Mobile operators abandoning the countryside to a digital wilderness

09 April 2018

4G for All

New information shows that mobile network operators are failing to submit planning applications for new mobile phone masts to resolve the coverage in some of the worst served rural areas. 

In Rutland (which has the worst 4G coverage of any local authority area in England at 3.42% 4G indoor coverage from all operators) not one planning application for a new mast was made by any mobile operator in 2015, 2016 or 2017. Other rural local authority areas where no applications were made in any of those three years include the Forest of Dean and Tunbridge Wells.

The CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses, obtained the new data through Freedom of Information requests to planning authorities across England and Wales.

CLA Deputy President Mark Bridgeman said: “This new data shows what rural communities have suspected for a long time, that the mobile industry is willing to abandon rural areas to the digital wilderness.

“Three years ago, we were told that coverage would be delivered in the countryside and yet rural communities are still waiting. In the same period the mobile industry has extracted concession after concession from Ministers. They have got the new legal powers they wanted, on the basis that they are a utility service. Now they must be forced to deliver the universal service that a utility operator provides. We expect government and the regulator to take a tough line on this, and if Ofcom won’t then Ministers must step in.”

The CLA has highlighted Ofcom’s failure to push mobile network operators to achieve universal coverage for consumers. It is calling on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to review Ofcom’s statutory remit and confirm that the body should prioritise working towards universal, quality mobile coverage for consumers.

Mr Bridgeman added: “The mobile operators have no market incentive to improve coverage in these rural areas. It is absolutely clear that the only way they will deliver the coverage the countryside needs is if they are forced to do so. However rather than pushing them to achieve universal coverage for consumers, Ofcom is setting soft targets for rural coverage. As a result rural consumers face inadequate service and lack of network choice for years to come.”

The new FOI data shows that in England on average less than five planning applications per year were made for new masts in each rural planning authority area, across the three years from the start of 2015 to the end of 2017. This is on a par with applications in England’s urban local authorities across this time period, where coverage is already far superior. The average in urban local authorities is 4.3 masts per year, the average in rural local authorities is 4.54. 

The FOI results also show that the planning approval rate in rural local authorities is 84.5%, in urban local authorities it is 86%.

  • The conditions in Ofcom’s 700Mzh spectrum auction proposal published in March 2018 seek only the equivalent of 3G coverage across 92% of total landmass by two individual operators, rather than 4G by all of the operators.
  • There is still a shocking rural-urban digital divide. Ofcom’s Connected Nations report in December 2017 revealed that while people inside 90% of UK premises can now make telephone calls on all four mobile networks, this falls to 57% in rural areas.
  • A Rural England report published on 12 March calculated that unlocking the digital potential of rural areas across the UK could add between £12 billion and £26 billion [GVA] annually to the UK economy.