In April 2016, EE announced its intention to move from a population-based measure of its network coverage to a measure based on the geographical area covered by its network. Today, EE called on Ofcom and the other mobile operators to move from population to geography as the standard basis for network coverage figures. EE also called for a standardized method of network quality measurement, run by Ofcom and jointly funded by the four network operators; and for Ofcom to assess and publish the relative quality of 4G experience delivered by different smartphone models. EE intends to adopt geographic coverage whether or not the other operators follow suit, and it intends to publish figures regularly broken down by county, and by major road.
We applaud the proposition that the mobile industry as a whole should adopt geography rather than population to measure network coverage. Since on-the-move use of smartphones and tablets is increasingly important, both for consumers and for business users, it is especially welcome to see that EE will break out the major road networks in its geographic coverage figures. It’s a pity that the railway network will not be broken out too; although we do appreciate the extra difficulties involved in railway coverage, and we note that EE intends to include railway coverage figures at a later date.
Objectively speaking, there is a strong case for measuring coverage by geography instead of by population. When mobile phones were mostly used for making calls, population coverage was a useful metric because most calls were made and received at home. But now, phones are primarily used for data applications, and at home, that mostly takes place over wifi. That means mobile network availability is at its most important when the user is away from home, so geographic coverage is a better indication of service expectation now that data/internet sessions account for most smartphone usage.
But the other UK operators’ responses to EE’s proposals are unlikely to be entirely objective. There’s likely to be some suspicion that EE is motivated at least in part by self-interest. For a long time, EE enjoyed a big lead over the other operators in its 4G coverage, owing to its year-long headstart for 4G network rollout. But the other operators have been rolling out 4G for three years now, and EE’s lead in population coverage is narrower than it used to be. In that context, EE’s proposal to move to geographic coverage might be seen by the other operators as an attempt to widen the gap again, between EE’s coverage figures and those of its competitors.
Moreover, there could be a significant incentive for the other operators not to replace population coverage with geographic coverage, arising from the fact that EE will make that change regardless of whether or not the other operators follow suit. At present, following the switch-on of its 800MHz spectrum, EE’s 4G geographic coverage stands at 74%. If the other operators stick with population coverage, they will be able to cite coverage figures around the 90% mark. EE will doubtless make substantial efforts to communicate the advantages of measuring coverage by geography, rather than population, but it is uncertain how well the mass market will grasp the distinction. If many people continue to compare operators simply on figures for “coverage”, EE could end up at a disadvantage.
Regarding EE’s proposals for a more standardized assessment of network quality: there is less scope here for accusations of self-interest, since EE already does well in the network tests carried out by bodies such as Root Metrics and Open Signal. On the other hand, there’s no scope for unilateral action by EE. Standardised assessment can only be achieved if the other operators and Ofcom are all on board. Here, the devil will be in the detail. If the other operators do take up these proposals, there will be a lot of quibbling over scope, content and methodology. It could happen, but it will be problematic. More problematic still would be EE’s proposal that Ofcom should assess the comparative merits of different smartphone models regarding the quality of 4G experience they deliver. By doing so, Ofcom would be giving a de facto endorsement of certain vendors’ products. This would be a significant change in the role performed by Ofcom, and one which we are doubtful it would be prepared to undertake.
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