Have you ever experienced connection anxiety? You know what I mean - that weird pain at the bottom of your stomach if you’re phone isn’t connected getting any mobile coverage from your network. What’s going on? What if someone needs to contact me? How can I Instagram my lunch? I can’t be the only one who gets it, can I? “No Signal” can feel like the most frustrating thing in the world - especially when your mate who’s on a different network is Periscoping your pain in real time over 4G.
But keeping a modern phone network running can be tricky business. The big networks all spend millions of pounds every year keeping their networks live and trying to keep your mobile coverage consistent, and are constantly in the process of expanding even further. And to be fair, they’re usually pretty good at it too - which is why it is a little embarrassing when the Business Secretary calls them out on it when things go wrong.
And this got us wondering: What actually happens when the phone networks go down? And how are the networks maintained? And is there any hope that signal and coverage will get better in the future? I had a chat with some of the major networks to find out.
Finding and Fixing Mobile Network Blackspots and Outages
When it comes to keeping watch on our phones, for all of the phone companies, everything begins at the network operations centre that monitors the traffic in real time. Imagine the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, but more concerned with calls than Klingons. It is from here that faults can be spotted. For example, Vodafone’s spokesperson told me how they have a number of different alarms setup, such as monitoring the number of dropped calls and how many calls have been setup correctly. This data can be used to spot patterns because if a lot of calls are dropping, there’s clearly something that will have gone wrong. Chances are that by the time you’ve sent a passive-aggressive tweet to your network’s Twitter account to report the problem, the network is already aware of it.
So what about fixing faults? Obviously causes can vary but a lot of the time it is simply a case of remotely rebooting the phone mast – which is a quick fix, but if engineers have to be sent out, it can take a lot longer, depending on geography. For example, whilst getting a mast in central London fixed can be pretty straightforward, getting engineers to far-flung parts of the Scottish highlands is more difficult.
What can add complications is getting access to the masts. You may have noticed that Britain isn’t full of too many large, freestanding transmitters, because masts are in many cases located on existing buildings. If a mast is on top of a tower block, it may not be accessible in the middle of the night, and the network may have to negotiate with whoever owns to building to gain access to make emergency repairs. So reactive maintenance can be hard work.
Ideally though, phone companies will instead plan ahead and manage the traffic on their networks – basically playing at being a traffic cop, waving through the data to keep it flowing, routing traffic in a different direction if there is a problem. Vodafone told me that when its network gets congested, it can setup different network “rules”. For example, shifting all call traffic on to 2G instead of 3G, or forcing text messages to use only spare bandwidth on the 3G spectrum. Apparently this is set to get even smarter with the advent of Voice-Over-4G (VoLTE) later this year. This is a newish technology that will enable voice calls to be handled over 4G, which means higher quality phone call audio for the first time ever (think Skype quality). But one added benefit will be that it will give the networks more flexibility over how to direct voice and other traffic, meaning that networks should hopefully become even more reliable.
The networks are also pretty hands-on when it comes to pre-empting capacity. If there’s a big sporting event, or something like Glastonbury, extra temporary transmitters will be setup. Vodafone told me that in order to keep mobile traffic flowing in Central London on New Year’s Eve when hundreds of thousands of people all swamp Westminster to watch Big Ben and the Fireworks, the network spends about a month before hand setting up temporary portacabins containing extra transmitters in order to boost capacity. O2 on the other hand apparently has a team of engineers who drive a combined 250,000 miles every year travelling around to test signal strength and capacity, to make sure their network is well prepared.
Improving Low-Signal Areas
So that’s what happens when there are temporary outages, but what about in areas where the outage is more-or-less constant. Will things ever get better for people living in less densely populated areas?
Broadly speaking, the phone networks are pretty good at coverage. From the annoyingly slightly-too-different-to-directly-compare numbers I was sent, EE's 4G coverage today apparently covers more than 87 per cent of the UK population, with Vodafone on 71 per cent and O2 meanwhile giving its 4G figure as 68 per cent of the population – when outdoors. What’s crucial with all of these numbers is that they’re for the population, rather than geographic area, meaning that while densely populated cities are fine, there are still swathes of countryside that remain lacking.
The good news is that the government is making the phone networks make things better. It is dishing out £150m in funding to all of the networks as part of the “mobile infrastructure project” to help deliver improved mobile coverage and services to rural and remote communities. It is also requiring that voice coverage reach 90 per cent of not just the population, but the actual physical British mainland by the end of 2017 too. So if you go for a hike in the Lake District, you could soon be able to Vine the moment you plant your flag in the top of the mountain.
An O2 spokesperson described to me how the company decides how it prioritises network expansions: “Roll out is driven by population coverage. We start in cities then suburbs and rural areas. [...] We have committed to achieve our target of 98 per cent UK population coverage (indoor) by the end of 2017 – the only operator to have made that commitment to Ofcom.” It's still worth reporting any blackspots though, however remote, as these could start to be wiped out as the mobile infrastructure project kicks into gear. It also gives the network a clearer idea of what areas really do need some extra support, too.
The operators are also trying different tricks to broaden coverage wherever possible. O2 also has its “TuGo” app, which lets you make calls to and from your O2 number over wifi, and Vodafone has a hardware add-on called “Sure Signal”, which plugs into your broadband router and creates a 3G signal which up to eight people can connect to at once.
Interestingly, Vodafone is also rolling this latter technology out to cover whole villages, with “open sure signal” being a super-sized version of the device mounted on the roof of a building, which uses the broadband connection in the property to connect people in the rural community to the network over 3G. EE meanwhile has been trialling a mesh network technology that gets around needing to build a physical link between mobile phone masts. Instead, this involves building what is effectively a large aerial in a village that is powerful enough to connect to a transmitter much further away, a relaying the phone signal to the less powerful handsets in our pockets.
If these new technologies work out, it seems the biggest obstacle - and one that it perhaps bigger than you might think - is that in some cases rural communities don’t want phone signal. Vodafone told me how it has experienced communities where they’ve said that they’re happy with limited signal, and don’t want a mast going up in their town. Needless to say, here at metropolitan Gizmodo UK, we’re pretty baffled by this.
But a few NIMBYs aside, things are looking good, despite the huge complexity of keeping the networks running. Having looked into this, it gives me hope that we’ll soon see more bright-spots than black-spots in our phone coverage, provided we're patient and diligently reporting the areas where our network providers are currently letting us down. If we’re lucky, we’ll tackle my connection anxiety, not through psychological or therapeutic efforts to address a constant need for attention, but instead via the massive expense of building the infrastructure that will mean I’ll never be disconnected again.