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40 MPs Call for Ofcom to Monitor UK 4G Mobile Coverage Obligations

Monday, March 11th, 2019 (9:37 am) - Score 1,542
mobile mast rural broadband uk

More than 40 MPs from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Business (APPGRB) have today called on Ofcom to introduce better “annual monitoring” in order to ensure that Mobile operators like Vodafone, Three UK, O2 and EE keep to their future 4G and 5G (mobile broadband) coverage obligations.

According to Ofcom’s most recent Connected Nations 2018 report, geographic 4G (LTE) mobile network coverage from all operators is 97% in urban locations but sadly this falls to only 62% in rural areas. Thankfully the Government have committed to extend geographic mobile network coverage to 95% of the UK by 2022.

In keeping with the above, Ofcom’s forthcoming auction of the 5G friendly 700MHz radio spectrum band includes new coverage obligations (here). This should extend outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area and provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas, among other things.

The 700MHz Coverage Obligation

The binding coverage rules mean that up to two winning bidders would each have to, within 4 years of the award:

1. Extend good, outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area within four years of the award.

2. Improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices which they do not already cover. This means new coverage will be targeted at areas that are harder to reach; and

3. Provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas. This will ensure operators transform coverage in areas where it is lacking, rather than meeting the rules by just boosting existing signals.

However the APPGRB’s letter to Ofcom questions how this will be monitored because, at present, there is “no obligation on mobile operators to report on successful mast completions until the end of the review process” in 2024. It also notes that operators have “historically been reluctant to build masts in rural areas owing to the significant costs involved.”

Julian Sturdy MP, Chair of the APPG on Rural Business, said:

“While Ofcom’s initial announcement truly has the potential to revolutionise mobile coverage across the countryside, it will fall by the wayside if progress is not monitored on a regular basis. We need annual reporting to ensure that mobile operators are holding their promises to the public on delivering a 4G network which works for people wherever they live.”

Mark Bridgeman, CLA Deputy President, said:

“Increasing 4G coverage will unlock the potential of rural businesses and the countryside and we cannot let this opportunity slip owing to lax oversight. Given mobile operators’ previous reluctance to invest in rural areas, annual reporting on progress should be compulsory.

Ofcom have made great strides in this area in recent times and it would be a shame if they did not take the simple step to give themselves the tools to publicly keep mobile operators to their word on expanding rural 4G coverage and ending the “digital wilderness”.”

As usual there are two sides to every story and the “significant costs” involved with reaching rural areas is not the only challenge. Many mobile operators would also like to build taller masts beyond the current 25 metre limit (it’s even lower in some parts of the UK, such as Wales) because this is one way to significantly boost coverage, while keeping costs under control.

Around the EU a lot of countries have a 50m limit and the old 25m one seems increasingly redundant in the era of towering wind turbines. On top of that many rural residents often demand better mobile coverage, yet at the same time many will also object to planning applications for new masts. This creates a difficult problem for mobile operators to solve without Government help.

Last year’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) made a number of rough proposals to help support mobile coverage (e.g. reviewing the recently revised electronic communications code, changing planning regulations and opening Government infrastructure up for use by operators etc.), although it remains to be seen what the actual outcome of that will be.

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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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17 Responses
  1. Avatar Joe

    Higher masts (except in SSSIs/AONB)

    Personally I’d force roaming in the last ‘X’ % that is hard to reach and place a penalty rate on top for connection by such networks (and telcos can’t recoup via additional charges for such calls).

    • Avatar Mark

      And what do you propose for those areas? I find ANOB a joke, I live in the Cotswolds a town of nearly 4000 people over a thousand properties, there’s nothing outstanding or natural about that, roads, pavements streets etc, out of town it might be a little more natural, and nimbys have stopped all masts, we don’t even get 2G in the Town centre.

    • Avatar Joe

      If you judge it an SSSIs/AONB then you frankly have to pay for the compromise of not getting things like masts. 4k pppl micro should work.

