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Impact Study Praises Failed £150m UK Mobile Infrastructure Project

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017 (4:17 pm) - Score 2,283

The Government’s £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which was originally set-up in 2011/12 to improve mobile network (2G, 3G and 4G) coverage in rural “not spot” areas, has today won some praise for what it achieved, despite only being able to build 75 of the promised 575 masts.

Under the original plan the MIP contract with Arqiva would have built all of the masts and then left the major mobile network operators (EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three UK) to fund the operating costs for 20 years. Assuming everything had gone to plan then it was hoped that the MIP could have extended mobile coverage to around 60,000 premises (“not spots“) across the United Kingdom.

However the project became bogged down by a mix of problems, from delays in getting planning permission (some communities were unhappy and protested), to challenges with securing wayleave agreements via many 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 nowhere.

Ed Vaizey MP said last year (here):

“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. 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.”

In the end today’s Impact and Benefits report reveals that the MIP delivered mobile connectivity (of greater than -86dBm signal strength) through 75 mobile masts to just 7,199 premises that previously had no signal (this roughly equates to 14,100 residents), which came at a total cost of £35.81m. On the upside this was found to be 30% less than the estimated cost of building 60 masts.

There report also claims that there is “good reason to suspect that many of the areas in which the MIP has intervened would have continued to be overlooked by the market for the foreseeable future“. The analysis found that 63 of the 75 mast sites are “not commercially financially viable“, as they cost more to build per premise than the £1,000 they can reasonably be expected to earn in profit over 20 years.

Benefits Summary

This evaluation has found evidence to suggest that a great many benefits have been felt as a direct result of the Mobile Infrastructure Project. Benefits covered in this section are:

● Reducing the digital divide and adding public value by increasing mobile coverage in not-spot areas.

● Providing growth to the economy by helping businesses to run more efficiently and making local areas more attractive for visitors and young property buyers.

● Increasing public safety by providing more reliable access to emergency services.

● Increasing internet connectivity in areas also affected by poor broadband.

● Informing the Government’s mobile strategy by setting precedents for further improvements.

● Increased mobile signal quality in areas around not-spots.

Apparently the learning from the Project has since helped to shape the government’s new strategy on mobile connectivity, spurring them to “broker more ambitious coverage requirements” from the mobile operators as part of their spectrum licence conditions.

The challenges may also have helped to inform the recent revisions to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which aim to make it easier and cheaper to deploy new telecoms and broadband infrastructure on private land (land owners have not been very receptive to this).

Nevertheless we’d struggle to describe all of this as a silver lining given that so many areas were not reached by the project, which was still massively unsuccessful in its original ambition.

mobile infrastructure project map

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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.
Leave a Comment
12 Responses
  1. Stephen says:

    It seemed like a great idea, it’s just a shame it failed miserably.
    Up in Aberdeenshire, I heard around a dozen sites were identified but not one mast was built due to the fact that you could get a 2G signal with one or more ISP’s in the areas!! None of them had a 3G signal.

    1. Chris says:

      If they have 2G signal already then there is no need to build an entirely new mast through MIP
      Mast exists already, it just needs new tech adding to it.
      EE have publicly stated all their 2G sites will get 4G. O2 and Vodafone appear to be on a similar path

    2. MikeW says:

      Different frequencies propagate in different ways. Different technologies cope with interference and power in different ways. All require marked differences in cell planning.

      The net result is that a mast that gives suitable 2G coverage can’t necessarily give suitable 4G coverage within the same area.

      EE might well be right when they say they will transmit 4G from the 2G sites. But it won’t give them identical coverage. Or identical capacity.

    3. MikeW says:

      As an example, think back to when one2one and Orange started up. They replicated the 2G technology of Vodafone and Cellnet, but on the 1800MHz band instead of 900MHz.

      They just didn’t get the same kind of coverage as the incumbents, and needed considerably more masts.

