Mobile phone coverage on the Walker’s Haute Route

One of the benefits of multi-day hiking is being able to unplug from your busy, connected life to achieve an enviable mindfulness on the trail. While going completely off the grid during the Walker’s Haute Route is appealing, it’s best to be making that choice by switching your mobile to flight mode rather than not having a way to find a signal at all. For example, there may be times when you want to check the weather forecast, keep loved ones updated on your progress, share pictures with friends or even call for help.

At all other times you can have your phone switched to flight mode so you’re not interrupted on the trail. After all, our mobile map navigation works offline so you won’t need a cell signal for directions!

In this blog post, I’m going to share with you which mobile network has most verified coverage along the Walker’s Haute Route and how you can access it for your hike.

Which is the best Network for the Haute Route?

I have determined that the Swisscom network has the most verified coverage on the Haute Route trail. You can find my analysis below outlining how I arrived at this conclusion and also what I’m doing during the 2019 summer to improve the data further.

For the French section of Walker’s Haute Route, given it is less than 10% of the total distance and not on a remote section of trail, it is recommended that you just ensure your Swisscom network provider allows you to roam in France. Looking at the same data I used to assess the Switzerland networks, I can see each of the French networks have verified coverage throughout the Chamonix valley.

Which is the best SIM for the Haute Route?

Updated 3rd of July 2019 (can no longer buy Swisscom SIMs at Swiss Post/Geneva Airport)

I have two recommendation depending on your preferences and a fallback option

  1. Buy a prepaid COOP SIM on arrival for 4G Swisscom network speeds and local customer support

    • Inter Discount stores sell prepaid SIMs and there is one in both Geneva and Zurich airports (as at the end of June 2019, both stores had over 15 prepaid SIM cards in stock). If you’re booking a transfer from the airport to Chamonix, make sure you give yourself enough time in the airport to buy the SIM card before departing. The Inter Discount is in the public area of Geneva airport from 6am until 9pm 7 days per week

    • You don’t need to be a Swiss resident to buy one, however, you will need your passport to register the SIM under your name and your phone needs to be unlocked

    • The cost of a standard prepaid SIM is 20 CHF which includes a small amount of SMS, phone calls and data within the Swiss network. You may need to add more credit, an international data roaming package (to use on the French part of the trail) and international voice calling which will be extra

  2. Buy the UK/EU Three Mobile prepaid SIM if you want to maximise convenience but compromise on speed

    • Buy on amazon and activate/test before you leave home

    • The cost is 25 USD which provides 12 GB of data that can be used in all European countries (plus others such as Australia, Hong Kong, USA) and 3,000 mins of voice & 3,000 texts to European numbers only.

    • You connection is restricted to 2G (voice calls) on remote parts of the trail and 3G in populated areas as you are essentially a UK customer roaming abroad in Switzerland

The map on the left shows the Three Mobile 2G (purple) / 3G (orange) network coverage between Lac Des Dix and Zinal. The map on the right shows that Swisscom provides their customers with 4G (blue) access in the same area

The map on the left shows the Three Mobile 2G (purple) / 3G (orange) network coverage between Lac Des Dix and Zinal. The map on the right shows that Swisscom provides their customers with 4G (blue) access in the same area

Fallback Option: Roaming Package with your current mobile provider

  • If your mobile phone is locked by your home network provider and you are unable to have them unlock it, purchasing a roaming package is your only option…unless you want to buy a burner phone for your trip :P

 

How did I arrive at this recommendation?

There are 3 mobile networks in Switzerland;

Each of these companies have coverage map which suggest you’ll have some degree of coverage in nearly every part of the country.

Snapshot from Sunrise network coverage map suggesting the 4G or 4G+ mobile signal is available in the entire Mattertal Valley between St Niklaus and Tasch.

Snapshot from Sunrise network coverage map suggesting the 4G or 4G+ mobile signal is available in the entire Mattertal Valley between St Niklaus and Tasch.

These are useful and usually accurate for populated areas with good telecommunication infrastructure, however, the disclaimers that accompany these coverage maps are particularly relevant for customers that want to access their network in remote parts of the country.

The Sunrise disclaimer states that “The information provided by Sunrise Communications on mobile network coverage is intended for reference purposes only and is not binding for the outdoor availability of mobile services. Gaps in coverage can occur, even in areas that are shown as covered, especially in buildings, tunnels and heavily wooded areas. Network coverage depends on the end device and on network capacity usage, as well as on topographical and atmospheric conditions.”

Although these types of disclaimers for coverage maps are not unique to Swiss telecommunication companies, it becomes very difficult for a Haute Route hiker to confidently use them to determine who has the best coverage along the trail and where the network will actually be accessible.

