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BBC crowdsourced mobile map: A bit quirky, but useful

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The Beeb has released its long-expected crowdsourced map of UK mobile coverage.

Altogether 44,600 volunteers have been running Epitiro's Android-based connection monitor, at the BBC's behest, contributing a mass of data showing where the client thought it got a decent connection.

That data has been put together into an interactive map, allowing anyone to type in a postcode and find out the local coverage across all the UK's network operators, though a quick glance at the data seems to indicate that Epitiro's software is a little optimistic at times.

In general the data replicates that which can be found on the network operator's own coverage maps, though it's a lot easier to search this way, but the BBC's map also sports optimistic spots of 3G coverage. These turn up in the Highlands of Scotland, and equally remote locations, bereft of the infrastructure needed to get a 3G signal.

Scrolling around the BBC map, one is struck by the dearth of locations where no signal at all is reported, as opposed to areas from which no report is available (which make up the vast majority of blank spaces on the interactive map).

But such problems are endemic to cloud-sourced data, which relies on the random movements of self-selecting volunteers rather than a methodical analysis.

The occasional 3G blip can be attributed to Epitiro's software or the Android system itself failing to report the kind of connection being used. Epitiro told us it has already filtered out femtocells and other obvious explanations and would have to look into it, but if you see a single square of 3G surrounded by 2G, or nothing at all, then it's probably best not to drive over there expecting a faster connection speed.

Epitiro do have something of a monopoly on public network monitoring, providing the data for Ofcom's comprehensive analysis of 3G connection speeds as well as earlier studies of the subject, though this is the first time the company has created a coverage map.

Ofcom recently did some coverage checking down in Devon, and discovered that the operator's own data (which is generally calculated rather than tested) was largely accurate.

Ofcom also said it hoped someone would amalgamate the operators' data to provide a cross-network map, but at the time we said no operator would voluntarily agree to share its full data. The operators' calculations are based on the locations, frequency and transmitter power of their base stations - information which is supposed to be public knowledge but in fact is still being withheld by Everything Everywhere. The company argues that we don't need to know and is taking the fight to Europe.

The Mobile Operators Association recommends we can ask our local authorities, but when we tried that we had very mixed results and the information never included transmission power or frequency. Ofcom could put the data together, but it's worth noting that it was the regulator who first fought against a Freedom of Information request asking for a machine-readable database of its collated Sitefinder data, which request prompted EE's boycott of the service.

The BBC deserves credit for finding a way around those problems, to put the data together and produce a useful tool showing general levels of coverage around the country – just be sure to read it with some caution. ®

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