Why is our rural mobile network so patchy?

Why is our rural mobile network so patchy?

If you’ve ever tried to make a mobile phone call in the countryside, you’ll know signal strength is a hit-and-miss affair.

City dwellers tend to assume historic problems of rural mobile network connectivity have been resolved, but that’s not the case.

Indeed, a Parliamentary committee at Westminster recently heard that a lack of network coverage is proving hugely troublesome for the family community.

Ministers were told by the National Farmers’ Union in November that 98 per cent of farmers own a mobile phone, but only 16 per cent receive a reliable signal.

Why are rural mobile networks prone to blackspots?

A number of factors are involved:

Topography. Mobile signals are easily blocked by land masses, with valleys particularly susceptible to not receiving signals broadcast from the top of a hill.

Forests are another leading cause of signal blackspots, making national parks and wooded areas difficult to cover.

Climate. The problems of distributing mobile signals across valleys and wooded areas are clear, but hilltop locations bring challenges, too.

These environments are more prone to fog, rain and storms, all of which may weaken signals. Clouds might also impact on signal strength, though wind shouldn’t be an issue.

Economics. Mobile companies naturally concentrate investment on densely-populated urban areas, ahead of sparsely-populated rural environments.

Scotland is three-fifths the size of England, but only has a tenth of the population. Many Scots live in remote locations, where installing mobile cell towers would be uneconomic.

Distance. A mobile phone tower has a realistic radio wave range of 20 miles, allowing for normal atmospheric conditions and topographical obstacles.

Signal strength declines as distance increases from that tower. It also drops during periods of heavy usage, and an isolated tower may be in consistently high demand.

Network operator. Each of the Big Four mobile networks has constructed its own network of masts and towers, with different signal hotspots and low coverage zones.

The patchy nature of this coverage explains why each operator also publishes signal strength maps, covering calls and 3G/4G services both indoors and outdoors.

Your handset. Phone antenna quality varies from one handset to the next, depending on the materials used, the antenna’s size and location, etc.

It’s best to research signal strength before buying a handset if you live in a remote area, since dropped or missed calls are hugely frustrating.

Being indoors. Metal is the most restrictive material in terms of blocking wireless data transference, but concrete and brick don’t help, either.

A stone-built crofter’s cottage will obviously have a weaker signal indoors than it would do outside, with wall thickness and loft insulation also affecting indoor network coverage.

What else can I do?

We’d recommend downloading Ofcom’s Mobile Checker app, available for Android and iOS devices, to monitor signal availability while you’re out and about.

A desktop utility [https://checker.ofcom.org.uk/mobile-coverage] uses a postcode search tool to identify which of the Big Four networks offers internal and external voice or data services in a specific location.

If you’re planning to visit a remote region, you might need to accept the rural mobile network is patchy, and plan your trip accordingly.

Record a voicemail message apologising for missed or dropped calls, turn on Out Of Office notifications for email accounts, and let people know you may be temporarily unavailable.

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