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GBP150m UK Mobile Infrastructure Upgrade Project Makes Slow Progress

Monday, December 1st, 2014 (1:26 am) - Score 1,884

The Government’s £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which aims to improve mobile coverage in areas where there is currently none (i.e. benefitting around 60,000 UK premises out of 80,000 known not-spots), is finally starting to talk to some of the local authorities that it originally expected to have completed by the end of 2013.

The project for the building of new mobile masts, which is managed by Arqiva and achieved EU State Aid clearance from the European Commission in December 2012, connected its first site in North Yorkshire (Weaverthorpe) during September 2013 after announcing a few months before that it intended to begin constructing sites in Cornwall, Northumberland, Strabane, Aberdeenshire and Powys by the end of 2013 (here).

Under the plan the four primary Mobile Network Operators (MNO), including EE, O2, Three UK and Vodafone, would all be providing coverage from the sites and funding their operating costs for the 20 year life of the project.

But 2013 came and went without much progress and so far 2014 has been much the same. As a result the project’s anticipated completion, which was originally due to finish sometime in 2015, has been delayed until at least March 2016 and so far only two sites (base stations) out of potentially several hundred are actually known to have gone live. The second site in North Molton (Devon) only went live at the end of August this year.

A DCMS Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

We are investing up to £150 million to improve mobile coverage in areas where there is currently no coverage from any of the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

We are currently identifying suitable sites, acquiring the rights to install infrastructure on those sites and then securing planning permission.”

The silence from Arqiva has also been one of the biggest problems, with the group’s original announcement in 2013 failing to provide a usefully detailed roll-out plan or timescale. On top of that the project has faced delays due to the lengthy consultation process required for each area and with getting the necessary planning permission (some will always oppose the building of news masts and this has happened with a number of MIP candidate sites). This is crucial because, according to Vodafone, it can then take a very long time to get a new site online.

Dr Rob Matthews, Vodafone’s Network Expert, said recently:

Where there is enough demand, operators have agreed to put radio kit onto each of Arqiva’s new masts to supply coverage to that local area. That includes 2G, 3G and 4G connectivity, which means areas that have previously had little or no mobile coverage can now make phone calls and access mobile internet. A couple of sites have already gone live, and we’ve already had comments from Vodafone customers, who now have access to the mobile web at 30Mbps at home!

There are many more sites to be built over the coming months. On average, it takes about a year for each site to go from conception through to delivering a mobile signal. We’re working hard with Arqiva to reduce that time as much as we can.”

Sources inform ISPreview.co.uk that over the past month Arqiva has been visiting various related councils to outline their plans, although some of those who witnessed their presentation(s) were less than pleased. “They have quite literally just dropped pins on a map! … The project should be at a far more advanced stage than what it is currently at,” said Rothbury Councillor Steven Bridgett to ISPreview.co.uk.

One of the key questions put to Arqiva during its presentation in Northumberland concerned the need for a three phase power supply to their new masts. Some councillors then pressed Arqiva to explain how exactly they intended getting 3 phase electricity to some of the more remote sites identified within their plan and, according to Bridgett, the answer came back that they didn’t know.

The official document from Arqiva’s presentation does at least admit that “the project has encountered some serious challenges since its inception“, but they’re apparently working to tackle those.. albeit very slowly. The documentation also notes that securing the necessary Backhaul capacity supply for the masts “remains a challenge“.

In terms of Northumberland’s own coverage improvements, it looks like around 18 sites are being considered including 15 where the County is the planning authority and 3 where the National Park is the planning authority. This is down from the original plan to build around 22 sites, which is due to changes as a result of more detailed planning. Most of the related lattice radio masts will need to be between 20 and 30 metres in height.

northumberland_mip_map_plan

It should be said that the MIP is technically separate from the Government’s proposal that Mobile Network Operators (MNO) adopt a national roaming policy (here), which focuses more on so-called “partial not-spots“.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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10 Responses
  1. Avatar Ignitionnet says:

    £25,000 per premises to deliver mobile signal.

    Crazy sums of money.

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Except you have to consider that mobile isn’t a “fixed” service, raw geographic availability to anybody passing through the area is a more complex value calculation.

  2. Avatar John says:

    30Mbps in the home (no phone line needed either!) – no wonder BT are wanting to go back to mobile.

  3. Avatar Matthew Williams says:

    I wonder if this will ever be finished sounds like it has barely even got started.

  4. Avatar dragoneast says:

    Well done for delving behind the press release. As ever those that do, and those that talk about it, don’t speak to each other. Noise and action don’t go together. One is easy, the other is hard. But the noise helps to pass the time while we wait.

  5. Avatar Tim says:

    We need Relish everywhere… it would make the mobile market much more tasty 🙂

  6. Avatar NGA for all says:

    State aid says masts (passive infrastructure) must be shared where at most their is business for one infrastructure. So a committee is formed where it only takes a minor objection to delay.

    They could safely spend most of the £150m finding a way to do what Parliament asked and go from 98% 4G coverage obligation which was reduced to 95% by nation, to 98% by nation.

  7. Avatar gerarda says:

    How is a notspot defined for this purpose? Weatherthorpe seems to be quite a large village with school, pub and church.

    Is the difference between the 6 million people which George Osborne said would benefit when he announced the MIP and the 60,000 premises now to be covered due to anywhere smaller than a large village no longer being considered?

    1. Avatar Stephen H says:

      A notspot is an area with no mobile signal from any ISP. There are many areas in Aberdeenshire that were considered for the MIP projects but were denied because at least 1 provider had 2G coverage in the area.
      That’s a pretty poor way to run the project if you ask me, surely a basic look at coverage maps would tell you this information up front. Here we are nearly 2 years down the line & sites have been knocked back because there is 1 or more providers with 2G in the area.

    2. Avatar gerarda says:

      yes but how big an area and how many people/premises does there have to be to count as one for this project?

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