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UPDATE GBP150m UK Mobile Infrastructure Project Still Dragging its Feet

Saturday, October 24th, 2015 (1:38 am) - Score 1,830

After four years the Government’s £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which was set-up to improve mobile phone network coverage in areas where there is currently none, continues to drag its feet in some key areas and may not deliver on its promise.

The project, which seeks to benefit around 60,000 UK premises out of some 80,000 known not-spots, is being managed by Arqiva. The first new site (mast) went live in North Yorkshire (Weaverthorpe) during September 2013 and this was set to be followed by more in Cornwall, Northumberland, Strabane, Aberdeenshire and Powys (here).

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

However 2013 came and went without much progress, with 2014 following a similar trend and in some areas the progress during 2015 has once again been akin to that of an extremely drunk snail. One of the worst examples of this delay can be found in Northumberland (England).

At the end of last year we reported that around 18 sites in Northumberland were being considered (here) and most of the related lattice radio masts would also need to be between 20 and 30 metres in height, which can cause other problems (here). But after a year of work only 3 have been granted planning permission (mostly in Berwick), with just 2 more in the pipeline (here).

The scheme is currently due to run until 31st March 2016 (an extension on the original 2015 window), which means any planned masts that have not progressed to a sufficient stage of development by the end of October 2015 may struggle to get funding due to the long development phase.

A DCMS (Government) Spokesperson said:

This government is investing in mobile infrastructure, making sure more households have better mobile coverage, and that people in rural areas are not left behind. Providing services for remote areas can be extremely complex but as construction has begun on more and more sites the rollout will gather speed.

As a result more homes will continue to benefit from improved coverage, and government is now considering how coverage for voice and text messages can be delivered for the final 0.4 percent of UK premises that do not currently have it.”

So why all the problems? Firstly, not everybody supports the idea of 20-30 metre tall masts, which can make getting planning permission a challenge and one that often creates a very long consultation period.

On top of that many of the masts require a three phase power supply, which isn’t so easy when you’re working out in the middle of remote rural areas. Furthermore there’s also the challenge of finding landowners that are willing to let operators build for a reasonable fee (many will ask for a lot more money than would be viable), which remains the subject of an on-going row (here).

Lest we note forget that all of these masts need to be supported by good backhaul capacity, which is yet another difficult problem in rural areas where the nearest available supplier (Microwave or Fibre Optic) could be some considerable distance away.

The situation leaves the Government with somewhat of a headache, particularly as last year’s £5bn agreement to extend the 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).

UPDATE 26th October 2015

The Telegraph has picked up on a related story (here) in a different part of the UK, which includes a comment from Kip Meek, an acting adviser to EE, who states: “The whole MIP experience has given government a small insight into just how complex, expensive and protracted a process it can be to introduce mobile coverage in rural and remote areas. Government should now ask some serious questions about which current regulations stand in the way of its stated ambitions for coverage, digital infrastructure and productivity.”

However passing new rules that ignore public opposition, no matter how nonsensical the opponents, tends to be politically very difficult. It’s a bit like trying to build off-shore wind farms, which have proven difficult due to public opposition, but moan too much and we might one day see complaints about rising power cuts due to a lack of supply and that’s a lot more serious.

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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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14 Responses
  1. Avatar AndrewH says:

    Well this is total bollocks (sorry). There are perhaps 4 – 8 MIP masts going up in South Devon (haven’t looked in North Devon but I suspect more).
    All of them are filling notorious not spots. Two near me, one at North Huish (covering Diptford where there is always no signal whatsoever on any network) and one at Cornworthy are being passed right now. The others will simply be pushed through by the secretary of state. I agree with this. They have to go up, this is the 21st century. Stuff the nimbys. They can move somewhere else. Yoghurt weaving Muppets!
    Progress is needed to advance. The project down here is certainly moving forward at a fast pace now. Dartmoor is proving a sticking point but I’m sure there are more people up there who want a signal than don’t. It’s just the backward thinking fecking nimbys once again that are slowing it all down. Pointless. It will happen one day regardless.

    1. Avatar AndrewH says:

      Hmmm, Never post on a Friday night after coming back from the pub! 🙂
      Apologies for the slightly strong language in that post.

      What I meant was, I don’t see any issues down here as all the masts appear to be going ahead.
      How long it will take to get them up and on is another matter.

    2. Avatar Paul Marsh says:

      The reason the National Park and residents rejected the mast at Lastingham was that there is a fibre-optic backhaul option in the village that had been overlooked by Arqiva. This obviates the need for a skyline position and indeed the villagers want the mast CLOSER to the village connected to the fibre. So they are the opposite of NIMBYs in actual fact. Furthermore, if Arqiva had bothered to contact the village prior to submitting the plan there would have been plenty of time to put an appropriate proposal through that would have satisfied all interested parties.

