How to get the best reception on your phone and choose the right network

July 4th, 2010

Better mobile phone reception can mean a longer battery life on your phone as well as fewer dropped calls and faster internet browsing. In this article, we outline how to choose the network with the best reception where you live.

The whole purpose of a mobile phone is to keep connected to the rest of the world. So if phone calls are failing to connect or dropping midway through, or webpages are taking minutes to load, what’s the point? The first consideration when choosing a mobile network (before prices, offers and tariffs) should always be the reception where you live. Trust us… you’d rather pay an extra fiver a month for good reception than to miss that all important phone call inviting you to a job interview or  to find that you can’t actually use any of the “smartphone” features of your shiny new iPhone 4.

In this guide, we outline a simple procedure to find the network which gives you the best reception. We’ll be doing a little bit of science! Don’t worry though… it’s a straightforward procedure and it’ll easily pay dividends by ensuring you’re won’t spend the next 24 months trying to find that spot in the house where you can get a one-bar signal.

Step 1: Use the official coverage checkers

The first and preliminary stage in your investigation is to use the coverage maps provided by the major phone networks. In order to do that, you’ll need to know that in the UK we only have 5 “real” mobile phone networks. They are 3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone. Each of the 5 “real” networks run their own mobile network infrastructure – including phone masts and hubs which connect your calls and deliver SMS messages.

Anyone else who sells a mobile phone service in the UK (companies such as Tesco Mobile and Virgin Media) are “virtual mobile network operators” (MVNOs). They simply piggyback on the network of one of the “real” networks. In this case, Tesco Mobile use the O2 network and Virgin use the T-Mobile network.

The implication of this is that if you’re having problems receiving an O2 signal in your house, it’s a waste of time switching to Tesco Mobile hoping for better signal; you will experience the exact same problems!

The Old Jukebox
Creative Commons License photo: C.P.Storm

A further implication is that it is only worth using the coverage checkers of the 5 real networks – the results from those coverage maps apply equally to any virtual networks which piggy-back on their infrastructure. We have outlined in a previous article the real networks used by the virtual networks.

So step 1 is to visit the following coverage maps and to discard any of the 5 networks which aren’t available where you live.

Note that the coverage maps provided by the networks only tell you that some kind of signal is available outdoors in that postcode. The fact that your postcode is covered could mean anything ranging from a 1 -bar 2G signal to a 5-bar 3G (high speed internet) signal. It’s no guarantee that the signal is reliable or that you can even receive a signal inside your house. This is why we need to do some hands on testing.

2. Order some free SIM cards

As the online coverage maps can’t tell us exactly what reception is going to be like, the best thing to do is to carry out a scientific experiment. We need one unlocked mobile phone (i.e. any mobile phone which will accept a SIM card from more than one network). You could unlock your existing phone or you could borrow one from a friend – it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the phone which you carry out the experiment is different from the phone you intend to use from day-to-day – if there is some systematic difference between the quality of reception on the two phones, we would expect all networks to be equally affected. The only caveat is your “test phone” should be 3G-enabled if your day-to-day phone is also 3G-enabled.

You’ll then need to grab yourself a free SIM card from each of the 5 real networks: 3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone. You’ll need to insert a SIM card from each network into your phone so that it can connect to their mobile network. You can usually apply for free Pay As You Go SIM cards online and it’ll arrive through your letterbox in a couple of days.

3. Test the SIM cards in your mobile

let's get loud
Creative Commons License photo: josef.stuefer

Once the 5 SIM cards have arrived, put them into your unlocked phone. Make a note of the number of bars you receive and the type of reception you receive – is it a 2G connection or 3G? Consult the operating instructions for your phone if you’re unsure about how this information is displayed in your phone. Typically a high-speed 3G connection will be indicated by a “3G” or “H” icon in the phone status bar, whereas a 2G connection will be indicated by “2G”, “E” (EDGE) or “G” (GPRS).

We recommend walking around the house and taking readings at several different places. Taking multiple repeat measurements will highlight any anomalous readings.

For even better accuracy, see if your phone can display signal strength in dBm. For Android smartphones such as the HTC Desire, go to “Settings > About phone > Network”. Under the heading “Signal strength”, you’ll see a numerical value for the signal strength e.g. -73dBm. Note that a smaller number means better reception (-70dBm is better than -80dBm which is better than -90dBm and so on…) Note that dBm is a logarithmic scale. This means that a -70dBm signal is 10x more powerful than a -80dBm signal. Similarly, a -80dBm signal is 10x more powerful than a -90dBm signal.

4. Conclusions

With luck you should now have a good idea of the reception quality for each of the major 5 networks at home. You might want to repeat the experiment at other places where you spend a lot of time e.g. in the office.

Once you’ve compiled some results for the reception quality for each of the 5 major networks, it should be clear if there are significant differences between the reception quality of different networks. This information should give you the information you need to decide whether there are any networks you should stay away from. If you’re buying a smartphone you should stay away from any networks from which you don’t receive a 3G signal as you’ll not be able to use the full features of your new phone.

If you’re struggling to receive any kind of decent reception, check out Vodafone’s Sure Signal appliance. It should give you 5-bar reception at home by routing all of your calls/texts through your broadband connection.

Finally, be kind to the environment and make sure you recycle all of those SIM cards! You could pass the set of 5 SIM cards to a friend so they can carry out the same experiment… pass them onto friends or family members who need a new SIM card, etc.

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About Ken

Ken Lo

My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.

Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 2 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. R Douglas said:

    My HTC Desire S gets no signal in my home yet "3" say I live in a good reception area. One of my friends has the same phone same network, same position, Another friend has a i-phone 3 and he can surf with remarkable speed also on "3" and another has a Samsung Galaxy S II also works same network, the phone's ability to pick up the network is as variable as the signal strength.

  2. Jack L said:

    Where I live in the Scottish Borders, NONE of the official coverage maps can be trusted – all of which show excellent coverage in my area and whose frequent claims of 'occasional very local signal loss' is rubbish.

    Worst offenders are O2- there's no signal whatever indoors and precious little out of doors somedays – and this is over a wide area with a range of phones. O2 have in fact got much worse over the last year, and answer requests to end contracts early with threats of court action.

    Other networks are variable too – Orange are about the best, but again nowhere near what they claim despite the fact we can actually see their local mast. Plus Orange seem very good at delivering a full day's texts in one lump at 1.00 in the morning. 3 can be good but varies so much it's a nuisance. Vodaphone is poor but usable (usually).

    This is a largely rural area, so I don't expect miracles. But rural users get charged the same as everyone else. I'd settled for the providers being at least minimally honest, and not resorting to instant denial before we've even formulated the question.

    There's only one way in my book to assess signal coverage – ask the customers, not the providers. It's not very scientific, but "Provider A? Don't even mention Provider A to me!!" pretty well covers the ground as far as I'm concerned. With online services like Google Earth, I suspect that unofficial coverage maps could be built on user input rather than industry hype.

    That all said – in rural areas at least – hedge your bets with payg. Anything else is wasting money.

  3. Ed C said:

    I'm on Three and their coverage checker actually said that I couldn't get any signal (2G/3G) but when I actually went there I got a consistent 2 Bar on an iPhone 4, inaccuracy can work both ways! Good tips though. Also even though I didn't take it when the speed slowed down a bit they offered to let me out of my contract but I took the discount, other networks may do this too.

  4. Toby said:

    Solid advice. But the only network that doesn’t falter in my kitchen is O2… who don’t supply 3G where I live!

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