Gotta Cover ’em All: can Pokémon help deliver universal broadband coverage?

Mobile network planning is by now a pretty well established process – operators first roll out coverage to areas where there is a large demand, and then add additional equipment or spectrum in areas where the coverage layer doesn’t provide enough capacity. The initial coverage investment is restricted to where enough people are willing to pay enough for data. As new technologies have been introduced, rollout has again been prioritised in areas with highest demand.

Pokémon GO – and other augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR) apps, including its predecessor Ingress – have the potential to change this, as it expands the area in which each consumer wants to have reliable coverage. To some extent, map applications were the first step towards the expectation of ubiquitous data coverage, but the caching of map data combined with the tendency of people to plan their journeys in advance reduced the impact. Pokémon GO relies on a data connection at a specific location, not at some place visited before or after, and as similar apps are launched (both games and utilities) the demand for, and expectation of, 100% geographic coverage will grow.

This means that mobile network planning will need to adapt. To some extent, network operators have been slow to recognise that their users are in fact mobile, planning data traffic capacity and coverage at relatively fixed locations. This is partially because the willingness to pay for data connections in remote locations has until now been lower than that for voice – people have a high willingness to pay for a voice service half way up a mountain, but a decent data connection is much less important. Instagram uploads can wait until you get back to base camp. The new geography-specific apps, like Pokémon GO, cannot.

EE have already announced they are planning LTE 95% geographic coverage of the UK by 2020. We expect others to follow suit. However, this is reliant on sufficient low-frequency spectrum being made available and base station locations being attainable. As ever, network expansion relies on there being a sufficient business case, and it is not clear yet whether players’ desires to catch a Moltres or Articuno will result in any additional revenue for operators.