What to do if you have poor mobile coverage

The arrival of superfast 4G broadband also seems to have heralded a flurry of customer complaints about coverage in general. Here's what to do if you're affected

If you sign a mobile phone contract you might think the relationship is simple: you pay for a service and the mobile network provides it. But what happens when things go wrong? If you can't make calls or texts from your home or work, let alone use the internet on your phone, where do you stand?

Some mobile customers are reporting major network issues, but find that their provider refuses to release them from their contract. Those that cancel anyway are sent a hefty termination fee.

Everything Everywhere (EE), formed when Orange and T-Mobile merged in 2010, appears to be the worst offender. A network "rationalisation" programme meant certain masts from both companies were decommissioned, which has led to coverage problems in some areas.

Customers generally claim they had a good signal with Orange or T-Mobile, but starting experiencing signal problems after the merger. An EE spokesperson says: "There are a number of factors which can cause a customer to experience a signal problem. We can reassure our customers that we investigate every issue reported to us and do all we can to resolve the problem."

All the networks have blackspots somewhere – the key is knowing where they are before you commit to a contract. The Guardian Data Blog asked readers where coverage fell short of acceptable and has mapped the responses.

The arrival of superfast 4G mobile internet services seems to get the blame for many of the outages.

Vodafone and O2 launched their 4G services at the end of August. "The same week that O2 announced the roll out of 4G in Sheffield, my phone stopped receiving 3G internet," says an O2 customer in Sheffield. "Where I have previously been able to stream Sky Go, even at peak times, I can now no longer load mobile-specific web pages in a usable time."

What you can do

Which? says that if you have a poor mobile signal at home you have rights under the Sale of Goods and Services Act. It says that if there is no mobile signal in your area and you are constantly losing service, you may be able to terminate the contract for non-performance.

However, if it is just inside your house that your phone doesn't work it's a different situation, as it could be something within that is causing the poor signal.

Networks will be keen to help you identify what this is rather than lose you as a customer. A femtocell, such as Vodafone Sure Signal, Three Home Signal, or O2 BoostBox, can help. This kind of device can boost the signal you receive – some networks will give you one for free if you complain loudly enough.

A declining service

If your signal has deteriorated since you took out a contract, the first thing you should do is complain to your mobile network. They generally say they deal with coverage problems on a case-by-case basis.

Ofcom says it expects mobile operators "to be sympathetic to any consumer who has suffered diminution of service as a result of network changes", but as outlined above some customers get more sympathy than others.

If your complaint isn't resolved to your satisfaction, ask the network for a deadlock letter. This enables you to take your complaint to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme. Every mobile service provider must belong to either the Ombudsman Services: Communications or the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (CISAS).

Try before you buy

You can avoid a lot of mobile service issues by doing your homework before taking out a contract. "All networks have coverage maps showing how good their signal is across the country," says Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at uSwitch.com. "This is particularly useful if you live in more rural areas where coverage might be patchy. You could also 'try before you buy' by testing a network's service with a free PAYG sim. Don't forget to check the coverage both at work and at home – or where you use your mobile the most."

Bear in mind, though, that these online tools should only be used as a guide and are not a guarantee of actual signal coverage, which may differ depending on whether you are inside or outside. O2's map, for example, is a prediction of outdoor coverage. "Data reception and speeds may not be as good indoors or in a car," a spokesperson says. "Radio-based mobile technologies can also be affected by local factors including buildings, trees and even weather conditions."


Emma Lunn

The GuardianTramp

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