What is “coverage”?

In the literature, the probability that the signal-to-interference ratio (SIR) at a given location and time exceeds a certain value is often referred to as the coverage probability. Is this sensible terminology, consistent with the way cellular operators define “coverage”? All publicly accessible cellular service coverage maps are static, i.e., their view of “coverage” is purely based on location and not on time. This seems natural since a rapidly changing coverage map, say at the level of seconds, would not be of much use to the user, apart from the fact that it would be very hard to collect the information at such time scales.

In contrast, the event SIR(x,t)>θ depends not only on the location x but also on the time t. A location may be “covered” at SIR level θ at one moment but “uncovered” just a little bit (one coherence time) later. Accordingly, a “coverage” map based on this criterion would have to be updated several times per second to accurately reflect this notion of coverage. Moreover, it would have to have a very high spatial resolution due to small-scale fading – one location may be “covered” at time t while another, half a meter away, may be “uncovered” at the same time t. Lastly, there is no notion of reliability. For each x and t, SIR(x,t)>θ either happens or not. It seems natural, though, to include reliability in a coverage definition; for example, by declaring that a location is covered if an SIR of θ is achieved with probability 95%, or 95 times out of 100 transmissions.

Hence there are three disadvantages of using SIR(x,t)>θ as the criterion for coverage:

  • The event depends on time (at the level of the coherence time)
  • The event depends on space at a very small scale (at the granularity of the coherence length of the small-scale fading)
  • The event does not allow for a reliability threshold to define coverage.

How can we define “coverage” without these shortcomings? First, we interpret coverage as a purely spatial term, consistent with the coverage maps we find on the web; it should not include a temporal component, at least not in the short-term – hopefully cellular coverage keeps improving over the years, but it should not vary randomly many times per second. Put differently, coverage should only depend on the network geometry (locations of base stations relative to the position x) and shadowing, but not on the rapid signal strength fluctuations due to small-scale fading. The solution to eliminate the temporal component is fairly straightforward – we just need to average over the temporal randomness, i.e., the small-scale fading. Such averaging eliminates the other two shortcomings as well. For a base station point process Φ, we define the conditional SIR distribution at location x as

\displaystyle P(x)=\mathbb{P}(\text{SIR}(x,t)>\theta\mid\Phi).

Here, the probability is taken over the small-scale fading, which eliminates the dependence on time (assuming temporal ergodicity of the fading process, which means that the ensemble average here could be replaced by a time average over a suitable long period). If shadowing is present, it can be incorporated in Φ. Then, introducing a reliability threshold ν, we declare

\displaystyle \{x \text{ covered}\}\quad\Leftrightarrow\quad \{P(x)>\nu\}

The reliability threshold ν appears naturally in this definition. The probability that P(x)>ν is the meta distribution of the SIR, since it is the distribution of the conditional SIR distribution given Φ. For stationary and ergodic point processes Φ, it does not depend on x and gives the area fraction that is covered at SIR threshold θ and reliability threshold ν. The figure below shows a coverage map where the colors indicate the reliability threshold at which locations are covered, from dark blue (ν close to 0) to bright yellow (ν close to 1).
So if P(SIR>θ) is not the coverage probability, what is it? It is simply the complementary cumulative distribution (ccdf) of the SIR, often interpreted as the success probability of a transmission.

Visualization of coverage at SIR threshold 1. Red dots indicate base stations. The colors indicate the reliability threshold. For example, for ν=0.8, regions colored orange and yellow are covered.

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