In order to gain a higher level of confidence in the network coverage map, I have used a leading third party network testing company, called nPerf, to validate each network providers coverage on the Haute Route. The nPerf data is collected from tests carried out by users of the nPerf app. These are tests conducted in real conditions, directly in the field. Anyone is welcome to download the nPerf app onto your smartphone which will start feeding the results into their database.

To show you an example why network verification is important, take for example the Sunrise mobile signal coverage in the Mattertal Valley. In the image above, it would appear that there is 4G or 4G+ signal the entire way down the valley. However, looking at the nPerfs data for the same region, it indicates that no network coverage is available. This is represented by the grey line in the image below which is made up of over 2,000 dots/tests collected between April and December 2018.

The grey dots indicate where a Sunrise customer has tried to find a signal but been unable to do so. The underlying map is credited to  © OpenStreetMap contributors . The cell signal data is credited to  © nPerf 2014-2019

The grey dots indicate where a Sunrise customer has tried to find a signal but been unable to do so. The underlying map is credited to © OpenStreetMap contributors. The cell signal data is credited to © nPerf 2014-2019

Per the Sunrise disclaimer, we don’t actually know if a signal could not be accessed due to a problem with the end devices (mobile phones) or whether network usage was already at maximum capacity during these times. I think it is important to give Sunrise and the other Swiss telecommunication companies the benefit of the doubt, so instead of saying there is no coverage here, I consider the network coverage to be unverified. In summary, if nPerf data either does not show a signal (no dots) OR shows that a signal cannot be accessed (grey dots), then I consider the network to be unverified in this area.

There is highly likely to be more network coverage on the trail than nPerfs data shows, so feel free to supplement my analysis with your own anecdotal evidence. As I have not focused on recording my mobile network access along the entire Haute Route (yet!), I’ve decided to only supplement the nPerfs data with my own experience as a last step below where I can verify calls/messages were sent or received from these locations.

Who has the Most verifiable coverage?

Taking this approach to the entire trail, I have overlayed a common Haute Route trail on top of the nPerf network coverage testing map of each Swiss telecommunication providers below. The results show that Swisscom have the most locations with a verified network coverage compared to Salt and Sunrise.

Please note that when looking at the data, I have focused on where the signal has been verified rather than the quantity of data points verifying the signal in a particular area. This is because Swisscom has 60% of the mobile market in Switzerland and therefore is expected to have the most test results in the nPerf dataset. This could mean that in remote areas, they have a higher likelihood of having nPerfs test results too, however unfortunately I can’t do much about that.

Sunrise: Least Verified Coverage

Coverage verification: Trient, Arpette, Sembrancher, Le Chable Verbier, Arolla, Les Hauderes, La Sage, Grimentz, Zinal, Zermatt

Sunrise network coverage verification on the Haute Route per nPerfs cell signal test data.

Salt: MOderate Verified Coverage

Additional Coverage verification: Champex Dén Haut, Champex-Lac, Mattertal Valley between St Niklaus and Zermatt, as well as Europaweg Trail near the Skywalk suspension bridge.

Salt network coverage verification on the Haute Route per nPerfs cell signal test data.

Swisscom: Highest Verified Coverage

Additional Coverage verification: Col Termin, Grand Desert, Grand-Dixence end of Lac Des Dix, Refuge La Barma, near Cabane Des Dix, Pas de Chevres/Col de Riedmatten

Unverified coverage location compared to Salt and Sunrise: Arpette

Swisscom network coverage verification on the Haute Route per nPerfs cell signal test data.

Based on the nPerfs data, Swisscom has the most locations on the Haute Route with verified mobile network coverage. This is inline with my expectations given they are the incumbent telecommunication provider for the country and remain majority owned by the Swiss government.

Where is there no coverage VERIFICATION?

With Swisscom as my network recommendation, these are the accommodation locations with no coverage verification. I have supplemented with my own anecdotal experience which I plan to reinforce with data after my next hike of the Walkers Haute Route in June.

  • Cabane de Louvie (there is a spot nearby with a weak signal - ask the staff)

  • Col de Prafleuri

  • Cabane Des Dix (there is a spot above the cabane with a weak signal - ask the staff)

  • Cabane de Moiry (weak signal possible)

The only mountain passes with verifiable coverage per the nPerfs data are Col de Balme, Col de la Forclez, Col Termin, Pas de Chevres/Col de Riedmatten, Col de Sorebois.

What am I doing improve coverage Data?

When I hike the Haute Route throughout 2019, I’m going to use the nPerfs app to record where I have a cell signal throughout the trail. I would love if you could also download the app and use it along the trail too so 2020 Haute Route hikers will have a clearer picture of where network coverage is available on the trail.

How did I arrive at my SIM recommendations?

