The Government’s Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, has finally gone on record to confirm that their £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which was set-up to improve mobile phone network coverage in areas where there is currently none, has failed.
Politicians rarely like to admit their mistakes, which is in large part because the mass media tends to rip them to shreds when it happens. As such it’s refreshing to see a degree of honesty about a project that has been struggling for the past couple of years.
The Arqiva contract, which was supported by EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three UK (they were responsible for providing coverage from the sites and funding operating costs for 20 years), aimed to extend mobile coverage to around 60,000 notspot premises across the United Kingdom and a number of new masts did go live (e.g. Weaverthorpe in North Yorkshire).
However the project ended up being bogged down by a mix of problems, from delays in getting planning permission (some communities were unhappy and did protest), to challenges with securing wayleave agreements via lots of different land owners, the difficulty of confirming where “not spots” actually existed (mobile coverage is variable) and the inherent problem with finding a three phase power supply when in the middle of a very remote rural location.
Similar issues were also experienced with regards to the cost and time needed to deploy adequate backhaul capacity to those masts. On top of all that the project was due to run until 31st March 2016 (an extension on the original 2015 window), but it became clear at the end of last year that many masts still wouldn’t have even secured planning permission in time (here).
Ed Vaizey MP, Digital Economy Minister, said:
“I feel in a relatively philosophical mood as I gaze at 12 colleagues who are a sort of jury, ready to give a verdict on the programme. I must admit that I am guilty as charged. I do not think the programme has been a success, and I do not think that Ministers often say that about their programmes. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) predicted that I would be bullish about the programme in my usual bombastic—he did not say that word, but perhaps he meant it—fashion, but I will not be bullish about it.
I think that when Ministers defend their programmes, they should have credibility. I am happy to defend the superfast broadband roll-out, which I think has been an unequivocal success despite the occasional criticism I receive. I am also happy to defend our record on libraries, despite the brickbats that I get from library campaigners, but I am fully prepared to stand up in the Chamber and admit that the mobile infrastructure project has not been as successful as we had envisaged.
We set aside £150 million. We talked about 600 sites. Our heart was in the right place. We wanted to eliminate “not spots”, precisely because of the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) raised: mobile phones are essential to many people in their daily lives. We wanted to eliminate the “not spots” that exist as best we could. I am grateful to him for securing this important debate.”
The full exchange can be found online and is well worth a read in order to better understand some of the complexities involved, not least with regards to the tedious process of seeking planning permission that saw some councillors reject an already approved site simply because they hadn’t been given a choice of mast colours 🙂 .
“Apparently, if a range of colours had been given, that would not have caused a delay, but the council wanted specific approval of the mast’s specific colour. That was compounded by the fact that the council and the area of outstanding natural beauty partnership did not respond to Arqiva’s request for guidance on what colour mast they wanted, to enable the council to make an application to discharge the planning condition—in other words, the colour of the mast,” said Ed Vaizey.
Unfortunately the MIP is now expected to be wound-up (only about 50 of the hundreds planned will actually be built), although the remaining money could still be made available for similar projects if local authorities identified a specific need.
The situation also leaves the Government with somewhat of a headache, particularly as the £5bn agreement to extend geographic mobile network coverage (voice and text) of the United Kingdom from 80% today to 90% by 2017 (3G /4G data coverage will also be pushed to 85%) may yet face some of the same problems (here).
It’s understood that Government will use the MIP’s failure as a learning tool in order to develop a better approach for future contracts, not least through tweaks to the planning process and a change to how mobile operators gauge network coverage (i.e. by geography instead of premises passed).