A US company mapping mobile coverage has jumped the pond – nimbly bypassing the operators – and is now providing detailed UK coverage maps by combining professionally gathered data with cloud-sourced samples.
Root Metrics was set up in 2008 and has been happily plotting US network coverage since then, using researchers with standard handsets and smartphone apps downloaded by volunteers to create a hexagon map of the country showing what's available where. Now the hexagons have spread to Blighty, which the company sees as a staging post into Europe.
The business plan is to make money selling detailed reports to network operators and other interested parties. However the Google-maps-based coverage checker is free to use and shows actual reception of voice, messaging and data services as well as speed and reliability of the connection, and its backhaul.
That's in contrast to the network operators' maps which are calculated on expected reception based on cell sites and local topography, and often infuriatingly wrong as well as failing to register overloaded or badly back-hauled cells.
Root Metrics sends out researchers with standard handsets to measure reception, ensuring a decent spread of indoor and outdoor readings, but also provides iOS and Android apps which automatically or manually test network speed and quality to contribute to the mapping effort. In the US the focus was largely on voice and text, but the ubiquity of such services in the UK has allowed greater focus on the speed of data connections here.
So far only Hull has been properly mapped, but all the UK's major cities are sprouting data points, even if a few of them are slightly suspicious (the Verizon cell in Mayfair, and perhaps the availability of Sprint around the London Film Museum), but that's nitpicking - the vast majority of the data looks accurate.
In Hull it turned out that Three has the best data coverage, which shouldn't be surprising given how much emphasis the UK's smallest operator is putting on data these days, but being able to focus right down to street-corner level makes the maps from Root Metrics a good deal more useful than those from the operator, or the regulator.
Root Metrics will also be doing annual awards on the best network, and plans to start comparing handsets and tariffs in the future, once it's recognised as a decent source of impartial data. The model comes from JD Power and Associates, who fund the collection of customer-survey numbers though the sale of detailed analysis to the industry. Funnily enough, James David Power sits on the advisory board of Root Metrics.
It's not the hippy ideal of crowds freely sharing data between them, but the American operation is sustainable and there's no reason why the same model shouldn't work here – especially as LTE starts rolling out and network operators start shouting numbers which will need to be verified. ®