With rural areas in the UK receiving only minimal network coverage, MPs have written reports on expanding and improving 4G coverage.
While major mobile networks are turning to 5G services, expanding and enhancing 4G coverage throughout the country is perhaps a better option. By doing this, rural areas could have vastly improved service and signal ahead of planned improvements for 2022.
Currently, EE/BT “claim to have 90 per cent of the UK landmass covered with 4G signal” and this is meant to increase to 95 per cent by 2020, as “part of the £1.2 billion Emergency Service Network (ESN) contract it got from the government”.
However, when the other three major networks are factored in, the reality is closer to 64 per cent of the UK landmass being covered. Ofcom does plan to “enforce better 4G expansion with next year’s 700MHz spectrum auction”, which would result in improved indoor signal. Additionally, two further networks are working towards a goal of 92 per cent coverage.
Unfortunately these improvements likely won’t be seen until 2020 or possibly later. To try to combat reception issues, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Rural Business is working on a more timely solution. Not only does the plan put forth by the APPG call for expanded 4G coverage, but it “also means greater access to faster mobile broadband connectivity”.
The following statement from Julian Sturdy MP, Chair of the APPG, explains the purpose and motivation of the report:
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 million, 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 operators themselves, rural interest groups, and our own experiences as Members of Parliament.
The report outlines five major recommendations, which include the introduction of rural roaming, the prioritisation of coverage over licence fees, and encouraging an integrated approach for increased coverage. The plan also calls for increased transparency and accountability, as well as ensuring that mobile connectivity is at the heart of planning.
However, major networks have already shown “significant” reluctance to the suggestion of rural roaming. This resistance is because they don’t want to share “spectrum with their competitors” and reaching an arrangement the four major networks are happy with will prove difficult. The desire for transparency in predicted coverage costs is also difficult due to “many changeable factors” like “weather, new buildings” and “different devices”. While ways to predict costs could be advanced, a quick solution to this problem looks unlikely.
Gizmodo is also extremely doubtful that “prioritising coverage over spectrum money” is possible in the foreseeable future. According to Gizmodo, “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”.
While certain aspects of the report do look unachievable at the present time, it is a good sign that the APPG is addressing coverage issues and working to include “future mobile infrastructure within local plans”.