The cross-party group, chaired by Julian Sturdy MP, recently welcomed moves by Ofcom to maximise 4G coverage across the country. This included commitments for 500 new mobile masts in rural areas and 90% geographic coverage by all four networks across the UK. In return, Ofcom agreed to a reduction in costs for mobile operators on the upcoming sale of the 700Mhz spectrum which was freed up by the move to digital TV.
The letter has raised concerns, however, on how this will be monitored, with no obligation on mobile operators to report on successful mast completions until the end of the review process in 2024. It also notes that operators have historically been reluctant to build masts in rural areas owing to the significant costs involved.
At a recent press briefing with journalist Vodafone commented on the commitments to 4G coverage in rural areas. One of the key issues is the height of the masts currently allowed under planning regulations. Current policy allows for masts of up to 25m, European countries allow operators to build up to 50m. This is significant for several reasons. Firstly, with higher masts generating the appropriate coverage becomes easier and fewer masts are needed. Fewer masts means less disturbance in connecting fibre to each site.
Secondly, as operators look to fullfill their commitments the sharing of masts has natural become one possible way of meeting the government targets. This would not only allow operators to share the costs of mast builds but if the increased height of the masts were to be allowed then more operators could physically get their kit onto the mast itself.
Helen Lamprell, General Counsel and External Affairs Director at Vodafone said "The problem is they want better rural coverage but no one wants an operator to build a mast near their village."
Chair of the APPG on Rural Business Julian Sturdy MP said: “While Ofcom’s initial announcement truly has the potential to revolutionise mobile coverage across the countryside, it will fall by the wayside if progress is not monitored on a regular basis. We need annual reporting to ensure that mobile operators are holding their promises to the public on delivering a 4G network which works for people wherever they live.”
The CLA (Country Land and Business Association) represents around 30,000 landowners, farmers and rural businesses across England and Wales and runs the #4GForAll campaign, calling for greater investment from mobile operators in new masts in rural areas. It also provides the secretariat to the APPG on Rural Business.
CLA Deputy President Mark Bridgman said: “Increasing 4G coverage will unlock the potential of rural businesses and the countryside and we cannot let this opportunity slip owing to lax oversight. Given mobile operators’ previous reluctance to invest in rural areas, annual reporting on progress should be compulsory.”
“Ofcom have made great strides in this area in recent times and it would be a shame if they did not take the simple step to give themselves the tools to publicly keep mobile operators to their word on expanding rural 4G coverage and ending the “digital wilderness”."