The UK regulator has finally released nationwide maps of the 3G coverage available, and it will come as no surprise that anyone planning to take a dongle to the Highlands will be out of luck.
It's not just the Highlands though, users will struggle anywhere with an interesting landscape - the maps overlap well with topographical features. The exception is the lack of coverage in Norfolk, which has no topography as such*.
The release of the maps (pdf) comes despite Ofcom's response to a Freedom of Information request, lodged by Simon Fluendy, that the regulator didn't have such a thing. Apparently they found one under a sofa or something, and now we can all see how much 3G coverage each operator has.
The same information is, of course, already available on the companies' web sites, but it's interesting to see the bigger picture. 3 clearly has the best coverage, even extending north of Inverness as long as one stays near the coast (where the oil rigs, and their associated workforce, hang out). O2 probably has the least coverage, followed closely by Vodafone, with T-Mobile not covering much more of the country. Orange is in the middle, but wins the competition for the most northerly 3G with apparent coverage somewhere around Fresgoe, though we didn't manage to confirm that with Orange.
Simon's request also asked for 2G coverage maps, but Ofcom still can't seem to find those, though it has highlighted the problem of persistent 2G not-spots in its latest Mostly Mobile analysis of the industry (pdf).
With characteristic insight, Ofcom has identified that the lack of 3G and 2G coverage is particularly acute in Wales and Scotland, as well as the hilly parts of Northern Ireland. It also perceptively suggests the hills may play a part in limiting coverage, though even Ofcom noticed that population density is clearly the real problem here: "For 3G network coverage there is still a noticeable difference between rural and urban areas, and also between different parts of the UK".
Ofcom is hoping that network sharing will help, pointing out that the T-Mobile/3 network share should increase coverage while reducing site numbers, but even Ofcom can't help but be sceptical of Vodafone's assertion that its shared-air-conditioning deal with O2 will "help improve service quality and deliver services such as mobile broadband to a wider population". The regulator does have high hopes for Femtocells, as well as some intra-country roaming where there is limited coverage.
How to get operators to build network where there aren't enough people to make it viable is a taxing question, and one that Ofcom ducks with the promise of more consultation: "We will be undertaking research looking at the causes of mobile not-spots as well as issues with network quality. Our aim is to increase the understanding of all stakeholders of the issues and their underlying causes." ®
* Yes, Norwich castle is on a hill, but you built it yourselves and you're not fooling anyone.