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BBC Crowdsources UK 3G Coverage Map

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The BBC is asking Android users to upload information which will map Britain’s 3G coverage

The BBC has launched a project to map the UK’s 3G coverage, using data crowdsourced from users who have installed an app on their Android phone.

Measurement company Epitiro, who created the app, hope to collect data from around 10,000 people, and  publish the results as a map in August. Epitiro previously carried out a survey of mobile broadband for the telecom regulator Ofcom, which found that O2 had the fastest service. This time, the company is focusing on geographical coverage.

Free download charts coverage

The app is a free download, which sits in the background and detects when the phone has 3G signal, and when it has fallen back to 2G or has no signal at all. It uses virtually no data to operate and shares no personal data, Epitiro marketing manager Iain Wood assured eWEEK Europe.

“From this exercise, we are hoping that on a single map, people can look at where they live and see what coverage is available for each operator,” said Wood.

Epitiro and the BBC intend to publish the map before the end of August, in time for the holiday season, and hope more than 10,000 people will sign up to use it. “It’s a good time do this, with all the travelling that will be going on,” he said. “We’d like to cover every nook and cranny.”

The app only measures the presence or absence of signal, not its strength, and not the throughput achieved over it – but there could be evidence of places where the network is overloaded, if phones frequently fall back on 2G signal.

It is only available on Android phones because of the timelag and difficulty in getting apps into app stores for the iPhone and BlackBerry, but Wood hopes that future versions of the app might run on the iPhone.

Will it run up my bill?

Although the app itself  has limited usefulness for the user – it simply gives a tally of the percentage of time their phone was able to get a 2G or 3G signal (illustrated here), Wood hopes enough people will leave it running on their phone – and assured us very carefully that the app would not

“The app extracts information logged onto the phone at given times. There is no personal data involved,” he said. “It won’t add to the user’s phone bill – it is sending a quantity of data that is so minuscule it is not worth putting a number down for it.”

When the phone does not have GPS active, it will use coarser-grained location data based on the 3G network – but this will not be connected with the user’s identity.

The app also explicitly ignores cases where signal is boosted by femtocells – indoor base stations such as Vodofone’s Sure Signal – so it won’t give a measure of how well these devices are helping solve the UK’s mobile coverage issues.

Once the map is published, the BBC project will cease, but Wood hopes it will continue in some form.

When the map exists, could the information be fed into an app on the phone which would help users find coverage, eWEEK Europe asked Wood.  “We hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “We work on the measurement side.”