BBC Uses Crowdsourcing to Map the UK's Signal Coverage
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones appeared on TV yesterday morning to promote an initiative to measure 3G network coverage across the UK. He unveiled an application for Android phones that continuously records signal strength and sends the results back to its developer, Epitiro. The BBC and Epitiro hope to use the findings to produce a postcode-level map of mobile coverage in the UK.
Mobile network operators are already obliged to provide the UK regulator, Ofcom, with details of signal coverage and strength. But they're not keen to divulge this information, as it might identify weak spots in their infrastructure and help competitors. Their own coverage maps sometimes don't reflect what to expect in a given village or street. Ofcom has a poor track record of publishing detailed data, though this appears to be changing. In 2010 it commissioned Epitiro to measure mobile broadband speeds in the UK, and the BBC's survey can been seen as an extension of this work.
I do wonder what's prompted the BBC to get involved. The broadcaster is a major provider of digital content — its iPlayer TV catch-up service accounts for a significant proportion of Internet traffic in the UK — but it has little control over this distribution medium. It holds spectrum licences for broadcast frequencies, and it's part of a consortium looking at the use of "white space" spectrum for mobile networks. But currently the BBC's at the mercy of Internet service providers and telecom companies when it comes to distribution of its content over the Internet. Indeed, it's come under fire for using Internet infrastructure without contributing to its upkeep. Critics claim that iPlayer can clog up a network to the detriment of other users. As more and more Internet traffic shifts to bandwidth-constrained mobile networks, the arguments can only get more heated.
Perhaps the survey will find, among other things, that the problem isn't simply one of bandwidth. Of course, signal strength and bandwidth are related functions in the complex calculations of network coverage, but if your local base-station isn't providing a 3G signal, the amount of bandwidth you need for streaming video becomes largely irrelevant.
I'm looking forward to the results of the survey. It may reveal some uncomfortable truths about 3G coverage in the UK, and even push some providers to speed up plans to improve their networks.