Speaking Engagements & Private Workshops - Get Dean Bubley to present or chair your event

Need an experienced, provocative & influential telecoms keynote speaker, moderator/chair or workshop facilitator?
To discuss Dean Bubley's appearance at a specific event, contact information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

I want to report a 3G coverage problem - how difficult can it be?

Various emerging business models demand good, reliable, near-ubiquitous mobile data coverage, especially in dense urban areas. We hear a lot about congestion, but rather less about the more basic problems of getting a signal. Whether it's a "not-spot" because of buildings, poor setup of the antennas, inability to site a base station, a recurring equipment fault or just some other RF weirdness, gaps and other coverage-free zones are going to be an increasing problem.

In particular, cloud-based services are going to be very sensitive to the quality of a given operator's network. It's bad enough losing access to the web and email in certain locations - think how much more problematic it would be for critical business processes dependent on hosted applications, used via mobile devices.

Because of this, you'd expect that operators would want to get prompt feedback from their customers about any real-world problems they've missed. Surely in this area of their business, they'd recognise that overall "quality of experience" is best monitored and reported by the end-user, not simply deduced and inferred from boxes & probes and software in the network.

Well, that's certainly not the case for Vodafone UK. Over the last year I've been on its network for my main phone, I've noticed quite a lot of coverage gaps and holes around central London. Sometimes I get bumped down to 2G, sometimes nothing at all. And some of those gaps are in absolutely predictable and consistent physical locations - I've encountered them repeatedly, at different times of day, to the extent that I can even plan my usage around them on certain trips around town. To me, this suggests that congestion and capacity isn't the problem - it's plain and simple coverage.

I've put them on this personalised Google Map - http://goo.gl/maps/hTv3 - both are near Regents Park and Camden in London. One is right in between two of the busiest train stations in the country - Euston  and Kings Cross, right outside the British Library and near the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras.

In the big scheme of things, the two most obvious gaps are not a huge problem for me. Given my typical travel patterns around London, I probably lose 2 mins of mobile data access a week, usually when I'm on a couple of specific bus routes and using my phone for a mix of email, personal apps and so forth. But they contribute to my sense that Vodafone's London network isn't that great - especially as the company hasn't detected and fixed the (very consistent) problems proactively using whatever "service assurance" tools it presumably has at its disposal.

So I decided to report the issue.

I've heard good things about the @vodafoneUK Twitter team, so I thought I'd try that route rather than calling customer service on the phone, especially as I was reporting outdoor locations without knowing the postcodes. The @vodafoneUK team pointed me towards the VFUK online e-forums, rather than (say) giving me a direct phone line or email address to report coverage issues.

Already feeling like this was a lot of work, I nevertheless proceeded to register for the eforum (which needs a different login to other VF services, naturally), read through their harsh instructions to search for pre-existing forum posts that might cover the problem already. Then I had to go to the coverage-checker engine to see if there were any existing problems reported - which meant that I had to use Google to find two appropriate post-codes to enter, as you can't just click on the map.

Both inquries gave the response "Important service information - we're working on correcting a network problem that may affect the performance of your device"

Given that both problems have been ongoing for months, I didn't have too much confidence in this being accurate, so I put this post up on the eforum. Nothing too controversial, just a quick note to tell Voda they've got some issues. I gave a link to this blog so that their support people would know I'm not just an "average user" but have some knowledge of the industry.

The first response almost beggars belief "Now I'm not saying there isn't a problem, but the investigation I've just done points to this at the moment." . Yes, that's right, I spend all day signing up for forums and posting messages about non-existing problems. I've got nothing better to do. And your "open cases" support system is obviously better than a real-world customer with a real-world device, reporting on a real-world problem. Unreal.

Somehow, I remain civil, writing another post pointing out that yes, these issues are still real. And give some hints on how the VF engineers might replicate them if they want to do tests.

The next reply takes the biscuit: "If you can provide 3 examples of these drops  for every area you experience these in then I will definitely raise this case.". Coupled with a request by email (with a spam-tastic "Customer Service" as sender and "No subject") for my information. So if I wanted to "raise a case", I had to send through not just my phone number, but also full name (OK), and also "for security" - two digits of my VF security code (!!! very secure via email), my address (irrelevant to the question and they know this from my number), and my date of birth.

Because "security" is always important when reporting network problems.... perhaps I am some evil-doer wanting to do a "denial of service" attack on their radio engineers' time by submitting fake faults?

Oh and then the email asks for a few more details, copy-and-paste from some stupid template (possibly the wrong one too, voice not data):
  • Fault description: (please detail the exact nature of the fault)
  • Tests performed (Manual roam SIM in different handset)
  • Date issue started:
  • Device make an model:
  • Results of trying SIM in another handset:
  • IMEI number of the handset:
  • Postcode of location:
  • How far do you have to travel to get signal?
  • Address of issue:
  • Error tone/wording:
  • Numbers effected (Please provide 3 failures, including Number called, date, time and location when call made/received):
As you can understand, I decided that a more profitable use of my time was to write this blog post instead. I'm shaking my head in disbelief about how hard it is to report an important - but simple - problem. Without basic coverage, a whole host of future business models are rendered useless. The idea, for example, of getting media companies or Internet firms to pay for "priority delivery" for 3G data, or some other sort of non-neutral network approach, is totally contingent upon delivering a reliable service.

