Smartphones might not be as good as old-fashioned phone handsets at receiving a mobile signal in areas with indifferent coverage, initial research by telecom regulator Ofcom has suggested.

Ofcom is vague about how much of a difference this might add up to, stating that it is likely to be “modest”, but  the regulator obviously feels consumers need to be aware that the ability of smartphones to make and receive calls in some locations could be compromised.

“This [call performance] may be due to the reduced complexity of antenna on these devices and 2G phones not having issues in switching between 2G and 3G networks,” Ofcom has said.

Either way, signal strength is more important for 3G handsets sold on the basis of receiving and sending data, sometimes in significant volumes.

The organisation also noticed that there seems to be a certain amount of confusion when it comes to coverage checkers, starting with the fact that Vodafone and O2 measure coverage both indoors and outdoors while the now-combined networks from Orange and T-Mobile do so only for outdoors coverage.

Seven out of ten consumers aren’t even aware such checkers exist – mobile coverage is simply assumed. Some doubts persist about how accurate these maps are beyond the good coverage offered in urban areas. Operators base coverage not on tested signal strength but on propagation models, which Ofcom found to be reliable for 2G signals but less so for 3G.

Last month the BBC launched an Android app designed to measure the coverage users get from smartphones in actual rather than hypothetical use. The project was criticised for leaving off the important measurement of data throughput but the project has at least drawn attention to the need for some kind of independent study on what mobile networks are offering 3G users.