CLA Senior Rural Business & Economics Adviser Dr Charles Trotman covers how close rural communities are to getting better mobile phone coverage on the same level as urban areas.
We have all, at some point, experienced hang out of a window in the countryside trying to get a good mobile phone signal. According to the latest data, only 69% of the UK landmass has access to a decent signal from all mobile network operators. At a time when mobile is ubiquitous for modern living, it appears somewhat out of kilter that those living, working and visiting rural areas are unable to connect. Is this ever going to change?
There have been a number of developments which may mean that positive change is on the horizon. Firstly, in its report last year on the needs of rural communities to access better mobile phone coverage the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on rural business said that there had to be greater transparency from operators and that rural roaming that allows consumers to pick up a signal from any operator should be introduced as a matter of urgency, a development that has been supported by government. Then in December, Ofcom, the telecoms operator, proposed legally binding guarantees for operators to meet set targets in return for access to spectrum.
But it is the third development, that saw the light of day in May this year, from the operators themselves that have piqued our interest. All four operators are pitching the idea of a shared network, not for urban areas but for rural only, a Shared Rural Network (SRN).
Under the SRN proposal, all operators would share their masts across the country. This would lead to an increase in coverage to 88% by 2022. In the second stage, through building new masts and some incentives from government for buying spectrum, coverage would increase to 91% by 2024 and 95% by 2026. But, for this to work, the Ofcom proposals would have to be shelved along with the idea of rural roaming.
The SRN is an interesting concept and we can accept the positives. But it’s missing one vitally important part. There are no legal guarantees that the targets proposed will ever be met. We want to see government set targets that operators will actually meet.
The process has to be faster. The government wants 95% geographic coverage by 2022; the operators say they can only deliver 4 years later in 2026. That is simply too slow. And where operators can’t meet their legal target obligations Ofcom must be given the power to introduce rural roaming.
Operators need to be more open and transparent. Given that the operators themselves are willing to share masts, it’s not anti-competitive to insist on full rollout plans so that consumers know where the improved rollout is going to be. That’s real transparency.
The idea of a Shared Rural Network is certainly a step in the right direction and can fit in with the Government’s own telecom objectives. But it has to be faster and legally protected. Once we see that, then we will lend our support.