UK operators show a half-hearted approach to 4G

Last week I commented on the problems that business users out in the field often face in the UK because of poor or non-existent 4G and even 3G coverage. This is far more than just a perception: a new report from Which? and OpenSignal said UK mobile users are only able to connect to 4G half of the time.

In fact, it's been a bad week for mobile network operators all round. A Which? poll on customer satisfaction has already highlighted how MNOs such as Vodafone UK and EE are trailing behind MVNOs such as Giffgaff on customer service matters.

Now, latest data from the OpenSignal State of Mobile Networks: UK report said UK operators combined had an average 4G coverage of just 53 per cent -- "a particularly poor showing considering at least 39 countries offered coverage of 60 per cent or greater," OpenSignal noted.

The company said that in Northern Europe, LTE coverage is already surpassing 70 per cent. "In a few European countries like the Netherlands and Hungary, LTE connections are nearly as easy to find as 3G connections," it noted.

It seems that the four UK MNOs are failing their customers in a number of key areas. 4G has been their battle cry since 2012, but progress is clearly not as good as they would have us believe. The report found that EE has the best 4G coverage with customers able to access a 4G signal 60.6 per cent of the time. Vodafone UK was in second place, followed by O2 UK and Three UK.

However, Three UK fared much better on 4G speeds, offering an average speed of 18.7 Mbps compared to Vodafone's paltry 11.8 Mbps.

Which? and OpenSignal noted that Ofcom's recent review of the digital telecoms sector set a target of 98 per cent of homes in the UK able to access 4G by the end of 2017. However, the comparison with other markets perhaps indicates that operators need more of a "stick and carrot" approach from the UK government.

Three and O2 would of course argue that their proposed merger will allow them to improve their network. It's also likely that the ongoing merger investigation by the European Commission is causing a certain amount of inaction on the market. Once the four MNOs know their fate, it will be incumbent on them to improve the UK's position in global LTE rankings and reduce the reliance on 3G.

In February, OpenSignal had already remarked that in Germany, Italy, France and the UK, "the chances a 4G subscriber will connect to an LTE network are little better than a coin flip."

This really needs to change.--Anne