So just to spice things up a bit more, I've also reported some other holes.... in the road.... to my local council, Westminster. I pay them about the same per month as I pay Vodafone. The road in question is less than a mile from the other sites mentioned. Let's see which one has better processes & more efficient engineering. The Council has a head start, as they have a simple page to report problems, including doing it via street name (not postcode) or "pinpoint on a map". Asks for details, gives a reference number, sends an email acknowledgement. Not a complex customer interface, but about 10x better than a supposedly customer-centric phone company worried about churn.

So - it's definitely easier to report holes in the road, than holes in the air. Let's see if it's quicker to get them fixed too.


Hugh said...

Good work fella! Tempted to have a similar crack at the hole in 3's coverage at my parent's house. I stops me going round there.

AdrianB said...

Very interesting post. Although the link to Westminsiter council doesn't work any longer, which sort of undermines the punchline!

Dean Bubley said...


Westminster link updated.

AdrianB said...

Not a problem. I should now note that the process of submitting a performance issue to Disruptive Wireless was incredibly easy and met with very rapid fault resolution.

Anonymous said...

The forum staff are normally better than most so you might have been unlucky. Ironically the standard response to this is to use their coverage map feedback tool which is what you wanted all along (above the zoom buttons click on the speech bubble, pinpoint the cross on the map and the feedback box will open).

Eelco said...

AT&T has an iPhone app for reporting problems like this. Their research site features an interesting article about how they use it to improve their services. In The Netherlands, T Mobile, has actually teamed up with dissatisfied customers who created an iPhone app to report coverage issues.

I wonder why not more operators use this kind of 'crowd sourcing' apps to improve their services.

Dean Bubley said...

I'm wondering if the ridiculous hassle involved in reporting & fixing a very simple problem is because Vodafone UK has outsourced maintenance & operations of its 3G network (to Ericsson)


... hence maybe explains all the unnecessary info needed to "raise a case" rather than just use some initiative and deal with it, you know, by maybe sending an engineer out to have a look.

Probably some labyrinthine process defined in fusty contractspeak that must be adhered to.

Another example of the threat to operators from "under the floor players" such as outsourcers, perhaps.

Fazal Majid said...

AT&T has an iPhone app called "Mark the Spot" to do just that. Of course, their lousy network is in dire need of improvement, and I seriously doubt anyone reads the reports at a company with such a track record of starving its network of investment while milking it for profit.

Ideally telemetry functionality should be built right into the baseband software stack, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Anonymous said...

Well at least they seem to have understood your issue, even if they have an obstructive way of dealing with it. When I left VFUK last year the chap from their retentions department asked me why I was leaving and I explained that there was a network dropout between my home and my place of work that in the past hadn't been a problem but had recently become more of an issue for me so I was changing networks.

He then tried sell me their Sure Signal Femtocell thingy as a resolution...!

fivebuckchuck said...


On a lighter note. Hope you are not planning to pull a this


on VF :-)

Gabriel Brown said...

Dean, since you've got the process worked out could you report a few for me?

More seriously, 900 MHz re-farming should help a lot.

Dean Bubley said...

Gabriel - yes, I hope that 900MHz will help, although it's not obvious if they'll use it in urban areas as an "underlay", as well as rural.

The AT&T apps sounds cool, and someone also mentioned KPN, and the OpenSignalMaps initiative someone talked about on Twitter. Also solutions like CarrierIQ which use phones as probes & report back to the operator.

els76uk said...

interesting, thx for posting.

i came to the conclusion that mobile phone companies don't really care about user reports after trying to report gaps in coverage to orange some time ago. i gave up after a while, when they insisted there were no problems with their transmitters and that i was in a good signal area.

they companies employ people to drive round in cars, checking coverage using a laptop computer, and presumably they rely solely on that to make any changes - or not - to their network.

i know this because i met someone whose job it was to drive round checking coverage. i never asked him what they do when they find gaps, though. i kind of assumed it meant they'd fill it it. but maybe they just prefer to look at things on a bigger scale - maybe average it over the entire city, or country? </sarcasm>

Dan said...

I'm sick of getting poor customer service from mobile operators. I never hear a good story about any of them. You'd have thought that with the market being so competitive, they would try to keep their customers happy to retain them.
I'd imagine Vodafone are going to put Femtocells in the black spots fairly shortly as well as the tube. This will only improve things for you though as only Vodafone users can connect to one. So if it's a black spot for other networks then you'll have an advantage.