We've all experienced the frustration of poor signal levels but for those who live in rural areas in the UK, this can be a very common problem that greatly impacts people's quality of life. Many houses and office buildings, for example, consistently have no coverage indoors or only coverage from a single service provider, reducing the choices for consumers drastically.
Ofcom’s latest coverage analysis takes urban and rural as source data whereby signal penetration rate is much higher in dense urban or residential clusters that significant population is living in such big cities. It seems they are not part of the report.
Reality vs Management KPIs! – Not the Same Story
A massive amount of effort goes into measuring and calculating coverage, signal strength and quality across the country during network design and planning stages. Mobile measurement companies are constantly performing the test by walking and driving around with multiple phones or measurement devices to scan the signal strength up and down the country throughout the year. All of these are reported to service providers for them to analyse and improve their services. There is also an Ofcom mandate to publish coverage statuses on service providers web sites.
The carriers publicly report in line with the Ofcom requirements but instead of helping consumers make better choices, these only frustrate people more. The reality of signal strength can be very different to what is reported on a carriers web site. It's better to ask the neighbours instead of relying on the reported signal strengths next time you make a carrier choice.
To be fair to the carriers, tens of factors contribute to the signal strength at any given time, such as the high cost of base station rental, antenna capabilities, bandwidth limitations, and the equipment vendor’s available features. Even when they have all these under control, they may have issues with infrastructure that cause problems. But these reasons don't change the fact that reliable and seamless coverage across 3-4-5G is still an issue in the UK despite all the efforts.
A Common Cause – Site Geo-Location and Structural Data
A main reason for the discrepancies is the reliability of site data used when designing and surveying the networks. Carriers use specific site data while planning and optimising their network. The most essential three of these are the exact coordinates of the base stations, the height of an antenna, and the antenna's azimuth angles.
Collected survey data is not transferring precisely to the digital map and the planning tool. Therefore, when radio planners add a new site to their network, the created or modernised site does not have the correct inputs due to incorrect coordinates, heights and azimuths. It leads to a wrong site footprint prediction, and eventually, the nation's coverage map does not reflect the actual coverage.
Imagine trying to sail with a broken compass or not knowing your starting position on a map. It is quite similar when telco engineers think their antenna is directed at a certain area, but it points to a slightly different direction in reality. It is mainly due to site location is deviated from the original location when site acquisition finds a suitable place for installation rather than what site surveyor surveyed in the first place.
Why Not Just Fix-It?
You may already be thinking: why don’t some people just simply walk up to these towers and double-check their key parameters and statuses? You are right, and they actually do. However, this is not as simple as it sounds.
Many towers are placed in hard to access areas such as private property or sometimes in the middle of nowhere with no proper access roads. If the engineers can make it there, in many cases, they need to deal with issues around the towers, such as overgrown plants.
The actual work doesn’t yet start, even after they are past all these hurdles. They need specialist training and equipment to be able to climb the towers, or they need to rely on less accurate measurement methods to do what they can from the ground. Now multiply this with 1000s of sites for multiple carriers, and you can see the scale of the problem. This is why it’s not an easy problem to correct quickly.
A Better Way – Drone Based Site Surveys
An alternative is to use autonomous drones that can be programmed with a “mission” to fly over to a tower and make precise measurements. It will be much more accessible to reach antennas, and much more accurate measurements can be taken by using trained drones. Advanced image processing allows drones to take photos of the structures and use machine learning techniques to analyse structural damage issues.
The latest 3D modelling and Lidar technologies are also supporting such cases where the solutions are much more cost-efficient and time-saver. There would not be required highly trained, non-standard and expensive H&S regulation anymore. A drone’s safe flight will complete the mission autonomously with higher accurate output to find and fix the coverage holes that lead to increase customer satisfaction.
What are we doing to help?
3Cell UK is one of the few companies globally that are focusing on drone uses cases with years of telco background. We collaborate with the University of Westminister, the University of Oviedo and Mississippi State University to research and develop on GNSS system, autonomous drone architecture and sensor data to go through difficulties and solutions academically. 3Cell offering end-to-end technical solutions, including a 3D site survey, coverage assessment, antenna blocking points and radio network consultation. 3Cell UK is partnering with Innovation Martlesham and Cambridge Wireless; we are ready to improve the end-user experience for mobile telecom users.