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Ofcom tarts up telco report with pretty coverage maps

All show, but where's the detail?

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Ofcom has published the first of its triennial reports on the UK's communications infrastructure, but more importantly there are pretty maps too.

The regulator is required to provide a detailed study of the UK's telecommunications to the Ministry of Fun every three years. The report is supposed to include details of what services are available to what proportion of the population, and how reliable those services are. But it's much more fun to present interactive maps, even if the resolution is low to the point of uselessness - one shows services that don’t exist and another hasn't been accurate since 2007.

The new maps show mobile coverage and broadband, along with DAB, and Ofcom has bundled them together with its existing maps of fixed broadband, local TV and cellular base station coverage. All are mashed up with Google Maps and allow users to click on a county to see the average service availability in that area.

So none of these maps will tell you if you can receive any of the services offered, only the average penetration within the county within which you live.

Not that the Local TV or Sitefinder services will tell you even that. The Local TV map shows locations where someone might decide to set up a local television station at some point in the future, while the Sitefinder database, which purports to show the location of every mobile transmitter in the UK, has been boycotted by Everything Everywhere since 2007 (as T-Mobile) so can't be relied upon at all.

Ofcom admits this, in its report, right there in footnote 45 on page 29: "not all operators have provided their most up to date information on base station locations", but it is hardly drawing attention to the deficiency.

The report itself (PDF, dull but thorough) is largely made up of background - if you don't know the difference between GPON and ADSL then there's some useful stuff there – but Ofcom wasn't able to compile statistics on network down-time (which it intended to do in order to estimate resilience) as the regulator decided that would be too hard.

Operators measure network outages differently, and the operators argued that they couldn't estimate how many mobile customers were impacted by a network failure as one can't guess what would have happened if the network hadn't failed. Partial failure was hard to quantify, and lots of outages only lasted a few minutes or didn't warrant reporting, apparently.

Ofcom did manage to establish that the most common cause of outage was power failure (accounting for more than half of the reports), and that malicious attack, such as theft or vandalism, accounted for less than 5 per cent. Ofcom reckons the actual figure is higher, as some "hardware failure" might be attributable to hardware nicked from a subcontracted company which doesn't admit it, but that sounds like tilting at windmills to us.

There are some interesting titbits: the average broadband customer now downloads 17GB of data a month; 72 per cent of mobile calls are still made on 2G networks (except on Three, which doesn't have a 2G network); and the diagram showing who provides broadband connectivity is instructive in reminding us just how powerful BT is in this country.

Diagram showing who owns UK broadband infrastructure

CP is the communications provider reselling BT connectivity, but the near monopoly remains

But in general the report, and accompanying maps, have little to add. Ofcom reckons this is a baseline against which future reports can be compared, to detect underlying trends, but we'll have to wait until 2014 to find out if it works out like that. ®

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