Confused by signal? You're not alone. We took some journalists down to Bournemouth, to explain how the network works in one of our 'unbeatable cities'...

If you browse the pages of Vodafone Social, you’ll see that we’re are really pushing the boundaries on all fronts to bring you exciting new services and technology. We’re creating fantastic new phones and enticing 4G entertainment bundles, not to mention unveiling Vodafone Connect – our new home broadband service.

 

Making coverage inconspicuous
Vodafone’s new bird box antenna brings cell coverage to the countryside…
Click here for the full story.

 

But at the heart of all of that is our network. It’s the core of everything we do, so it will always be our number one priority; over the last 24 months, we’ve invested approximately £2 billion on our journey to delivering our strong, reliable network to 98% of the UK population.

That investment is really paying dividends, but we’re not content with just talking about it – we want to prove it. So with that in mind, and in the spirit of the British summer, we’ve been on a road trip, taking a group of journalists to Bournemouth in the Vodafone Camper Van to see exactly what makes our network tick…

Gone camping…

In terms of mobile data, Bournemouth is one of the UK’s busiest towns. Our customers in Bournemouth get through just under a terabyte of data every single day – that’s the equivalent of listening to an album on Spotify 34,000 times – with weekly data traffic equating to an incredible 250,000 hours of internet browsing!

Having upgraded to 4G around 70% of our sites across the town, 98% of Bournemouth’s population now has access to our 2G, 3G and 4G networks.

All of this makes Bournemouth one of our ‘unbeatable cities*’ for network coverage, and a benchmark for what we want to bring to other towns across the country, but there’s a lot more going on behind that 98% than meets the eye. Want the inside story? You’re in luck: as we toured the town, visiting locations picked at random – tombola style – by our group of journalists along for the ride, Vodafone UK Network Senior Manager Dr Rob Matthews and Local Network Planner Nick Bedwell were on hand to explain exactly how the network works in different areas.

First stop: Bournemouth International Centre, where Dr Rob led our intrepid team of journalists deep into the building for a demonstration.

“Even though you might have great coverage outside,” he explains, “it works differently indoors. Your signal will lose strength proportionally as it tries to go through the brick, so even if you’re in a good coverage spot, your signal will be weaker if you’re deep inside a building.

“That’s the advantage of the low frequency spectrum that Vodafone uses for 4G signal – it’s far more effective at penetrating buildings than the higher frequencies used by other networks for 4G.”

He wasn’t lying. As we carried on further and further into the centre, Vodafone maintained a signal as the other carriers lost connection. In fact, the only thing that stood in our way was a security guard, who promptly escorted us back to the front door!

“We actually have a 2G indoor site installed inside the centre as well,” Rob points out, “so even if you can’t get a strong 4G signal in here, you can still send text messages and make calls via the 2G network.”

“Just because you can’t get 4G signal somewhere doesn’t mean you’re left high and dry.”

That’s an important point: just because you can’t get 4G signal somewhere doesn’t mean you’re left high and dry. There will be times when you may find your 2G or 3G connection is much stronger than your 4G connection, and 2G and 3G are both capable of supporting voice calls and text messages, while the latter will carry enough data for streaming as well. That was a real eye-opener for many of the group.

“I didn’t really understand how 2G, 3G and 4G were all useful in their own way,” says Jamie Frier from Android Mag. “We think of 4G as being the be-all-and-end-all, but in reality it’s a much smarter system than that – instead of replacing each other, they all work together.”

The next stop was Boscombe Pier, where Vodafone’s network was on excellent form.

“A good rule of thumb is that if you’re within unobstructed sight of a site, you’ll have great signal,” explains Nick, whilst pointing out a nearby rooftop mast. If you’re outdoors in a built-up area like Bournemouth, that is fairly common, and although you might not recognise a mast, there’s often one nearby. And those rooftops are key, because as Rob explains, height is crucial for bringing reliable network coverage to an area:

“Unfortunately, because of a restrictive planning system, we often have to build shorter masts which provide less coverage,” says Rob. “In the UK we have an average mast height of approximately 15 – 20 metres; whereas in Spain and Italy masts are often over 25 metres, which provides coverage for a vastly wider area.

“The chances are that if you don’t have coverage somewhere, we’re probably working on it right now.”

“We can’t always solve the problem with masts,” he continues. “People sometimes don’t want a mast near their home, especially in a protected conservation areas, much covers much of Bournemouth town centre. It can also be difficult to get planning permission for a mast in these areas. So, we have to find alternative ways of getting coverage to an area, where cleverly designed sites, often disguised as flag poles and chimneys may help us get planning permission.

“That all takes time, at the end of the day. But the chances are that if you don’t have coverage somewhere, we’re probably working on it right now.”

“Progress is being made…”

As we finished our tour, and the Vodafone Camper Van took a well-earned break in the shade, the team of roving reporters all felt that they’d picked up something new about why perfect signal is such a holy grail for mobile networks.

“It’s definitely interesting,” says Nirave Gondhia – Technology Reporter at Android Authority. “People should understand that a mobile network is incredibly complex. With various systems in play every time you make a phone call or use the internet, there are many people who won’t understand the processes that take place in a split second.”

“It was really intriguing to learn more about how networks actually work,” said KTPR’s Kate Shaw, who is based in the local area. “It’s good to know that progress is being made within the industry, and that there are continual improvements being made and looked at in these areas.

“I definitely think that phone networks should do more like this to educate people – it’s reassuring to know that Vodafone is working really hard in Bournemouth and focusing their attentions on our town and county. They’re knowledgeable about the areas in Dorset where people have a poor service and signal, and clearly have plans to improve.”

And so ended the debut Vodafone Camper Van tour in the glorious sunshine of Bournemouth. Have you learned a thing or two? Any questions about signal? Let us know in the comments below, and stay tuned for our next trip!

More on 4G and frequencies… If you really want to understand the science behind mobile frequencies and how they make a difference to outdoor and indoor coverage, click here.

*Providing unbeatable indoor and outdoor 4G coverage Coverage assessed by LCC, Dec 2014-Feb 2015. Top parity in 31 of 33 towns and cities measured against key competitors with 4G coverage. Signal thresholds determined by Vodafone’s international standards. See vodafone.co.uk/network. Coverage may vary.