Rural 4G proposals need guarantees for consumers and businesses

06 June 2019

Mobile tower sunset

 

Consumer and rural groups unite to set out four key tests for mobile operator plans to boost rural 4G in a letter to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Signed by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) which runs the #4GForAll campaign, Countryside Alliance, National Farmers Union (NFU), Rural Services Network and Which?, the letter to DCMS shares the four tests for ensuring mobile operator-led proposals guarantee the best outcomes for rural consumers.

The recently drafted proposals by the major mobile phone companies for a “single rural network” would mean mobile operators sharing masts on a reciprocal basis and forming a new company to build joint masts in rural areas. In return, operators are asking for rural coverage obligations associated with upcoming spectrum auctions to be ditched and a reduction in the annual licence fees paid by networks for the funding of new masts.

The industry’s plans have the potential to deliver coverage improvements. However, in their current format they are not legally binding and, if met, would mean 95% coverage by 2026 – some four years later than existing government manifesto commitments.

In response, the letter sets out four key tests that need to be met to ensure a better outcome for rural consumers and businesses. The proposals should:

1. Include legal obligations to deliver improved coverage

2. Ensure coverage improvements are delivered as soon as possible.

3. Outline robust monitoring arrangements for Ofcom.

4. Require operators to publish a roll-out plan, as is the case with broadband today.

Tim Breitmeyer, CLA President said: “I’m pleased to see mobile companies engaging with the issue, but any suggestion that rural users can wait seven years for 4G coverage is totally inadequate. Furthermore, it leaves too much riding on the goodwill of operators when previous voluntary targets have been missed. Only a strong, robust, transparent and legally binding regulatory framework will ensure the needs of the countryside are met in a timely manner.”

Caroline Normand, Which? Director of Advocacy, said: “It is shocking that year after year some people are still not able to carry out even the most basic tasks because of poor phone signal where they live. While we welcome mobile operators looking to take a lead on this vital issue, these proposals must be legally binding to guarantee 4G is finally delivered in a fair and affordable way to those who need it the most.”  

Graham Biggs MBE, Rural Services Network Chief Executive said: “It is disgraceful and counter-productive to the nations’ wellbeing that rural communities have been treated as an afterthought when it comes to mobile and broadband connectivity. This issue needs to be urgently addressed if the economic and social benefits of greater connectivity are to be realised, not just for rural communities but to the nation as a whole. Connecting the countryside must be treated as a priority.”

Tim Bonner, Countryside Alliance Chief Executive said: “For far too long rural communities have been treated as second class citizens when it comes to mobile and broadband connectivity and this has to stop if the countryside is to harness the social and economic opportunities they bring.  We are encouraged that mobile operators are committed to finding a solution to poor connectivity, but these proposals just don’t go far enough, and connecting the countryside must be treated as a priority rather than an afterthought.”

Stuart Roberts, NFU Vice President said: “It’s totally unacceptable that our farmers and growers are being denied a reliable and functioning digital mobile service. Patchy digital coverage remains a major barrier in improving on farm productivity. It’s imperative that Government ensures rural businesses are able to enjoy the same advances in mobile digital connectivity as urban businesses so all businesses can harness the opportunity of connectivity to become more productive, competitive and innovative as well as being able to compete on a level playing field with our international neighbours on the world stage.”

The letter, signed by CLA, Countryside Alliance, NFU and Which? can be downloaded here.