THE CLA VIEW

07 May 2019

Ben Underwood looks ahead to 2019

The news that the Prime Minister and the EU had agreed to extend Brexit through to the end of October was perhaps in itself not surprising. However, the way forward is still unclear, with no majority in Parliament for a particular form of Brexit and the cross party talks between the Conservatives and Labour thus far delivering no clear breakthrough.

While not welcomed by all, the extension to the Brexit process will avoid an abrupt ‘no-deal’ scenario and the associated negative consequences for farming and the rural economy. The political debate has become more and more heated and polarised and the extension provides some welcome breathing space for politicians to unite around the best way forward. I am clear that this must include a post Brexit relationship with the EU which delivers free and frictionless trade.

It might appear that Brexit gridlock is overwhelming everything taking in place in Westminster, but the CLA (Country, Land & Business Association) has been busy working with parliamentarians on its #4GForAll campaign.

4G coverage in the UK varies greatly between rural and urban areas with 83% of urban homes and offices having good 4G coverage, compared to only 41% of those in rural areas. The CLA has been working hard to close that divide, and is putting pressure on Ofcom and the mobile operators to raise their game.

4G coverage adds an estimated £75bn to the UK economy, and rural businesses should be receiving their fair share of this dividend, instead of being left in a digital dark age. In December 2018, Ofcom announced a consultation into the sale of the 700Mhz spectrum, and more importantly the obligations that would be placed on mobile phone operators. These obligations bind operators to improve coverage in rural areas and bring overall geographic 4G coverage up to 90%. Following CLA lobbying and the work of a group of MPs focused on rural business, Ofcom also announced an extra requirement on mobile operators, which would require them to build 500 new mobile masts across rural areas. This has the opportunity to revolutionise rural coverage.

However, the CLA uncovered that Ofcom will only check that these masts have been built at the end of the licence period in 2024. This is simply not good enough. Ofcom and the operators have acknowledged that the mobile companies can be reluctant to invest in building these masts. Simultaneously, rural consumers are again being asked to trust that improvements are being made, without any evidence.

The CLA took this to MPs, and more than 40 signed a letter to the chief executive of Ofcom, calling for stricter monitoring of operators during their licence period of 2020-2024. Ofcom publishes an annual report into UK connectivity, which gives ample opportunity to provide a progress report on how well the operators are reaching their targets.

Rural roaming, which would be a single rural network in areas which are hard to reach, isn’t currently included within Ofcom’s proposed obligations, but has the potential to improve UK coverage by up to 9% within a year.

MPs have been critical about why Ofcom haven’t included it within the proposed obligations, and were dissatisfied with the response that the regulator doesn’t believe it can be introduced without the operators’ collaboration.

There is a real eagerness among parliamentarians to close the gulf in mobile coverage. The CLA will continue to work hard to make sure that Ofcom and the Government do not underestimate this.

For further details of what we have previously done on 4G, visit www.cla.org.uk/4GForAll