The developing world leading Europe?

I recently discovered a company called OpenSignalMaps. They provide data for people who are looking for a way to link mobile phone signal, or cellular signal, to geography. So, let’s say that you’re in an area and you’re looking to switch network; you could just use their service to work out what kind of signal you’re likely to get.

This is a very useful service, and I wish I’d heard about it prior to today. I switched to a new mobile network with the release of the iPhone 4S, and prior to switching, I bought a Pay As You Go SIM card from the prospective network and used it with my iPhone 3GS for a week, swapping it in and out to try and get a picture of what signal would be like around my home at the time. Being able to look up the data on a map would clearly have been much quicker!

How did I find out about the company? Well, I recently read an article by OpenSignalMaps in which they talked about Android fragmentation, and I found it very interesting indeed. I ended up bookmarking it in order to share it with my Twitter following, but not before I’d noticed a couple of sentences towards the end of the article that got my brain whirring.

…the 5 countries where OSM gets most use are: US, Brazil, China, Russia, Mexico. From what we’re seeing the developing world is no longer developing but leading Europe.

I wasn’t sure what to think of that sentence. I don’t feel like Europe is currently trailing in terms of mobile1, and I was wondering whether that was just a pro-Europe bias or whether it was an accurate picture. Then I realised what was bugging me about that list:

All the countries in that list are significantly larger than the countries that comprise Europe.

If your product is a way for people to see what the cellular signal is like in their area, it stands to reason that this product will be more popular in countries with bad cellular signal. In a small country, it takes fewer towers to completely cover the country, and so coverage will be better, I reasoned. This would provide an alternative reason for why the app has not seen as many downloads in Europe.

Once I had started down this line of thought, I wanted to check whether my suspicions had any basis in fact. In terms of the world’s largest countries by area, what positions are occupied by the five countries listed? Where is the largest European country on the same list? So, I looked for answers, and found the relevant Wikipedia article, entitled List of countries and dependencies by area.

Of the five countries on OpenSignalMaps’ list, four of those countries are in the top five countries by area in the world. They are Russia (largest), China, the USA and Brazil (3rd–5th largest respectively). The remaining country, Mexico, is the 14th largest country in the world. So, how does this compare with the largest European country? Well, France is the largest European country, clocking in at 49th.

I disagree that the data from OpenSignalMaps shows anything like “the developing world…leading Europe”. In fact, I think it shows the plain fact that the relatively small countries in Europe have, in general, a better level of cellular coverage than the largest countries on Earth. An app that exists solely to allow the user to deal with bad cellular coverage (or bad infrastructure in any arena) will do badly in countries that have a good infrastructure. The countries which are leading in app downloads are the very countries that aren’t leading when it comes to getting signal.


  1. British LTE adoption notwithstanding — in five years’ time, maybe we will be trailing.