Mobile signal
Does your town crack the top ten for 4G data in the UK? iStock

A new report has revealed that the UK is still lagging behind other countries when it comes to high-speed mobile data, with 4G availability reaching just two-thirds of the country. Yet while the overall 4G picture is less-than-stellar, the major cities that do boast the best data speeds and the most consistent coverage might surprise you.

The report, which was conducted by Which? in collaboration with OpenReach, found that Middlesbrough rules the 4G roost for coverage with 82.7% availability in the Teeside town, while Stoke-on-Trent took the gold for the fastest average download speeds (26.4 Mbps).

The wooden spoon for coverage went to the seaside towns Bournemouth and Poole, clocking in at just 67.5% availability, while cultural hotspot Brighton and Hove registered the lowest average 4G download speeds (17.6 Mbps).

Based on data collected between 1 December 2016 and 28 Feb 2017, the Which? report covers 20 of the largest cities in the UK and while it noted that urban areas still clearly win out over rural regions, only half of the 20 cities clocked over the average national speed of 22.9Mbps.

The full 4G availability list (below) also sees London ranked 16th, with the UK capital mustering a lowly 73.6%. Which? and OpenReach said that the data pool is based on 500 million data readings from mobile phones on a sample of over 30,000 users.

"These latest findings underline the need for [independent regulator] Ofcom to keep the pressure on mobile operators, so that every part of the country gets a decent service on their mobile phone," said Which? managing director of home products and services, Alex Neill. "Our mobile phone is central to how we live our lives and that is why it is so frustrating when we can't access emails or browse the internet on the go."

An earlier OpenSignal report in November saw the UK ranked 54th in the world when it comes to 4G accessibility rate, sitting behind countries like Estonia and Peru.

While the findings will likely be shrugged off by the general smartphone user who can fall back on 3G (or even 2G) data for quick online searches and social media updates, industry figures have highlighted the impact the UK's data deficiencies has on businesses both large and small.

"Communities, businesses and the wider economy all benefit from reliable and speedy 4G networks across the country, and they shouldn't be held back because of the area they choose to live in or operate," said Phil Sorsky, Global VP of infrastructure company CommScope. "From managing our banking to working on the go, we live our daily lives through our smart devices and rely on them to deliver for us."

Hotspots or 'not-spots'?

Despite the early hype for 5G speeds, the four network players in the UK – EE, O2, Vodafone and Three – have all pledged to improve 4G coverage in 2017 in the hopes of achieving Ofcom's ambitious target of having accessible 4G data in 98% of UK homes by the year's end.

Nevertheless, Ingo Flomer, director of product marketing at Cobham Wireless said that the UK government needs to play a more active role in ruling out coverage "not-spots".

"Mobile coverage is today considered an essential utility," said Flomer. "For the UK to compete in the global economy, providers must guarantee a consistently high standard of 4G coverage across the country. The findings of this report show that there is still a long way to go before "virtually all" UK premises have consistent access to 4G signal. Even in London, more than a quarter of mobile phones analysed did not have access to 4G coverage.

In addition, with poor 4G availability on UK motorways also recently cited as a key roadblock for driverless cars, the Which? report will again raise questions about networks starting to plan for next-generation data speeds with 5G, especially considering that industry sources have speculated that Three could kick-off the UK's 5G roll-out within the next three years.