MPs Have Some Ideas on How to Improve Rural 4G Coverage

By Tom Pritchard on at

The big mobile networks have been working towards 5G for a while now, but some people have been sitting back and asking "well what about expanding 4G services?". It's a reasonable point, and 5G is hardly worth getting excited about when the village you live in only gets half a bar of 2G signal. There is work being done about expanding 4G coverage, primarily from BT and EE, but some MPs think more can be done and have written some reports about what they think.

So far EE/BT claim to have 90 per cent of the UK landmass covered with 4G signal, and is contracted to reach 95 per cent by 2020 - all part of the £1.2 billion Emergency Services Network (ESN) contract it got from the government. The problem is, according to Ofcom, once you take the three other big networks into consideration only around 64 per cent of the UK is covered. The regulator does have plans to strictly enforce better 4G expansion with next year's 700MHz spectrum auction, demanding better indoor reception and that at least two UK networks achieve a 92 per cent geographic coverage goal.

But, this is still a long way off. The 700MHz band is 5G ready (in addition to being suitable for 4G services), and that means it won't be rolling out until 2020 at the earliest. That's no real comfort for someone living in the farthest reaches of Scotland, where they only just managed to get a consistent 24/7 electricity connection. So the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Rural Business has some ideas on how to improve this, and make sure people can actually connect to decent mobile networks - regardless of how far away they may live from big population centres.

Julian Sturdy MP, Chair of the APPG, said:

“While this report focuses solely on improving 4G coverage we are concerned that the Government has become distracted by the pursuit to achieve 5G, of which it has already committed £200 million2, and that the countryside which is still lacking decent 4G coverage will lag behind. You cannot achieve 5G coverage without having a high-quality network in place for 4G and our report seeks to identify solutions to help achieve this goal across the countryside.

The recommendations that came out of this inquiry have at their heart the aim to improve rural coverage by overcoming the barriers highlighted by the operators themselves, rural interest groups and our own experiences as Members of Parliament.”

The recommendations themselves are:

1. Introduce rural roaming
The introduction of a single rural network in areas which are hard to reach, with the ability to roam between network providers allowing users, regardless of their service provider, to access the network.

2. Increasing transparency and accountability
Mobile operators to be compelled to regularly publish their coverage plans for roll out for the next 12 months and where they have developed in the previous six months. This is to be based on actual rather than predicted coverage. This will increase public awareness of their plans to improve coverage as well as allowing mobile operators to be held accountable for the delivery of their plans.

3. Prioritising coverage over licence fees
Ofcom should make meeting the Government’s 95% geographic coverage target by 2022 the primary ambition of the 700Mhz spectrum auction rather than maximising the spectrum fees paid by operators.

4. Ensuring mobile connectivity is at the heart of planning
The inclusion of future mobile infrastructure must be included within local plans while large infrastructure projects must make the provision of increased mobile connectivity a core component of the project’s delivery.

5. Instilling an integrated approach
Mobile operators, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Ofcom must by April 2019 produce a joint strategy on how to achieve 95% geographic mobile coverage by 2022 as outlined in the Conservative 2017 Manifesto.

Those are nice ideas, though some of them are easier said than done. For instance the concept of networks offering shared roaming has been suggested before, and was met with significant resistance by the networks, Naturally they don't want to go and share their precious spectrum with their competitors, regardless of how it may benefit normal people. Getting all four to come to some sort of arrangement that's actually beneficial is going to take some doing - and even then networks have proven they aren't above trying to use the court system to get what they want. Actions that have delayed spectrum auctions in the past, and don't really help anyone.

As for prioritising coverage over spectrum money, well, I'll believe that when I see it. Selling off spectrum has the potential to be a nice earner for the government, and it probably doesn't want to sacrifice adding those extra billions to the budget. We'll just have to see whether anyone actually listens to these recommendations, or how they plan to dismiss them out of hand. You can read the full report here. [ISPreview]