The days when mobile phones were classed as a luxury item have long gone. They’re now integral to everyday life and are replacing our wallets, our computers, our travel documents, our cameras and our alarm clocks. We’re so dependent on them for every aspect of our personal and professional lives that a good mobile signal is now regarded as the fifth utility, along with gas, electricity, water and air.

Over 90% of UK adults own at least one mobile phone; they take the number one spot as our browsing device of choice, yet the UK doesn’t even make the top 50 in the global 4G coverage league tables, according to a report by the National Infrastructure Commission, the Government’s own watchdog. London, the nation’s capital city and a global financial hub, ranks a mere 16th out of 20 large cities and towns for satisfactory 4G coverage, with huge discrepancies in download speeds, according to Which? These figures, like so many surveys, are based on outdoor coverage. When it comes to indoor coverage, the situation is much worse, with many modern buildings having no coverage at all.

Mobile coverage (or lack thereof) is such a serious state of affairs, it influences where we live and work. Research conducted by uSwitch revealed that one in three of us experience poor to non-existent coverage in our own homes, that one in every five calls are patchy, and that one in six of those calls are prone to dropping out altogether. Things are not much better in the workplace, with over 80% of us experiencing dropped calls when trying to conduct business deals, and an unreliable network is deemed one of the main reasons for work-related anxiety and stress.

Millions has been spent on our 4G network and associated infrastructure so what, in this digital age, are the root causes of the problem?

Modern buildings are mobile signal blockers

Modern buildings, even old ones for that matter, may well be “smart” from an eco-friendly and sustainability perspective, but as far as facilitating mobile coverage is concerned, they’re not “smart” at all. Building materials like iron and steel, metalized glass, reinforced concrete or foil-lined partitions effect radio signals in different ways. High frequency signals (which are often used for 4G) simply cannot penetrate through thick metal walls, and the deeper inside a building you go, the worse things become. Lower frequencies have better propagation rates, but do not have the bandwidth of the higher frequencies.

Inadequate connectivity in rural areas

Industry bodies claim that mobile coverage in urban Britain is over 90%. A recent report carried out by Rural England CIC has revealed, however, that it’s not possible to make mobile calls inside 33% of rural properties regardless of network and has warned that people living in rural areas are being “cut off from establishing businesses” and accessing digital services due to “inadequate” connectivity. Poor to non-existent coverage is such a cause for concern that 9 million of us are unwilling to move to the countryside for fear of living in a digital desert.

5G set to exacerbate the situation

With 5G on the cards, providing reliable in-building coverage will be even more challenging because the higher the frequency, the shorter the radio wavelength, and the more susceptible that wavelength will be to interruptions caused even by the most basic materials. With smartphones becoming smarter and mobile subscriptions on the up the only way around the problem is to take the outdoor signal indoors via third party equipment but this has historically been expensive and shrouded in strict licensing regulation.

Ofcom repeater laws simply explained

The situation could be about to change, however, thanks to new licensing laws for the use of mobile signal boosters, introduced by Ofcom last year. Known as the “The Wireless Telegraphy (mobile repeater) (Exemption) Regulations 2018”, the new rules mean that any property owner (commercial or private) can improve their mobile coverage simply by purchasing off-the-shelf signal boosters, which are readily available and affordable.

The only caveat however, is that installed boosters must comply with Ofcom’s repeater spec, i.e. they have to be network-specific, not interfere with other networks, must be able to detect and mitigate any signal variations in uplink and downlink frequency bands, and must control noise levels based on where they are in relation to the serving base station (referred to as Base Station Coupling Loss in the specification). Few boosters can satisfy these requirements.

Conformity requires a smart booster with intelligence built in. This means the device will self-configure according to network coverage conditions and automatically power down if there is a network conflict. One such example is Cel-Fi by Nextivity.

Smart repeater technology, together with the relaxing of rules governing their usage could play a prominent role in overcoming indoor coverage challenges and bring an end to the frustrations and misery experienced by millions of consumers and businesses.