Jon Bentley tests: Phone reception
Jon looks into the issues some people across the country are facing with poor mobile phone reception, and what you can do to help the problem.
I'm inclined to agree with those who regard mobile phone reception and access to the internet as basic human rights, nearly as vital to human wellbeing as clean air and drinking water. In Britain, while our phone signals and access to data are generally getting better, there are still far, far too many places where you simply can't get through, or get online. And we’re not taking the problem seriously enough.
It's reckoned that 11% of the U.K. by area is a so-called "not-spot" with no mobile coverage at all, while a further 21% is a "partial not-spot" that lacks a decent signal from all of the four major phone operators. Since most of us are tied to one network that’s potentially a major inconvenience.
In particularly unfortunate localities, as we showed in this week's programme, signals are actually getting worse. While filming I visited Newtown, Powys, a whole town recently blighted by a sudden collapse in connectivity. It's been a disaster for business, a real hurdle to any sort of modern social life and a serious safety issue for everyone from doctors and agricultural workers to injured walkers and broken down motorists.
I spoke with the Welsh Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire, Russell George, and I discovered a potential reason for Newtown's plummeting signal is that networks are sharing mobile phone masts to save money. Nationally, O2 and Vodafone for example are switching off about 2,500 of them, a significant proportion of the U.K.'s 36,000 masts. Though most people's signals aren't negatively affected by this sharing, in some instances it can get worse. I hope Russell persuades the networks to switch any missing masts in Newport back on again. But I find it incredible that network operators allow large scale problems to appear in the first place.
In other places the most common problem causing weakening signals are trees, or more accurately the leaves that grow on them. Masts under 15 metres high avoid the need for planning permission but they're vulnerable to being engulfed by the trees that are often planted to hide them. Particularly in summer the leaves block the signal, reducing coverage. Clearly the solution here is more assiduous tree pruning – a task so simple it’s utterly baffling that people aren’t getting on with it.
In the absence of those responsible getting their acts together, there are a few things you can do to help yourself. For example, a roaming SIM, such as an Anywhere or Jump SIM, allows you to make calls on any network - useful if you regularly find yourself in partial not-spots. But why aren’t networks allowing you to do this anyway? Travelers from abroad get the benefit of access to all networks but so-called national roaming isn’t a feature of normal UK contracts. Why not?
And many not-spots with no reception seem to persist decade after decade. I know hurdles like geography, topography, and landowners who hate masts can be hard to overcome but network operators just aren’t trying hard enough. I want to live in a country where having no signal on my phone is a remarkable and rare event rather than a depressingly frequent frustration.