Android customers asked to help fight not-spots
OFCOM have released an app for Android that will allow them to monitor the UK's mobile network coverage.
The telecoms regulator is therefore calling on all Android users over 18 to download the app from the Google Play store, so that they can construct a map that will be compared against the coverage claims made by network operators.
The app will achieve this by collecting usage data on the reliability of calls, the performance of mobile broadband, on the extent of mobile coverage, and on user habits.
With such data being culled from a potential (if hopeful) total of 23 million Android users, Ofcom may very well be able to create a comprehensive survey of the quality of the UK's mobile network services.
Yet it will have to overcome understandable customer unease with regards to mass data collection, as well as concerns about the sapping of battery life and the consumption of monthly data.
The performance-customer satisfaction divide
Since it will work constantly in the background of users' phones, the "Mobile Research" app won't be made available on the iPhone, which places restrictions on such apps.
Still, at least Android users have the opportunity to take part in research that aims to shed light on numerous interesting questions.
For one, Ofcom aim not only to investigate the quality of network coverage, but also to compare how mobile performance actually relates to customer satisfaction.
This is intriguing, since it suggests the possibility that levels of customer satisfaction might not have all that much to do with network quality. By extension, it also suggests that Ofcom might even consider putting more emphasis on ways of keeping customers happy other than giving them the best possible connections and speeds.
That there is in fact a disconnect between network performance and customer satisfaction has been suggested by recent polls and research.
For example, the latest RootMetrics study on the best mobile network in terms of reliability, speed and coverage put EE in first place for the sixth consecutive occasion.
Yet surveys have repeatedly found that EE is one of the worst-rated by customers, if not the worst.
Added to this, an Ofcom investigation from last year discovered that the provider was the most complained about of all UK mobile networks.
It's therefore clear that a high level of network performance doesn't guarantee a high level of customer satisfaction, especially when, as in EE's case, customers are upset about bills and slowness of responding to queries.
This is why it's a good thing that Ofcom are looking into this further with their app, hoping to shed light on what exactly it is that upsets customers if it's not bad signals or slow download speeds.
However, while this question is undoubtedly of interest, the app will be doing other things that some potential users may not be too enthusiastic about.
Among other things, it will collect a log of the apps people are using, harvesting anonymised data that won't permit anyone to identify users directly.
In part, this is meant to enable Ofcom to arrive at a clearer idea of people's bandwidth and data requirements, so that the regulator will be better able to "allocate the airwaves, or radio spectrum, used by mobile services."
Nonetheless, the data will also be used by P3, who actually developed the app for Ofcom.
With it, they'll be able to make a profit, selling the data to interested third parties, who will most likely use it for market research and advertising purposes.
This is innocent enough, but in an age where many people are wary simply on principle of mass data collection, they may prefer not to have their willingness to help important research turned into yet another commercial opportunity for 'third parties.'
For instance, in the US, 80% of people quizzed in a recent survey by the respected Pew Research Center said "they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites."
Given this concern, the public may indeed be reluctant to download the app, which somewhat ironically aims to provide customers with a better service in one area by doing the kind of thing they'd prefer to avoid in others.
Another thing they'd prefer to avoid is having the battery on their phones drained prematurely.
Ofcom claim that the app won't use "much" battery, which leaves it open as to whether it nonetheless uses enough to make a noticeable dent in the time a smartphone can last without requiring another recharge.
The regulator also ask the app's users not to put their telephone into power-saving mode, once again suggesting that, even if it doesn't eat up that much power, it might interfere with how some people are accustomed to using their phones.
As a result, if prospective users have to commute to work or spend extended periods of time outside any place of work or residence, they may want to think twice before surfing to the Play Store.
Then again, for those of us who don't need to hang on for dear life in power-saving mode, the Mobile Research app really does sound like a good idea.
Rather than relying on the questionable maps of providers themselves, or on reports like RootMetrics' which are based on a small team testing networks, the app will construct a map of coverage based on the people who actually use it.
This - provided enough of the public sign up - will provide a far more reliable outline of network coverage. In turn, such an outline can be used to shame underperforming operators into improving their ways, and to supply the public with more objective information when deciding on which carrier to use.
The research will also aid the Government in their crusade [PDF] to stamp out 'not-spots' and 'partial not-spots,' which respectively are areas that receive no mobile coverage at all and mobile coverage from less than four of the major networks.
The Government believe that 14% of adults in the UK have no access to a voice landline, meaning that there is still plenty of work to be done on this front.
And the app will help this work in that it will identify just where these not-spots and partial not-spots are.
This is important because the recently closed Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) was unsuccessful partly because it had difficulty in locating them.
This Government initiative aimed to provide 600 potential not-spots with coverage, yet ultimately its close at the end of the 2015/16 financial saw it improve the service of only 75.
Hence, the app could be very pivotal if enough people download it, enabling the Government to forge ahead once again with improving the nation's mobile infrastructure.
It could make the process of identification easier, a process which Ed Vaizey complained about when explaining the MIP's failure in a Westminster Hall Debate in February of this year. It would also put pressure on the providers whose absent service causes partial not-spots to exist, revealing that, unlike their competitors, they're the ones to deprive parts of the country of complete coverage.
Of course, this still all depends on whether it enjoys enough popularity, and on whether people can put the data and energy issues to one side. If they can, then they could soon find that certain other issues have become a thing of the past.