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Old 16th March 2009, 10:30 PM
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Smile BBC Watchdog: Mobile charges but no signal

We're obsessed with our phones in the UK. With over 74 million handsets, there are more mobiles than people. To make them all work, there are 51,000 mobile phone masts dotted around the UK. Between them, the phone operators tell us they've got Britain covered. But is that really true?

Watchdog has been contacted by viewers who say that there are lots of black spots where you still can't get a signal. It can be a real pain if you're on the move and even worse if you can't use it in your own home. If you've signed up to a long contract you can't get out of you could be paying for a phone that you can't use.

David Wilson is a trader on the futures markets. He does a lot of work from home and relies on his mobile. When he got a new handset on the Three network, he was frustrated he couldn't get it to work. When he complained to Three they sent him another phone but that didn't work either.

David didn't think he should have to pay for a service he wasn't getting but Three refused to cancel his 18-month contract. He stopped his direct debit payments, but then Three threatened him with debt collectors. David is angry that he's having to pay for a service he can't use.

David told us: "They say you've got an 18-month contract, and that's the end of the story. They're not willing to negotiate. I don't see why people should have to pay for a phone that doesn't work where you live."

Website coverage checker
Like all the big operators, Three's website lets you check the mobile coverage in your area before you buy, so you know that when you sign that big contract, you'll get what you're paying for. When we checked David's address online, we were told there should be a reasonable signal but David says there isn't.

Signal problems don't just affect phones. The mobile broadband packages you buy for laptops rely on the same transmitters.

Penny Connorton moved to London, and wanted mobile broadband to keep in touch with her grandchildren back in Devon. The reason Penny signed a contract with Three was because the company told her she'd get decent reception at her new address.

"The assistant was very helpful, he looked at my postcode and said that signal was fine in that area, it wasn't the top signal but it was OK," Penny explained.

But Penny can't use her mobile broadband at her new address something she only discovered after she signed the 18-month contract. She's tried to cancel but Three says she can't.

Signal testing gadget
Watchdog asked frequency engineer, Simon Page to test the signal at Penny's flat. The signal was very weak inside her house and still very low outside.

According to Three's website, there should be a good signal around Penny's flat. But Simon Page says the websites are only based on predictions.

Simon says: "You're looking at a computer simulation of coverage. It's not actually measured; they can't go out and measure everywhere. It's a guide, the data says it's a good signal, but it's not necessarily the case."

It seems the information on the website isn't accurate - not much good when you're deciding who to sign up with.

This doesn't just happen with Three, Watchdog has had similar complaints from customers of all the major mobile phone companies. But Watchdog spoke to someone who took his complaint further.

One man took on Orange and won
Tom Prescott had an 18-month contract with Orange, but couldn't get a signal, at home, work, or just about anywhere.

Despite this, Orange wouldn't let him out of his contract - so he went to court to claim back the money he'd paid, for a service he hadn't received. Orange's legal team didn't even turn up to the hearing. The court found in Tom's favour and he was awarded 500.

Watchdog spoke to Three
Regarding David Wilson's case Orange said:
"Mr Wilson's account was subject to an error that led to restrictions on his account that prevented calls being made and received. We'd like to apologise for the service Mr Wilson received and have now refunded him."

Regarding Penny Connorton's case Orange said:
"All mobile coverage checkers estimate the likely coverage in an area. Radio signals are affected by a range of local factors including buildings and other objects that can make it more difficult for some people to receive a signal in their home. In view of the difficulties that Mrs Connorton has experienced with her mobile broadband we will be refunding the payments she has already made. As she can use the modem in other areas we have agreed with the customer to convert her account to Pay As You Go. This means Mrs Connorton can use the service but without any ongoing obligation to top up. As part of a network upgrade, coverage is being enhanced in Mrs Connorton's area next month and we hope we can improve the reception in her home."

When Watchdog spoke to Orange about Tom Prescott's case, the company said:
"Orange would like to publicly apologise to Mr Prescott for the poor level of service*he received trying to resolve*the network coverage issues*he*has experienced. It should not have been necessary for the case*to have reached the County Court and we will be reviewing our policies to ensure other customers facing the same issue are handled in*a more appropriate way.

"In terms of Mr Prescott's contract, while we do not offer an option*for customers*to break*their*contract for moving house, in exceptional cases*where*a customer*clearly has no*network coverage at*a new*home of residence*and has been unable to make calls,*we will look to resolve in their best interest.*

"While*none of the mobile network operators are able to*offer perfect reception*either inside or out of the home,*Orange is committed*to improving the*strength of our network, which*currently*covers 99 per cent of the outdoor*UK population."

Watchdog contacted the UK's other major mobile companies. They say they have a range of measures to help customers, including the option to return a phone or mobile broadband modem in cases of poor reception within a limited period. The companies also say they're taking steps to improve the information provided by their online coverage checker tools.



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