  2. Rory McCune says:

    An amazing piece of post hoc justification from the government there. Where your project fails, just change what the targets are and then claim you’ve succeeded

    “In June 2015 the business case was re-baselined to target delivery of 40-60 masts by March 2016.”

    so just move the goalposts and assign success!

    And instead of asking anyone in the areas that were originally in-scope if they’re happy, only ask the people who actually go extra coverage…

  3. Murray says:

    MIP was designed to deal with what the market had failed to deliver – ie the tough hard to do areas – and it failed miserably, only 10%?? of masts proposed actually built.

    One wonders if MIP would have had additional time, could it have succeeded, but things move on, ESN awarded to EE may well help fill some of the gaps left by MIP, but at the expense of 3, O2 & VF who will have to dig deep to make up the difference.

  4. James Body says:

    Just look at the numbers:

    Total project cost: £35.81 million

    Number of premises covered: 7199

    Cost per premise covered: £4974.30

    How anyone can spin an expenditure of almost £5k per house as a success completely amazes me!

    From the DCMS Report (page 5): ‘MIP has delivered a mobile service to approximately 32% more residents at almost half of the cost per person than originally anticipated‘

    Does this mean that they forecast a cost of almost £10k per premise?

    Also – bear in mind that the sites that MIP/Arqiva *did* manage to build we’re the ‘easy’ ones – just consider the cost of deploying such a solution to the ‘difficult’ areas!

    1. Steve Jones says:

      It may be that cost per premises is not the best way to assess the cost effectiveness with a mobile network as there will also be benefits to people travelling through the area too. That said it does look very expensive. BDUK comes in for a lot of criticism, but the net cost per premises passed (when known clawback savings are taken into account) is around £150 per premises. That’s bound to increase with more rural premises, but there will be more clawback money to come as take-up increases.

      I suspect that the best way to support mobile phone usage in rural areas will be by some technology that can exploit the fixed line broadband network that is gradually being extended. That would surely be cheaper than installing hundreds of masts in the middle of nowhere.

  5. John Camilleri says:

    Disappointingly, this could all have been foreseen in 2011/12 with a desk study and development of strategies to overcome these systemic problems. The bar was set low for BDUK, but its comparative success was helped by many programme features, such as the identification of “not spots”, open tender process and minimum coverage requirements. Rural coverage is commercially viable for innovative companies, but the low ROI doesn’t make it a priority for incumbent MNOs. Attempts to introduce a USO type license condition will be met with strong legal challenges that will make BREXIT look easy! There is money in them there hills for someone!

  6. James Body says:

    Average cost per MIP site: (£35.81 million) / (75) = (£477,466)

    Bear in mind that this is solely the DCMS cost component – without factoring in the costs incurred by the MNOs to install their Radio Access Networks, so REAL cost per site is going to be much higher.

    Considering that the original target for MIP was to cover up to 60,000 premises, the result (7,199 premises covered) at a cost of £35.81 million out of the original £150 million funding can hardly be described as a success!

    Oh – and note that the DCMS Survey looking at levels of satisfaction at Parish Council level only consulted those Parishes *with* coverage – and not those that were supposed to receive MIP coverage and did not!

    As Chairman of Bowerchalke Parish Council – in the Chalke Valley in South West Wiltshire – which was supposed to receive FIVE MIP masts, none of which were delivered – I can report that satisfaction levels are extremely low!

  7. NGA for all says:

    Could Arqiva get a list of the positions of these sites? The NI sites could have used what were ex security sites on bases now de-commissioned, but with existing masts in situ.

  8. Steve Brookes says:

    Having been on the receiving end of a total failure to deliver anything in Lincolnshire and looking at the actual result, I really struggle with the concept of a success here.
    Having met with Arqiva during the project, it was very clear that they had little or no interest in this county.
    Sorry guys, but anyone who deems such a poor return as a success is sadly deluded. I think the term scraping the barrel for good news might well apply here.
    Far more credible to admit that actually it was an abject failure.

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