  2. Avatar Matthew

    Couldn’t EE win the 700MHz obligation lot and basically be near done? Seeing as they are already over the 90% Coverage. Though I suppose they might struggle with the other two parts.

    • Avatar Joe

      Not sure if Eu rules may make it diff to win more than chucks of the new bw.

    • Avatar alan

      Claimed coverage and actual coverage are very different things, most mobile operators claim 90% or more coverage, i doubt you based on naming a specific provider and wanting them to win a spectrum bid would agree most of them are at 90% or more.

    • Avatar Matthew

      Even ofcom state EE have around 90% geographical

    • Avatar Michael V

      The 700mhz band needs to be shared out with all four Operators. There’s going to be a cap of probably around max of 35% for each company.

    • Avatar gerarda

      Ofcom’s coverage claims are even more optimistic than the operators.

    • Avatar Mark

      What they claim and what they have are two different things.

  3. Avatar Meadmodj

    To increase the potential data capacity we need more masts of subsequent lower power. For very rural it has to be shared infrastructure.

    I find it interesting that in the mobile market Government/Ofcom appears to promote a form of cross subsidy from urban to rural yet in fixed broadband it is working towards the opposite.

  4. Avatar Michael V

    I thought ofcom did monitor the four Mobile Network Operators coverage! Or are they talking about stricter monitoring?! Ofcom have not really helped though. The MNOs need to be allowed to build taller masts than just 25meters. This should have been changed years ago. The taller the mast, the wider the circle of coverage. Rural consumers also make it difficult for the MNOs to get planning permission for a mast. These are just some of the things that need to be addressed. We shouldn’t still be having the same conversation as we were 4/6 years ago.

  5. Avatar Paul

    Taller masts are great at providing coverage, EE have several >30m masts near me but none of them have anything more than 20MHz of band 3 which means speeds are often down to single digits during the day. Tall masts need lots of bandwidth to provide decent service to their coverage footprint.

  6. Avatar Mark

    Too little too late, been testing EE on my phone and it’s sognal is just far superior to O2’s, so I’ll be very sadly leaving Tesco Mobile, the best network I think especially for customer service, but unfortunately they use the dreadful O2 signal, I went to my sisters near Southampton and then to Goodwood and O2’s signal was just poor in general everywhere…

    So much for having coverage in populated areas…

  7. Avatar Stephen Wakeman

    This is definitely a catch 22 situation in many cases. Countries like Wales have communities that want better mobile reception but don’t want masts and of those masts that they allow they want them small and discreet.

    There does need to be some sharing agreement in place because the limited spectrum available and playing the MNO’s off against each other in the form of a “free market” is not helping mobile customers in rural areas where the availability of signal and network capacity is being limited by factors other than simple network investment. Where there is planning permission for a single mast there needs to be a system in place where each of the operators chips in so all customers can benefit from that mast if it is not viable for another mast from a competing business to be built.

    It’s all very well having a market in place for competition but if the purpose of that is to benefit mobile customers, then having to choose one network that covers you in one area and not another is a lose situation. Competition in this market is not just about price, it’s about quality and availability of service.

  8. Avatar Mark

    Joe it’s never about the mast, they’ve allowed tall masts but away from population, when a mast is proposed nearer the Town, there up in arms, it’s not appearance just health issues, they don’t want radiation killing them and their children,theres a campaign now to stop any more Led streetlights because of their harmful emissions.

  9. Avatar Brian

    One thing that doesn’t seem to get mentioned is the network operators attitude to VoLTE. Slowly some of the blackspot areas are getting filled with 4G on band 20, and in these areas it can be the only signal available. The operators say they only support VoLTE on handsets they supply, but they don’t mean won’t support you with problem solving, they actually mean they will attempt to block the phone from using it at the network level, although some phones allow the ‘VoLTE carrier check’ to be ignored.

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