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3G coverage on UK roads just not good enough

As part of its annual Infrastructure Report update, UK media regulator Ofcom has _ for the first time – analysed coverage of 2G mobile voice and 3G voice-plus-data services on UK roads. The results are nothing to be proud of and will come as a major disappointment to the auto industry, which is investing heavily in connected technologies.

The results are so disappointing that Ofcom will be carrying out further analysis in the coming year to examine whether regulatory or Government intervention may also be required to achieve wider mobile coverage. Expect some strong lobbying support from the car manufacturers.

While Ofcom said that coverage for voice calls on motorways is good, there are gaps in coverage on ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads, particularly for 3G data services. The regulator estimates that just 35 per cent of the length of the UK’s A and B roads are served by all four 3G networks, and 9 per cent has no 3G coverage at all.

The total road length in Great Britain in 2012 was estimated to be 245,000 miles. Whilst ‘A’ roads account for just 12 per cent of the overall road network, they carry about 45 per cent of all traffic. It’s harder to work out ‘B’ roads, as the Department of Transport groups them with lower quality ‘C’ and ‘unclassified’ roads in all of its publically available data sets. But if we take all three ‘Minor Roads’ together, they account for 87 per cent of total road length and 35 per cent of traffic.

That’s a lot of unhappy drivers and passengers, unable to guarantee access to mobile data services. Not to mention a very unhappy car industry. Back in June, mobile operator trade association GSMA stated that the connected car market could be worth €39bn globally by 2018.

“Embedding mobile technology in cars will not only save lives, but also drive a range of new services and provide a significant revenue opportunity for the mobile and automotive industries,” said Michael O'Hara, Chief Marketing Officer at GSMA. But connected cars need networks. How soon before an accident victim sues the maker of his expensive connected car because one of the promised new safety measures didn’t work, because there was no network data coverage on that particular dangerous country road? Hence Ofcom is taking the matter very seriously.

As part of the Mobile Infrastructure Project, the UK Government has allocated funds to improve coverage on at least ten of the UK’s busiest ‘A’ roads. It would be interesting to hear what the operators themselves are planning.

Ofcom will also examine mobile coverage on major rail routes over the coming year. Once this data has been collected, Ofcom will offer technical advice to the Department for Transport and Network Rail on how mobile coverage on railways might be improved.

“We know consumers increasingly expect superfast speeds, but it’s also important to make sure people can connect over a very wide area,” said Ed Richards, Ofcom Chief Executive. “That is why we are doing everything we can to support moves to improve coverage in difficult areas such as roads and train lines.”

In September, the Government announced a plan to roll out high-speed mobile broadband on the busiest parts of the rail network, with passengers expected to begin noticing improvements to their journey during 2015.

Also see our separate story on Ofcom’s research into superfast broadband adoption.

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