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Customers duped by 'fictitious' mobile coverage maps

Friday, March 13th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Mobile customers are calling for operators to produce more accurate coverage maps, to prevent consumers signing up to networks then finding themselves unable to get a signal.

Several customers have told Cable.co.uk that they switched networks based on their coverage maps, only to find out they could not get any reception in the area they live.

Operators’ coverage maps provide guidance on where their customers should be able to get various levels of signal.

Providers stipulate that the maps are only guides, but customers have told Cable.co.uk how they were left struggling to exit their contracts after discovering they have no signal.

Jeremy Blanchard, from Oxford, switched to Vodafone from O2 in May 2013, taking out a 24-month contract.

According to Vodafone’s coverage map, he anticipated receiving a 3G signal, both indoors and outdoors at his home address.

But he said he has never received 3G, and can only get 2G signal – needed for a basic phone call – when upstairs at home.

After speaking to Carphone Warehouse, where he bought the phone, and Vodafone, who carried out investigations as to whether his handset was the problem, his 14-day cooling-off period had expired and he was unable to cancel the contract, Mr Blanchard said.

“My first degree of anger or disappointment was the fact that their coverage map was fictitious. It’s not relating to the truth, it’s not fact.

“Whether it’s a guideline or not, this is the basis on which I made my decision to join their network.”

'Nothing they can do'

Mr Blanchard said he suffers dropped calls and poor line quality in the area around his home, yet faces no such problems while travelling abroad.

“My view is that Vodafone are ignoring the fact that they have very poor coverage or signal strength in this area.

“I think personally they should be made to be accountable for the network display they have in case people make their decision based on these fictitious maps.

“It’s a classic example, in my opinion, of mis-selling.”

Mark Wilkinson suffered a similar problem when he switched from Three to EE.

Mr Wilkinson, who runs his own hairdressing business in Hull, said when he changed providers he checked the coverage map and thought he would get at least 3G or possibly 4G in some nearby areas.

“I realised I couldn’t get any signal, I had a few texts saying I’d missed calls and when I tried to get online on my phone, pages weren’t loading.

“I use my phone for my business and for keeping in touch with my children so I need it to be able to work.”

When he called EE, Mr Wilkinson said a member of the technical team told him there was nothing they could do because the problems were due to his location.

“They said they were aware of the area and of my postcode and there’s nothing they can do.

“I pointed out that they shouldn’t be selling phones to people if they know they won’t be able to use them.”

Feven Iyassu, from Harlesden in northwest London, said coverage maps consistently showed the best provider for her home as T-Mobile – her current provider.

She said she had been with T-Mobile for several years but has no reception at home or on her road, only occasionally getting signal by her living room window or in her back garden.

She said complaints to T-Mobile had proved fruitless but said she had not switched to another provider because it is “better the devil you know”.

“Whenever my contract is up for renewal I look at mobile phone coverage maps and keep getting told on both the Which and EE websites that T Mobile is the best for my postcode.

“I've complained to T Mobile and was told I need to call the tech team with pre-collected examples.

“I've realised trying to prove you have no reception is pretty much not doable unless someone comes out and sees for themselves.”

'Trying to trick people'

Rosalind Craven, mobility research manager for EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) at analyst firm IDC, said she had personally experienced situations where she ccould not get signal in areas a coverage map said she could.

But she said she did not know if operators could technically do much more to improve the accuracy of maps, but suggested that the industry could look into possibly using crowd-sourced live data maps to give people a better idea of what coverage to expect.

For some consumers, problems arise when places with unreliable coverage still counts as an area having coverage, she said.

“You could be in a scenario where you live on a street and there’s maybe one tiny point in your house where you might get one bar of reception or you might get none, and then outside your house you get none and throughout most of the street you get none.

“But because of the scale that these things are measured at – if you stand at the end of the road there is some coverage then you’re probably going to fall within the coverage part of the coverage map.

“I don’t – to give mobile operators the benefit of the doubt – believe that they’re actually trying to trick people.

“I would say that there are limits to the measurements.”

'Potentially criminal'

Dr Christian Twigg-Flesner, professor of commercial law at the University of Hull, said consumers may not be aware of the legal safeguards they can use to get out of contracts if they are not getting the service they signed up to.

If staff sell a phone contract to someone knowing they cannot get coverage, they could be breaching the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, he said.

“It’s a misleading action or a misleading omission because it’s clearly representing something to be the case that is not the case.

“So it would be more than just being unscrupulous, it would be a breach of those regulations which could actually result in potentially criminal penalties against the company.

“But it also gives a consumer the right to unwind the contract under changes introduced towards the middle of last year.”

And even if someone signs up for a contract after checking a coverage map, they may have scope to get out of the contract if they cannot get any signal, Dr Twigg-Flesner said.

He added that this means when mobile providers resort to a term in their contract saying coverage isn’t guaranteed, there may be scope to have it ruled out under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Conduct Regulations.

“Because you’re basically trying to exclude the bulk of your performance as a supplier, because your product is to provide a mobile phone signal as part of your mobile phone contract but if there is no coverage from the outset you kind of need to determine the contract limit to limit your liability.

“Ultimately if you have a contract to provide a mobile phone service and there is no service on a continuing basis, you’re in breach of contract."

The Mobile Operators Association (MOA), which represents EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three, did not want to comment. The association has previously said that no coverage guide can include every detail, with buildings, tree cover or hills, and weather conditions, affecting signal quality.

A spokesperson told Cable.co.uk: "Operators make it clear that their coverage maps are guides.”

[UPDATE: Ofcom said it does not produce guidance on the accuracy of operators’ maps, but for its own interactive maps, it ensures mobile coverage is accurate to within 100m squared. The regulator advisers consumers to treat coverage checkers as a guide rather than a guarantee of actual signal coverage, and suggests people ask friends and family in their area how they find the signal strength of the various networks.]

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