BBC launches Android-powered 3G mapping project

The BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones has unveiled a survey app for Android which attempts to crowdsource a 2G/3G mobile coverage map of the UK, in order to better understand the state of the UK's mobile telecommunications infrastructure.

The app, developed by Epitiro, is simple enough: it ties in to the mobile's data and location sensors and reports the current network connection type and location back to a central database. If you're on 2G in a certain area and 3G in another, the database knows and can update the map accordingly.

Described by Cellan-Jones as, "a project I've been working on for months," the aim is to produce an independent survey of street-level 3G coverage in the UK. Once the data is compiled, users will be able to use an interactive map to see exactly where high-speed 3G coverage is available across the UK.

Answering queries as to why there is no equivalent app for Apple's iPhone, Cellan-Jones explained that iOS makes it "harder to make [the app] work in the background" while the phone is doing other tasks.

Although it's a neat idea, the survey app comes at a real cost to the consumer: power consumption. Designed to run in the background, the app constantly checks the handset's location and data connectivity. This means that no matter what the phone is doing, the GPS receiver and mobile data connections are constantly switched on, even when the handset is indoors and connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Installed on our test handset, the battery life took a significant nosedive: despite being connected to Wi-Fi network for data the 2G symbol appeared in the status bar, indicating that the app forced a mobile data connection when none was required. The GPS icon also appeared, and refused to disappear when the app was moved into the background.

Rather more seriously, the app also lacks any way to exit the background task. Using the Samsung-provided task killer built into the Galaxy S II, we were only able to force the task to exit when it was in the foreground. While backgrounded, the app disappears from the list of selectable applications altogether, and doesn't include an 'exit' menu option. Instead, users are advised to uninstall the app completely if they don't want it running in the background.

The BBC's aim is certainly laudable, but Epitiro's app seems a poor way to go about it: when users find the deleterious effect the app has on their smartphones' battery lives, they're unlikely to keep it installed for long.

If you want to try the app for yourself, it's available for free on the Android Market now.