Mobile coverage is something most of us often take for granted. However, getting a mobile signal, let alone data coverage, in the middle of the countryside or in areas without much previous residential infrastructure can be difficult.
Many new developments are being built on the outskirts of towns in areas without any history of residential usage. While these developments may look great, most new builds are notoriously effective at blocking cellular signals. While some tenants may arrange their own wi-fi, whose responsibility is it to make provision for mobile coverage, and why does it matter?
Moving away from the landline
A recent report from Ofcom found that more and more people are relying on their mobile phones instead of the traditional landline. This makes mobile coverage essential for those that rarely use their landline to make calls or for families who can’t afford them altogether. As fewer households have landlines and the need for mobile coverage increases, something has to give and a change needs to be made.
People need to get online
For many, not being able to get online would make everyday life impossible. From keeping in touch with loved ones to online services, banking, checking work emails or even access to medical service, data connectivity is essential. For those without a landline or wi-fi, this means using 3G or 4G services. Housing providers cannot rely on households having wi-fi access or being able to get online elsewhere; access to online services at home is essential.
For those with the option to work from home or take on part-time or freelance roles, the inconsistent availability of 3G or 4G services means that many people often have to use Skype or equivalent services to stay in touch. With more employers encouraging staff to work remotely, and the growth in freelance and part-time work, more people require ubiquitous communications.
Emergency services are also placing greater reliance on mobile signals. In the UK, as the emergency services evaluate a move towards 4G services that could enable live video and data transmissions, mobile coverage in housing developments needs to be up to scratch.
Households without landlines also represent a serious problem for emergency services as it reduces the potential response time for services if residents are unable to contact them. The design of social housing complexes often also means that the point of entry to a home is not always on the ground floor.
Where does the problem arise?
Architects and designers rarely make communications a priority. While some may incorporate a phone line, connectivity of any other kind is hardly ever factored into residential design.
Making architects and designers aware of the need to consider mobile coverage as a part of their design remit is one of the first steps in ensuring that homes have access to mobile coverage and associated services.
Mobile coverage in rural and remote areas is also a huge problem for government, the mobile industry and those charged with building new housing developments. Estates in cities represent a significant challenge, but new builds in remote areas can be especially problematic.
Collaboration between architects, planners and mobile operators is now a priority to ensure that homes are not left with poor or non-existent mobile services.
The changing face of mobile networks
The massive growth in smartphones means basic voice coverage is no longer enough. Mobile operators now need to provide enough capacity in their networks to let us stream videos, download emails and access social media.
This means a move away from the big towers that we’re all used to seeing on the tops of hills and buildings, towards new technologies that provide very specific areas or buildings with fast 3G and 4G coverage. This is where town planners, architects and mobile operators are key to providing comprehensive mobile network coverage in homes.
For urban areas and housing complexes, it’s important that architects and designers think about the implementation of technologies that can provide mobile network coverage.
New technology, new applications
Providing mobile coverage from inside buildings or targeted for specific estates and developments can open up a range of new services and use cases that would have never been possible before.
One area is in monitoring the overall movement of people and spotting popular routes and areas. The information provided to housing providers can help to improve current estates and also influence the design of future builds.
For residents, it can facilitate a move away from the traditional reliance on landlines, instead being able to use portable mobile devices to work or access the internet from in and around the home.
What needs to happen next?
The 4G roll out in the UK is gaining pace with most of the major cities and towns now covered, but the targeted coverage mentioned earlier is essential if people are to really make the most of these services. And that’s before we even start looking ahead to what 5G might bring.
Mobile coverage is no longer ‘nice thing to have’ or something that people can live without; it’s essential. The problem is that the way we use mobile networks has changed, to the point where building planners, architects and local authorities need to work alongside mobile operators to ensure that residents don’t lose out. The technology exists to make this a reality so it’s now down to the planners and builders to ensure that mobile coverage is something that is considered at the earliest stages.
Sue Monahan is the CEO of the Small Cell Forum.