10 September 2019

Ben Underwood

The latest column from Ben Underwood, Regional Director of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).

One of the many topics our members raise with me on a regular basis is the challenges they have with getting a good mobile phone signal in their rural area.

According to the latest data, only 67% 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 that 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. It also said that rural roaming, which allows consumers to pick up a signal from any operator, should be introduced as a matter of urgency. This is 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 the frequency spectrum.

It is the third development however, in May this year, from the operators themselves that has 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. 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 is 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 is not anti-competitive to insist on full rollout plans so that consumers know where the improved rollout is going to be. That is 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. However, it has to be faster and legally protected. Once we see that, then we will lend our support. 

Meanwhile, the government has launched a consultation on proposals to simplify planning rules to improve rural mobile coverage. They include:

  • Changing the permitted height of new masts to deliver better mobile coverage, promote mast sharing and minimise the need to build more infrastructure;
  • Allowing existing ground-based masts to be strengthened without prior approval to enable sites to be upgraded for 5G and for mast sharing;
  • Deploying radio equipment cabinets on protected and unprotected land without prior approval; and
  • Allowing building-based masts nearer to roads to support 5G and increase mobile coverage.

The vast potential of the rural economy will only be fulfilled when everyone in the countryside has full mobile connectivity, and we welcome the intent of this latest announcement.

The government is right to focus on planning reform as a means to removing current barriers but there must be a balance between the interests of landowners and mobile operators.

While mobile phone coverage will remain a long-term priority for the CLA so too is ensuring rural communities have access to high-speed broadband. For example, we recently wrote to the government urging them to commit sufficient funding to deliver the Prime Minister’s ambitions for full fibre broadband across the country.

Rest assured, the CLA will continue to speak up for those who live and work in the countryside on these crucial issues.