The two recommendations I have are;

  1. Buy a prepaid COOP SIM on arrival for highest network speeds throughout the trail and local customer supports

  2. Buy the UK/EU Three Mobile prepaid SIM if you want to maximise convenience but compromise on speed

To arrive at these recommendations, I first looked at the three ways you can access the Swisscom network;

  1. Via a roaming package with your current mobile provider (if they roam on Swisscom)

  2. Buy a prepaid Swisscom SIM on arrival

  3. Buy a prepaid SIM through a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) that uses the Swisscom network

I then considered the different pre-requisites, costs, support, speeds expected, and any other restrictions for each of these options to arrive at my recommendation. My assessment of each option has been shared below.

1. Roaming Package with your current mobile provider

Pre-requite: Your current mobile network provider needs to roam on the Swisscom network

Pros: Order ahead of time and easy to activate on arrival

Cons: Roaming packages can be restrictive in terms of call/data quantity and expensive

My conclusion: Buying a roaming package from your home mobile provider is usually much more expensive that buying a local SIM and it also may not be possible to find out who your home mobile provider will roam with in Switzerland. If you are one of the lucky few that have a reasonably priced roaming package and can confirm Swisscom network is your partner network in Switzerland, this option is for you! For the rest, read on!

2. Buying a Prepaid Swisscom SIM

Pre-requisite: Your mobile phone needs to be unlocked

Pros: Local customer support by being a direct customer of the network provider and guarantee the fastest network speeds

Cons: You can no longer buy a Swisscom prepaid SIM from the post office and there is no Swisscom store at Geneva airport so you need to go downtown Geneva to find one. It can be expensive with add-ons to use across Europe (ie: use in France) and you’ll need to give yourself extra time at the airport to register

My conclusion: Haute Route hikers typically transfer direct from Geneva airport to Chamonix where they will begin the hike. Because there is nowhere to buy a Swisscom SIM in the airport (not that Swisspost is no longer selling them), it would require a dedicated delay to a hikers Chamonix transfer to acquire one. It’s also a little more expensive than the MVNO providers that use their network, however, I expect it to be much cheaper than a roaming package with your home provider. Having the peace of mind that you’ll definitely be using the Swisscom network, receiving in country customer support and have the fastest speeds from the signal provider is worth the few extra dollars but for those that don’t want to dedicate the time going into Geneva just for a SIM card, read on!

3. Buying a Prepaid SIM from a MVNO on the SwissCOm network

Pre-requisite: Your mobile phone needs to be unlocked

Pros: Can be bought ahead of time or in the Geneva or Zurich airports. Most cost effective option for the sms/calls/data with most packages including use across Europe

Cons: They don’t own the network so may be limited in the custom service they can provide and their partnerhips with Swisscom can restrict network access speeds.

There are three Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) that I have reviewed which use the Swisscom network;

  • COOP Mobile Buy on arrival into Geneva or Zurich airports for 4G network speeds throughout the trail and local customer support

  • Lyca Mobile: Buy on arrival and register for the SIM with your passport

  • Three Mobile: Buy ahead of time on Amazon and activate before you leave your home country.

My conclusion: COOP Mobile has recently (from 9th of Jan 2019) transferred their network provider from Salt to the Swisscom 4G network. They are also available for purchase in Geneva and Zurich airports at Inter Discount stores which makes them a convenient option. Although Lyca Mobile also use the Swisscom network, can be purchased in the airports and are cheaper, they didn’t have 4G coverage on parts of the trail that my Swisscom SIM did when I tested during June. I suspect that similar to Three mobile, they haven’t purchased 4G access to the entire Swisscom network (coverage pictures at the top) which allows them to offer a lower price.

For the Three Mobile SIM, ordering it on amazon in your home country is very convenient and cost effective but it comes with a few catches; (1) It’s speed is restricted on the network so you won’t be able to video calls, surf the web for weather reports or use social media in 2G areas - as you are essentially a UK customer roaming in Switzerland (2) They only allow you to reload credit with a UK credit/debit card - It comes with 12gb of data and 3,000 sms/mins which is plenty for most people to use during the 30 day window they give you. If you’re ok with these, the convenience of this option might make it best for you.


Final Word

I hope you’ve enjoyed my analysis of network coverage on the trail. Would love to hear if you have access to additional data or anecdotal evidence that can strengthen the analysis further.

I’m here to help you self-guide the Walker’s Haute Route with confidence and believe part of that is sharing where hikers can choose to disconnect and where they are really disconnected from the outside world.

If you’d like to feed some data into nPerfs during your 2019 hike, I’ll be able to use it to refresh this analysis in time for 2020. You can download the app here.

Contact me anytime at info@hauteroutehiking.com

Brendan