A group of MPs representing rural constituencies around the UK are seeking assurance from culture secretary Matt Hancock that the government is taking the action necessary to deliver 4G mobile network connectivity in rural areas, illustrating a number of concerns with progress to date and plans for the future.
In a letter to Hancock, the cross-bench Rural Business All-Party Parliamentary Group, which draws together 56 MPs from the three main parties along with Plaid Cymru and the SNP, said it was clear the market had failed to produce the roll-out necessary to meet the needs of businesses and residents in rural areas, and that regulation had a key role to play.
However, said the MPs, there was concern that as of the end of 2017, there were no legally binding targets set for mobile operators to extend their roll-out.
“Every day that goes by where this is the case presents the risk of further delay and obfuscation on the part of the industry,” wrote group chair Julian Sturdy, who represents York Outer at Westminster.
The group said that a legally binding coverage obligation would be the only way to support the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) ambition to deliver mobile coverage to 95% of the UK’s landmass by 2022 – Ofcom’s most recent set of statistics suggest that a 4G service from all four operators is only available to 57% of the UK’s total landmass (76% by older 3G and 2G services).
“This is just not good enough and progress in connecting the countryside has been painfully slow,” said Sturdy. “We are asking the secretary of state to step in and work with Ofcom to ensure that the mobile operators speed up delivery of 4G to rural areas.”
A recent Freedom of Information request by the CLA found that in three rural local authorities in England – Rutland, Selby and Tunbridge Wells – no planning applications for 4G mobile masts were submitted by either EE, O2, Three or Vodafone during 2015, 2016 or 2017.
Mark Bridgeman, deputy president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), who also farms land in Northumberland, added: “For too long people living and working in the countryside have been disadvantaged by the mobile network operators’ failure to resolve poor signal and mobile “not-spots” in rural areas.
“It is clear that the mobile operators will only make the investment needed to connect the countryside if they are forced to do so. While many rural communities seem to have been abandoned by the mobile operators, these 56 MPs are making sure the rural voice is heard and we look forward to the secretary of state’s response.”
The group of MPs also noted the “frustratingly long wait” for Ofcom to free up and auction licences for 4G in the 700MHz spectrum – now set for 2020 – which could help address coverage in rural areas, and called for a rethink of Ofcom’s statutory obligations in this regard, and a significant change in the rules on transparency “that prevent mobile operators hiding behind commercial confidentiality and refusing to tell communities where and when they plan to roll out coverage”.