How can I find out where the nearest mobile phone base station is?

Charles Arthur
Thursday September 21, 2006
The Guardian


Presently, by looking at Ofcom's Sitefinder site. But in the near future it'll probably be arriving at a Google Maps-style mashup near you. That could be interesting for a number of reasons.

First, the Sitefinder site is painfully slow and imprecise; it feels as though you're being discouraged from finding anything out. Secondly, even though this data is not government-generated (the masts' operators provide it to Ofcom), it might provide an interesting example of the hypothesis behind the Free Our Data campaign, which suggests that making non-personal data available will encourage commercial spinoffs that exploit it.

The release of the data was ordered by the Information Commissioner, responding last week to a request from a consumer group under the Environmental Information Regulations. It wanted the locations of mobile communications masts run by the five mobile networks, the Airwave emergency system and Network Rail (for trackside communication with train drivers). Ofcom has protested that releasing the data to the public - which would surely lead to sites showing mast locations in great detail, with the names of operators - would discourage operators from providing it at all. Apparently, operators fear rivals will pinpoint holes in their network and exploit that weakness to boost sales there; and that vandalism could follow release of mast locations.

Neither argument holds much weight. The problem with holes in coverage cuts both ways, while mobile masts are easy targets for determined vandals - after all, it's not as if they can run very fast. And releasing the data could help prove that masts don't have harmful effects.

The Information Commissioner pointed out that the location data still retain copyright and database rights. Now, that might preclude the first recipient from putting it online, since it would be obvious who had done it, and they might be prosecuted (depending on the terms of the release). But if a second organisation requested and received the data, and then a third, a samizdat copy of the data might well escape onto the web - with no indication of which recipient had naughtily released it.

Who would that help? An enterprising satellite navigation company could, for example, program it in so you would know where you might fall out of phone range (a potential boon to hillwalkers). The phone networks with better coverage should become obvious - which could prompt the less good ones to improve, or cut their prices.

Compared to the present obscured arrangement, it's hard to see how the proposed one would be worse. However, Ofcom has until October 9 to appeal over the ruling. Even so, we think that the ultimate test of whether the proposed move is good or bad is to ask: if the full data had always been available on a slick mashup, would it feel like an improvement or a retrograde step to stuff it back into Sitefinder?

Informant: Sandi from Mast Sickness UK


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