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Vodafone: Don’t forget 3G as you race to flog 4G

Legacy mobile network coverage (or lack of it) is a problem that goes largely un-reported, thanks in main to a deluge of press releases that promote the latest technology advances and fuel our excitement around innovation and future services. Regular readers will know that we at TelecomTV get irritated by the ‘take it or leave it’ service mentality of mobile and broadband operators, who expect their customers to put up with patchy service coverage and fluctuating data speeds.

So we applaud today’s statement from UK regulator Ofcom about 3G network coverage. Ofcom has also published the outcome of an assessment of whether the UK’s major mobile phone networks are meeting their 3G obligations. When 3G mobile spectrum licences were awarded in 2000, they included an obligation to roll-out services to 80 per cent of the UK by population. However, in 2010 the Government directed Ofcom to increase this obligation to cover 90 per cent (as well as making the duration of the licences indefinite).

The deadline for meeting that obligation was 30 June 2013, and was agreed by all four operators (EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone). Unfortunately, Vodafone failed the test.

Ofcom conducted an assessment of each operator’s compliance with the new coverage obligation and found that EE, Three and O2 have successfully met their obligations – well done to them. However, Vodafone failed to meet the obligation, falling 1.4 per cent short of the 90 per cent coverage requirement.

Now, 1.6 per cent may not sound much, but against 63 million people that amounts to just over 1 million who are not receiving 3G.

Following discussions with Ofcom, Vodafone has said it will make up the shortfall and hit the target by the end of the year, mainly by rolling out 3G to more mobile masts than the operator had originally estimated as being necessary. This, of course, begs questions about Vodafone’s network planning team and its equipment – solutions providers might want to give them a call.

Until them Vodafone is on Ofcom’s watch list. It has decided not to take any enforcement action at this stage, but will assess Vodafone’s compliance in January next year and, depending on the position at that time, “the possibility of taking any further action will be considered”. Consider that a Yellow Card from the ref.

Ofcom says that improving mobile coverage for consumers is a priority concern, and has developed a five-point plan that outlines a number of initiatives designed to improve coverage as well as providing consumers with transparent information relating to mobile reception. In summary, the plan looks at: Paving the way for near universal 4G coverage; Improving existing 3G coverage; Extending coverage into hard to reach areas; Improving quality of service through better consumer information; and Improving rail and road coverage. Operators have until 2017 to provide 4G coverage into indoor areas in which at least 98 per cent of the UK population lives, and over 99 per cent of the population when outdoors (O2 is obligated to do this, the others have said they will voluntarily match the requirement).

Of course, providing a 3G (or indeed 4G) service is one thing; ensuring that acceptable data speeds are in place is another. Ofcom said today that it will also be carrying out research to measure the performance of 3G and 4G mobile networks, assessing the average mobile broadband speeds received by customers. This is very welcomed news, and so long as the results can be presented to consumers in a clear way, then it should be of tremendous benefit. What we don’t want to see is a steady degradation of 3G performance in a cynical attempt to persuade us to sign up for faster (and more expensive) 4G services. That would be totally unacceptable. Ofcom expects to publish the first results of this research in spring 2014.

Come on Vodafone, get a grip on the basics.

And regulators in other countries should take a close look at what Ofcom is doing here. The agency has stepped up in recent months and is taking a firmer stance to ensure customers are getting a reasonable service.

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