  2. Avatar Stephen says:

    I’m not aware of a single mast going live in Aberdeenshire, even though plenty of areas would benefit from it. I have it on good authority that no sites have been selected because if even just 1 ISP provides 2G in an area, then that area won;t be considered. Absolutely shocking criteria for picking out sites.

    1. Avatar TomD says:

      I agree. The situation in Essex is similar: 3 sites funded, but the team could apparently only find 2 sites in the whole county that fulfilled the criteria, in spite of there being large areas of the county with near-0 2G-only coverage.
      I suspect it shows just how inaccurate the mobile providers’ maps are in some rural areas. Why aren’t mobile operators increasing the accuracy of their maps over time by more sampling?
      The maps remain too optimistic, and that has had a knock-on effect on the MIP.

  3. Avatar james vincent says:

    Why the hell are we including 2G in this? let’s focus on 3G HSPA+ & 4GLte. People need to stop crying over a Cell Mast. Get over it & let the Operators get 3G & 4G coverage out there. These are the kind of people that complain they dont have service but when a cell site is planned then there’s uproar. These cell sites aren’t gonna kill anyone. If I lived in a rural place I’d welcome the four operators. OK. Rant over. As @AndrewH says ‘They have to go up, this is the 21st century. Stuff the nimbys’. [whatever a nimby is]
    Powys in mid wales is a very awkward county as it’s very large & extremely hilly with high mountains, deep valleys & many houses spaced out with tiny villages. So that’s requiring many masts to be built. The government aren’t doing enough, councils are pedantic, land owners want too much money. It takes a year from planning a site to it going live. The government can’t be bothered to change these rules meaning we are way behind Europe.

    1. Avatar AndrewH says:

      NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).
      Just to clarify. 🙂

  4. Avatar james vincent says:

    Ah! Thank you AndrewH

  5. Avatar Steve Jones says:

    Three phase? How much power do these things require? Even 1kW over a whole year is around £1k per year at retail prices. The single phase into domestic premises is frequently rated at 100 amp, or about 24kW.

    If phone masts are consuming power measured in the tens of kW, then power costs per mast would be in the tens of thousands of pounds a year. Rather a big running cost I would have thought given the more limited population.

    Of course it may be three phases for other reasons, perhaps something arcane to do with phase balances in remote areas.

    Of course these are for masts covering large geographical areas, so perhaps not typical of power consumption in more densely populated areas where the cells will be smaller. But what this does tend to point to is the expense of covering sparcely populated areas even if the initial capital cost is not included.

  6. Avatar dragoneast says:

    You’re right to point to the cost of regulation. We have always been one of the most regulated countries on earth (long before Europe added a layer on top). And despite endless government rhetoric for decades about “cutting red tape”, it’s mostly hot air. Indeed deregulation (so called) has embedded a lot of it by dispersing responsibility amongst many new entities who all now have a say before anything can be changed.

    But the main reason is . . . we like it. Listen to ourselves, the first thing we always argue about is whether anything has been done “in the right way”. The second one is “our rights”. A lawyers feast, and the judges don’t go hungry.

  7. Avatar Rory McCune says:

    I’ve been in communication with the MIP project for a while, trying to find out information about the sites in Argyll & Bute (which has shockingly bad mobile coverage) and the problem here has been backhaul capacity, from what they’ve told me.

    I got provided a list of sites that they were looking at, but from what I got told in June this year none of them are going ahead unless the situation on the backhaul side of things changes, and that didn’t look promising…

    Very frustrating, given that this project was probably the one chance some of the rural communities out this way have of getting better coverage anytime soon.

    1. I don’t suppose for one minute that the average MP even has the remotest idea what backhaul is, or why it is so important in rural areas! 🙂

  8. Avatar Kath Brown says:

    Having successfully obtained planning approval for the mast (twice) in a National Park we have now been informed by DCLG that this will not go ahead – neighbouring mast turned down by NIMBY’s suggesting that they can fund a mastless alternate.
    Business infrastructure and personal safety is now at risk as the shorter easier completed mast options are being completed in favour of ours.

  9. Avatar Martin E says:

    Planning was turned down on the objection of South Downs National Park, stating the mast was to close to a bridleway, it would have been at least twenty metres, unsitely, well the pylons going across the land close by are hardly attractive and just as much as an eyesore.
    This would have served three villages and a five mile stretch of valley that is a total black spot.
    They want to encourage more people to the South Downs who in turn need coverage in case of emergencies etc.
    We need the masts.

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