

  • Comment number 41.

    Thank you to Natmandu #31.

    The sensorly site does at least seem to confirm that I'm better off sticking with T-mobile for both my home and work locations, far superior coverage than any of the others for north and south cheshire by the look of it. Means I might actually get some use out of the 3G on my phone when it gets activated in 2 weeks.

  • Comment number 42.

    Rory, have another chat with Ofcom, I understand that they have commissioned or are in the process of commissioning a company to produce detailed comparative maps of 3G coverage starting with Devon.

  • Comment number 43.

    Until 3G moves onto 900 MHz or new spectrum around 800 MHz we aren't going to see good in-building coverage as the 2100 MHz currently used isn't good at penetrating things and has a higher loss per km purely because of its high frequency.

    The same can be seen with Orange and T-mobile 2G voice at 1800 MHz having shorter range and less penetration than O2 and Vodafone's 900 MHz equivalent.

  • Comment number 44.

    The O2 coverage is abyssmal. My wife and me both have contracts totalling £1080/year. I'm definitely moving to Orange when my contract expires.

  • Comment number 45.

    As @EMC has already pointed out, this is exactly where femtocells can come into play. That way you can not only guarantee coverage in your home or office, but guarantee full 3G coverage for full data access. This should encourage more network operators (aside from Vodafone) to offer this to their customers.

  • Comment number 46.

    These maps as sadly almost all complete rubbish. Almost every mobile provider in Britain has significant gaps in coverage.

    The UK government should force all the infrastructure to be combined into an independent plc company Mobile Masts plc and let all the companies buy service from this single infrastructure company.

    Only in this way will anyone get consistent national coverage. Change company to get better coverage you are joking - as for customer service UK mobile operators provide the worst and most expensive service on the planet.

    Remember this was the group of operators who had to be forced by the EU to drop their roaming txt and internet charges to their customers. Mobile phone operators the unacceptable face of capitalism in the 21st century.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.