PM: rural broadband 'like not being connected to roads'

26 June 2014   By Jemma Crutchlow-Porter

DAVID Cameron has promised to do more to improve the UK's rural broadband, admitting that he's been left frustrated by signal 'notspots' and slow connections.

rural broadband
Credit: Ajan Alen/

In a wide-ranging interview with >The Western Morning News centred around his family's upcoming annual Cornwall pilgrimage, the Prime Minister admitted that he has had to leave the South West in the past because of poor phone signal.

For rural communities not being connected to superfast broadband is a bit like not being connected to the road network. It's that bad. So much work is being done online and that it really is a 'must have'. We've got to crack this.
David Cameron

Despite never being happier than when in the West Country, Cameron said the lack of 3G or 4G mobile coverage was "frustrating" and added that slow fixed-line broadband was holding back people living in the countryside.

The Prime Minister's comments come as the Government mulls a national roaming agreement that could significantly improve the availability of mobile signal in rural areas.

"For rural communities not being connected to superfast broadband is a bit like not being connected to the road network. It's that bad," he said.

The Government has already committed to providing mobile coverage to 60,000 properties without any mobile signal at all before the end of 2015 and earmarked another £1 billion for broadband improvements, Cameron said.

The Prime Minister's comments also come as the Government mulls a national roaming agreement that could significantly improve the availability of mobile signal in rural areas.

4G? We can't even get 2G

EE 4G is now available in 200 UK towns and cities providing faster mobile access to about 72% of the population, but some parts of the country still can't even get 2G.

Mobile and fixed broadband connections are notoriously bad in Cornwall, Northumberland, and Yorkshire, as well as large parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This means that thousands, potentially millions, of people suffer from phone calls being cut off mid conversation, and superfast broadband is nothing but a pipe dream.

So, both last summer during the Syria crisis and in 2011 when the Gaddafi regime collapsed, Cameron was forced to return to London early because poor mobile and broadband service meant he wasn't in the loop.

In the interview, Cameron said that while poor technology can affect his "important calls", it's not only heads of state interrupted by lack of service. "It affects everybody," he admitted.

Is network sharing the answer?

Some in Government believe that national roaming agreements could be the answer to Cameron's troubles.

The idea is that the UK's four major mobile operators - EE, O2, Vodafone, and Three - should sign agreements with one another so that customers in say, a Three notspot, could connect to the O2 network.

Fairly few people still live in absolute notspots but network coverage can be patchy and often doesn't overlap.

Sajid Javid, the Culture Secretary, has presented national roaming as a common sense solution. Providers sign agreements with networks to allow their users to roam abroad, after all, so why not within the UK?

The why not, networks have pointed out in response, is pretty simple: networks abroad are not direct competitors, in fact, as Three 'Feel at Home' shows, they're often between parts of the same company.

In these conditions, signing a mutual agreement is not very problematic.

In contrast, forcing competing networks to sign agreements means giving them a huge incentive to push each other into uneven arrangements in order to gain an advantage.

It would also mean that networks who have invested the most in rural infrastructure, which is more expensive to build and maintain and less financially rewarding than sticking up an mast in an urban area, don't get any real reward for that investment.

Networks also say that the constant switching between masts could cause dropped calls, the very problem the Government is trying to prevent.

All in all, it's not as simple an idea as it first appears to be.

Cooperation by force

According to Javid, that doesn't matter since existing legislation could allow the government to force the networks to cooperate.

He hasn't specified which laws would allow bring the providers in line, however.

That matters because the networks can be unwilling to play ball even with millions of pounds of Government investment at stake.

Take, for example, the Government project to bring mobile coverage to 60,000 properties in total (no network coverage available) notspots which Cameron referred to in his interview this week.

The project pledged millions of pounds for the networks to build masts in rural areas. The networks weren't interested and instead the money was given to an infrastructure company that already owns many of the UK's masts.

The idea was that all the networks could install their equipment on these masts and bring total coverage to these previously uncovered areas. It's still unclear whether that will actually happen, however.

Three, for example, have said publicly that they won't be participating in many areas, citing increased costs.

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