Delivering a connected future for motoring07 Apr 2024

A case study of limited mobile signal coverage on public electric vehicle chargepoint use

Around two-thirds of Britain’s most common type of public chargepoint suffer limited mobile signal connectivity.

Failure to design public chargepoints to work around Britain’s patchy mobile signal coverage means drivers of electric cars could be facing problems when they seek to ‘fill up’ at thousands of locations, research by the RAC Foundation suggests. 

Connectivity has become an ever-more prevalent feature of modern motoring and is set to grow in importance as our vehicles’ ability to connect through digital networks impacts on their usability.

Our connected cars transmit and receive data that informs drivers about the road ahead and auto companies about how their designs are performing. Automation is likely to require yet more reliable connectivity.

Even when the car is sat still features such as over-the-air software updates rely on good connections.

Meanwhile, the signal coverage that enables connectivity is changing – generally improving, in speed and in terms of what is covered. As well it might, because coverage today in the UK is far from being uniformly available and consistently strong, even in our homes.

Yet the transition to newer technologies is not straightforward.

According to Department for Transport figures (based on data from ZapMap) there were 53,677 public charging devices in the UK at the start of 2024.  

Of these, 31,910 have speeds up to 8kw and almost all will be so-called Type-2 chargers. 

Unlike chargepoints with a speed of 8kw or faster, chargers below 8kw are not obliged to provide for contactless payment. 

In fact, the vast majority require drivers to access them via mobile phone apps.  

What is more, most chargers themselves also need an adequate mobile signal connection to function. 

Britain has four mobile network providers: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, on which other companies – giffgaff, Tesco Mobile etc. – can piggyback. 

Unless all four are providing adequate signal coverage at the chargepoint location there’s a risk that either the user or the charger will lack the connection needed to unlock the flow of electricity. 

The RAC Foundation analysed a randomly selected sample of 2,059 Type-2 public chargers across Britain.  

The research reveals that the majority of these chargers do not have an adequate level of coverage from all four mobile phone network providers to guarantee they can be activated 100% of the time.  

In Britain, outside of London, just a third (33.4%) of the Type-2 chargers analysed are in locations where there is acceptable all-network 4G coverage. 

Two-thirds (66.4%) are in spots where a signal from one, two, three or even all the providers is absent or too weak to work. 

NB: The percentages do not sum to 100 because of missing data for a small number of the chargers sampled. 

In London, the picture is only slightly better at 39.7% and 61.3% respectively. 

Where a 4G signal is absent then a residual 3G signal might still be available, but the national 3G network is due to be shut down completely by 2033. Vodafone has already turned off its 3G network with EE and Three expected to complete their shutdowns later this year, and O2 next year.  

The mobile signal strength data used in the analysis was provided by Teragence. This data was then matched to the 2,059 chargers used in the study.