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Mobile network operators face a steep challenge when it comes to turning visions of offering ubiquitous coverage into reality. Many have turned to ‘infill projects’ to connect mobile ‘not spots’ in pursuit of this goal either through strategic small cell deployments, primarily in urban areas, or new macro sites for larger rural areas, sometimes leveraging alternative mobile backhaul solutions. Connecting the hard to reach is a big priority for government and industry alike. This has led to recent industry chatter on satellite connectivity as a backhaul solution to connect phones to constellations in the sky rather than towers and cells on the ground.
Focusing on solutions, however, risks slipping into a “silver bullet” style of thinking that is too many steps ahead of the reality today. Without the right data and insights, mobile connectivity ‘not spots’ will continue to occur, and operators risk missing or not fully understanding their severity.
Government backed efforts to connect rural communities
Governments across the world are looking to encourage ‘infill projects’ to connect rural areas to stronger mobile signals. Stamping out coverage ‘not spots’ holds big upsides, including increased economic productivity and narrowing divides between cities and smaller towns and villages. In the UK, the government is working with the nation’s leading mobile network operators to build the Shared Rural Network (SRN) to improve mobile coverage across the country. The new masts and upgrades to existing network infrastructure under the program, funded by the industry, ultimately aim for each 4G network run by one of the four major UK operators to cover 90% of the country’s land mass by early 2027. Similar initiatives that shepherd network investment towards rural areas are in place in nations across the world – including the U.S. and New Zealand
A focus on addressing rural connectivity issues is yielding results. Off the back of the Shared Rural Network already mentioned, the UK’s Ofcom regulator recently reported that the nation’s four major mobile network operators estimate that they provide 4G outdoor coverage to 99% of premises and cover up to 80 to 87% of the country’s landmass – an improvement on the landmass coverage reported in the previous year (79-86%).
Beyond conventional deployments and upgrades, mobile network operators are also looking to innovative applications of bespoke technology to connect the most remote of locations. Satellite connectivity was a popular topic at this February’s Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona. The success of satellite internet access services, like Starlink, hasn’t passed operators or regulators unnoticed. They widely acknowledge that fixed wireless and mobile networks can’t reach every corner of a nation’s landmass.
Widespread increases in geographical coverage, however, don’t mean that operators can rest on their laurels. Global 5G network rollouts operate over a greater range of spectrum bands than previous generations of mobile network technology, leading to more possible variations in 5G performance. This matters because consumers paying a premium to their network operator for a 5G subscription package are more sensitive to any drops in performance. Consumer use cases of mobile networks are also shifting. An area may be covered adequately enough to send a text message, but may simultaneously be unable to support the download of a large file or participation in a group video call. Providing ubiquitous coverage, then, is nuanced.
Unintended consequences from an inaccurate view
The success of plans to improve network coverage in rural areas depends totally on the geographical deployment of solutions. Operators need to target real ‘not spots’. This is critical to taking a proactive approach when addressing connectivity gaps, rather than perpetuating a vicious cycle of acting reactively to network issues only after they materialize, negatively impacting their subscribers. This risks reducing customer usage and perceived dependability while raising the threat of churn.
A good way for telcos to do this is by uncoupling theory from reality – the potential coverage range of a mobile base station, for example, can differ from the coverage that the station actually delivers. To put it in practical terms, the coverage that’s understood to support modern use cases with ease, like video streaming, can fall flat for customers in reality. A facetime call requires more bandwidth than a voice call; poor latency issues are less
noticeable when texting than with other subscriber behaviors. Obvious disconnects can emerge between an operator’s own coverage reporting and the lived customer experience. As a general rule, poor signal strength or poor signal quality will impact what applications work well enough to effectively use.
These disconnects will only grow as the adoption of 5G scales and network use cases that require low latency proliferate. Mobile network operators must possess a clear picture of their network’s true performance as it is experienced by customers. If an operator measures their network on its potential capacity, neglecting more unpredictable factors like peaks and troughs of consumer demand or weather conditions, they end up with network maps that are relative guides rather than absolutes. These maps can result in the deployment of infrastructure and upgrades that fail to accurately prioritize and meet essential customer needs. The negative consequences of inaccurate maps also go wider. In the customer contact center, interactions between agents and customers can quickly sour when agents aren’t equipped with an accurate view of the network issues that the customer is experiencing.
Correcting the course
Operator coverage maps, although a useful guide, cannot guarantee the availability of mobile services in any particular place. They do, however, remain vital to accurately prioritize network improvements. The point is that the right data needs to be fed into the maps, rather than doing away with them. Ground truth data from actual consumer devices also can be leveraged to improve propagation modeling as new infrastructure is planned.
To guide and prioritize network rollouts, operators must look beyond their own data to properly inform themselves about the lived experience of network users. Combined, consumer-initiated testing and crowdsourced mobile network performance information provide an unparalleled amount of data on the performance, coverage, and quality of a network’s performance as consumers feel it.
These are the type of data inputs needed to help operators accurately assess their networks. Beyond that, operators that are customer centric via effective troubleshooting solutions, customer care operations and channels of communication are best placed to keep in step with customers’ needs and requirements as networks continue to evolve.
Aiming to deliver ubiquitous coverage is a noble cause, but MNOs shouldn’t lose sight of their customers’ anticipated experience in the process. Harnessing the right data (from radio frequency measurement to crowd and controlled testing to mobile and fixed data and user insights) puts operators in the best position to capitalize on the great opportunities offered by next generation networks while keeping new and existing customers onside.