MP's tell government to prioritise rural connectivity

18 October 2018   By Jo Bailey

A new cross party report has recommended five ways to improve rural mobile coverage across the UK.

All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Rural Business has published a report following an inquiry into 4G in rural areas. Within the report, the cross party group makes five recommendations for improving rural connectivity.

Among the recommendations, the group called for the introduction of rural network roaming as well as suggesting operators should be more transparent about their investment strategies. They also said a more integrated approach was needed from stakeholders.

The report follows an inquiry which took place in June 2018. It comes soon after Ofcom presented technical advice to the government, detailing options for improving mobile coverage around the UK.

Chair of the APPG for Rural Business, Julian Sturdy, said that 4G had the potential to 'revolutionise country life and the rural economy'. He said that people in rural areas felt 'abandoned', with operators favouring investment in the more profitable urban areas.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said that it had been too long that people in the countryside had been 'disadvantaged' by poor coverage. Their president, Mark Bridgeman, called for action on the APPG recommendations to 'end digital discrimination'.

rural telecommunications tower

The rural connectivity issue

Mobile operators have been working to achieve the 95% coverage requirement by 2022, with EE committing to achieving this coverage as early as 2020. However, in terms of areas where all four operators provide coverage, only 64% of the UK is currently covered.

A study by the RAC foundation discovered 50,000 miles of road with no mobile signal. Most were in rural areas of Wales, the North of England and, despite efforts by O2 last year to improve connections, also in rural Scotland.

Although Ofcom's signal checker can be helpful in terms of choosing a network for mobile phone contracts, many rural areas are not adequately covered by any of the providers.

The recommendations of the APPG

The APPG made five clear recommendations to government for improving connectivity in rural areas. They were:

  1. Introduce roaming in rural areas: The group argued that letting users roam between network providers could increase coverage instantly.
  2. Increasing accountability: They called on government to require mobile operators to publish coverage plans for the next 12 months, as well as reporting on where has been developed in the past six months.
  3. Prioritising coverage: They said Ofcom should be made to prioritise the meeting of the 95% coverage target at the forthcoming 700Mhz spectrum auction, rather than focusing on fees.
  4. Put connectivity at the heart of planning: They said local plans should include mobile infrastructure, and that large projects should provide for an increase in mobile connectivity.
  5. Working together: Titled 'instilling an integrated approach', the group said that Ofcom, mobile operators and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport must work together to produce a strategy for 95% mobile coverage by April 2019.

Some of these ideas will be easier to implement than others.

For example, Ofcom also recommended a roaming service as part of their technical advice to government. The idea has been raised before, although nothing has come of it yet. Reaching agreement on costs and access rights is likely to prove tricky.

Accountability for implementing more coverage would be a good idea for both regulators and for public awareness. However, whether these forecasts end up being accurate or not will be another matter.

Building connectivity into planning is already being done to some degree, as part of the government's Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review. Ofcom also recommended a similar measure in their technical advice.

Ofcom does have plans in place to improve mobile coverage, in the form of attachments to their 700Mhz auction next year. Sales of bandwidth with come with requirements to invest in better indoor reception and for at least two operators to commit to 92% coverage.

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