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Rural UK Landowners Seek Guarantees in Rural 4G Mobile Rollout

Thursday, June 6th, 2019 (12:07 pm) - Score 1,247
ee 4g mast in a rural uk field

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Countryside Alliance, National Farmers Union (NFU), Rural Services Network and Which? have today jointly called on the UK Government to ensure that the proposed plan by mobile broadband operators to improve rural 4G network coverage meets “four key tests.”

Last month EE (BT), Vodafone, O2 and Three UK confirmed that they had reached an agreement to boost the rural coverage of their 2G, 3G, 4G and future ultrafast 5G wireless broadband networks (details). Under the deal a new infrastructure company will be established to help build masts in remote areas and the reciprocal sharing of masts / mast space will also become possible.

The proposed “single rural network” agreement is intended to act as an industry-led alternative to some of the more contentious aspects of Ofcom’s proposed coverage obligation, which will form part of their soon-to-be-auctioned 700MHz radio spectrum band (an ideal band for rural coverage as it travels further).

However some groups are concerned that the new deal, if accepted, could result in Ofcom softening their obligation to the point of it becoming ineffective (i.e. little to stop the mobile operators from dragging their feet). On top of that they fear it would mean 95% 4G coverage being achieved by 2026, which they say is some “four years later than existing government manifesto commitments” (note: the manifesto didn’t specifically state 4G).

In response they’ve written to the Government to propose four key tests, which they say “need to be met to ensure a better outcome for rural consumers and businesses.”

The Four Key Tests

* Include legal obligations to deliver improved coverage.
* Ensure coverage improvements are delivered as soon as possible.
* Outline robust monitoring arrangements for Ofcom.
* Require operators to publish a roll-out plan, as is the case with broadband today.

Tim Breitmeyer, CLA President, said:

“I’m pleased to see mobile companies engaging with the issue, but any suggestion that rural users can wait seven years for 4G coverage is totally inadequate. Furthermore, it leaves too much riding on the goodwill of operators when previous voluntary targets have been missed. Only a strong, robust, transparent and legally binding regulatory framework will ensure the needs of the countryside are met in a timely manner.”

Stuart Roberts, NFU Vice President, said:

“It’s totally unacceptable that our farmers and growers are being denied a reliable and functioning digital mobile service. Patchy digital coverage remains a major barrier in improving on farm productivity. It’s imperative that Government ensures rural businesses are able to enjoy the same advances in mobile digital connectivity as urban businesses so all businesses can harness the opportunity of connectivity to become more productive, competitive and innovative as well as being able to compete on a level playing field with our international neighbours on the world stage.”

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that Ofcom’s decision to include 4G as an option for the delivery of the new 10Mbps broadband USO (details) may separately act as an incentive for at least one operator, EE, to further expand their rural network coverage (i.e. extending 4G can often be a fair bit cheaper than building new FTTC/P fixed line networks, depending upon the area).

Otherwise you can read the full letter here and we’ve posted an extended version of the four key tests below. We’ll have to wait and see how much of all this makes it through to the final auction.

NOTE: Ofcom states that at present the 4G geographic coverage from all operators is just 67% of the UK (91% if only looking at EE) and this reaches 78% when including older 2G and 3G services (here).

The Four Key Tests – Extended

• Ensure that the operators are legally obliged to deliver this improved coverage. Unlike Ofcom’s coverage obligation proposals, we understand that there is currently no fully agreed mechanism which will ensure operators are legally committed to delivery; this needs to be addressed.

• Ensure delivery of improved coverage as soon as possible. The operators’ current timetable suggests 88% coverage by 2024 and 95% geographic coverage by 2026. Particularly if these targets are backloaded, this is too slow to ensure rural businesses and communities quickly benefit from improvements in connectivity. Consideration must be given to implementing interim coverage targets to ensure continued improvements.

• Set out monitoring arrangements by Ofcom to ensure that the coverage improvements are being delivered on time and progress reported in a transparent way. Ofcom must take enforcement action if the targets are not met. Furthermore, Ofcom must have the powers to mandate rural roaming if necessary, as an alternative way to improve coverage, if commitments to deliver the SRN are not being met.

• Include a requirement on the operators to publish a rollout plan detailing where coverage will be improved, and by when, every 12 months. Currently rural communities and businesses have no knowledge of when improved 4G coverage will be delivered in their area because of a lack of transparency about roll out plans. This lack of certainty in turn has a significant negative impact on welling of rural communities and business investment. In particular, if the SRN proposals include plans for a demand-led approach for achieving 95% coverage, clarity must be provided about how this will work in practice. The process must be transparent and straightforward for consumers.

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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.
Leave a Comment
10 Responses
  1. Avatar Michael V

    Building masts to support all four Operators is the best solution. However, land owners, especially farmers have made it difficult for engineers to access sites. If these land owners want better coverage they need to stop blocking essential access. We’ve gone thru this before…

    • Avatar 5G Infinity

      But they will block even more as now they will only get a tenth of the rental income

    • Avatar Joe

      Obviously it varies and their are bad cases but generally the farmers are more sinned against that sinning.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      That might be the case Joe, it certainly isn’t for the large landowner members of the CLA that have consistently sought to hold others to ransom in order to charge stupid fees to allow infrastructure to be installed. So these latest demands show a total disregard for the obstructive role they’ve played previously.

    • Avatar Rob

      Arqiva do this already.

    • Avatar Chris

      Absolutely! These will be the same people whinging about poor coverage who on the other hand demand huge ransoms to let fibre providers go across their land.

  2. Avatar Guy Cashmore

    Something clearly needs to be done using legislation, as the repeated promises from mobile companies to fix this are simply not being met.

    One half of my parish has Voda/O2 coverage only, the other half has EE/3 coverage only, this problem has existed for around 20 years!

    Most locals have resorted to having two mobiles.

    • Avatar Michael V

      Hey Guy.
      What village do U live in? Hasn’t any of the Operators given the area VoLTE / 4G voice coverage? All most people would need is a phone upgrade direct from their Operator to support the 4G voice network that provides wider coverage.

  3. Avatar Adam Jarvis

    There needs to be regulation regarding the backhaul capacity of a 4G mast. The 4G Signal strength shown on a mobile device is no indication that the mast itself is capable of providing the necessary backhaul capacity at high-speed 4G data rates for multiple users, at peak times, reflecting the number of unlimited data plans now available in the market. This needs to be addressed.

    There needs to infrastructure standards to make sure providers don’t skimp on backhaul capacity. It’s pathetic that Government and Ofcom has never addressed this issue.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      Of course if you pay peanuts for an unlimited plan you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t get a five star service.

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