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. 

Data usage

As those who read my blog yesterday will know, I recently had the unpleasant experience of having my iPhone stolen. This was very inconvenient in a number of ways, but most relevant to this blog post is the way your usage statistics are affected when you change handset. If you pick up an iPhone, open and then go General → Usage → Mobile Usage, you can check out your Mobile Network Data statistics (how much data you have downloaded and uploaded using your iPhone). When a new handset arrives, this is reset (as you can probably tell from the screenshot).

When I was looking to upgrade from my iPhone 3GS, O2 had discontinued unlimited data on their new contracts, and Three had introduced The One Plan, which provides All You Can Eat data. AYCE is truly unlimited, with no hidden data caps, so that sounded good for VOIP. As such, I switched: I paid £159 for my iPhone, with a contract costing £35 a month. The contract gave me 2000 minutes, 5000 minutes to other Three users, and 5000 text messages a month, as well as unlimited data and unlimited free tethering. But how much would I have paid had I gone with a different network? Let’s find out!1 (And please do bear in mind that this entry is a little tongue-in-cheek!)

From memory, in the period of time between 15th October 2011 and 15th February 2012, I downloaded around 85GB of data through my 3G connection, with around 60GB uploaded.2 It is worth noting that these numbers are not typical — I use far more than the average user, and so most people won’t need to worry about this. If you are worried about using more than a gigabyte or two of data in a month, then I recommend you get a phone with either T-Mobile or Three, for reasons I’ll outline below.

If we assume that both download and upload count against a data limit, then that’s 145GB downloaded over a four month period, which is roughly 35GB per month. What I’m going to do is see how much that would cost on each other network. I’m only looking at twenty-four month contracts (the same as mine) in which the iPhone would have had an upfront cost of around £159, since that seems like a fair comparison. I’m also going to assume that the contracts I’m looking at include tethering at no additional cost.3


I’m going to start with O2, since they’re the company I was originally with. O2 offer a contract that comes with 2GB of data per month and a handset for £169, at £41/month. This means I need to work out what it would cost to add 33GB a month to the plan. As I found out, from O2 Support, 1GB of extra data is £10:

+£10.00 The Works 1GB (You can add two of these a month)

This means I’ve reached 4GB, from 2GB, so I only need to work out how to add the remaining 31GB. Any further spending will need to be paid for on a per-megabyte basis. A further perusal of O2’s website reveals the O2 Pay Monthly Tariff Terms (PDF file), which reveal:

Data usage is measured in kilobytes (KB) and charged at £3.06 per MB. 1MB = 1024
Kilobytes (KB), 1024 MB = 1 Gigabyte (GB).

So, let’s work this out. 2GB of data come with the contract, at £41 per month. To make that 4GB, you need to buy two bolt ons, which come at £20, which make that £61 per month. To get to me actual usage, I need to add 31 GB of data at £3.06 per MB. That works out as 1024 multiplied by 31 multiplied by £3.06, giving a result of £97,136.64 in addition to the £61 a month already calculated. This means £97,162.64 extra per month.

Conclusion: £388,660.56 extra over the course of four months.


Orange comes next, since they’re the next tab I have open in Chrome. Orange’s highest monthly data limit is 2GB, just like O2, but you can get that with a phone for £139.99, at £61/month. However, I couldn’t find any data pertaining to extra data on the iPhone. The Orange Mobile Internet / Data Charges page tells you to refer to the Orange price guide (PDF file) for iPhone costs, but that doesn’t appear to contain any information on how to exceed the 2GB limit, and the closest I could find was:

£3.06 per Megabyte, up to a maximum of £1.54 a day, this too is subject to a daily fair use limit of 25MB.

As far as I can see, one of two things are true: Either the fair use limit prevents the user going above an extra 25MB/day, or there is no price cap for those exceeding the fair use limit. To get a value on how much extra it would cost, we’ll assume it’s the latter.

Conclusion: £413,718.08 extra over the course of four months.

Tesco Mobile

Tesco offers the phone for £200 on a £35/month contract which yields 1GB of data. As far as I can see, there is no way to add data to this via a bundle (although the Irish Tesco Mobile website does give a way to do this, interestingly). The Tesco pay monthly tariff terms & conditions give us this information:

Once you have used all your Inclusive Credit, any data use which would previously have been included will be charged at the current rate. Click here for details.

This means that the remaining data will be charged (according to the link above) at 60p/MB. This works out to be 1024 multiplied by 34GB multiplied by £0.60.

Conclusion: £83,558.40 extra over the course of four months.


Vodafone charges £139 for a handset with 1GB/month at £41/month, which is in the same area as the previous two companies. The Vodafone Pay Monthly data costs have this to say about the Premium Pack, which costs £15:

While our Premium Pack gives you a whopping 2GB extra each month – great news if you regularly watch YouTube videos or have apps that access the internet frequently.

The page doesn’t stipulate that you can buy multiples, and it might be wise to assume you can only buy one such pack. This means we have 32GB of data to find from somewhere. The same page has this to say:

If you choose not to buy a Standard or Premium Pack, we’ll automatically charge you £5 for 250MB of UK web access as soon as you go over the data allowance already included in your price plan.

This would mean that the extra data would cost £20 per gigabyte used, bumping the extra cost up to £2,644 extra over a four month period. However, to be kind to Vodafone, we’ll assume that we can just buy the extra in Premium Packs, since the page doesn’t tells us otherwise.

Conclusion: £1,044 extra over the course of four months.


T-Mobile breaks the mould because they started offering unlimited data in January of this year, and their plan also comes with unlimited calls and text messages. An iPhone comparable to mine, at £139 for the handset, is £41/month. I’m rather surprised by this because T-Mobile and Orange are actually now both owned and operated by Everything Everywhere, and the difference between the two companies in this instance is absolutely staggering.

Conclusion: £24 extra over the course of four months.

The conclusions

When I started writing this blog entry, I had no idea quite how much money I’d be talking about. If you’re a heavy data user, like me, it will cost you insane amounts of money to be with O2, Orange or Tesco Mobile, and a mildly mental amount to be with Vodafone. And all the above assumes that the companies in question would put up with the amounts of data involved instead of simply cutting you off for breach of contract (an assumption which, it must be said, is probably a bad one!).

Both Three and T-Mobile offer good tariffs with reasonable upfront costs. I have recently used mobiles on both networks4 and both have good signal, in my experience (your mileage may vary). So, if you’re looking for a new phone and you need data, you need look no further than these two companies.

  1. Since I tend not to use many minutes or text messages on my iPhone, I’m not going to spend much time considering the fact that both are limited on The One Plan. If you are someone who uses more than 2000 minutes/5000 texts in a month, then feel free to disagree with my assessment of which mobile provider is best! 
  2. A combination of VOIP with video every night plus using The One Plan’s free tethering really made those numbers rocket. 
  3. This is true of O2, who allow customers to tether for free and take the data used out of the monthly data allowance. 
  4. My iPhone, which is with Three, and my Nokia 3510i, which had an Orange SIM card (T-Mobile customers and Orange customers share cell towers, since the two companies are now under the same parent company).