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Can't get a decent mobile signal? Blame archaic planning laws, says Vodafone boss

Wednesday, July 15th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Out-of-date planning laws are hindering efforts by mobile operators to improve coverage for consumers, Vodafone’s network boss has said.

Petek Ergul, Vodafone UK’s head of networks, said there needs to be a “complete change of mindset” in the way efforts to improve infrastructure are dealt with to allow network improvements to be rolled out faster.

Ms Ergul, said mobile masts are a particular problem and often aren't tall enough to provide a good signal.

Her comments come just days after the government outlined proposals to relax planning rules allowing taller mobile masts.

Currently ‘permitted development rights’ – which allow certain things to be built without a planning application – only cover masts up to 15m tall, but proposed changes could see them extended to taller masts.

Writing on a blog on the Vodafone website, Ms Ergul discussed the company’s focus on bringing 4G to as many places across the country as possible.

Vodafone has so far expanded its 4G coverage to more than 570 cities, towns and districts, as well as thousands of smaller communities across the UK.

But Ms Ergul said despite the rollout going “full steam ahead” to hit Vodafone’s 98% coverage commitment using 2G, 3G and 4G, it still takes time.

She said “a lot of stuff” has to happen at the start of the process, including legal preparation, network design, planning permission, and getting BT Openreach to put in the fibre that connects mobile masts to the Vodafone network.

'Blocked by trees'

“That’s why we are working with the government and Ofcom to try and modernise out of date property and planning laws which delay our ability to roll out our network, as well as encouraging government to provide better access to public sector land and buildings to place mobile infrastructure on them.”

She added: “Masts are a real problem in the industry right now.

“Now that summer is here and the trees have grown and have their leaves again, it causes real issues in some parts of the network because the masts aren’t high enough, and they’re being blocked out by the trees.”

Vodafone's data makes it clear that trees cause a problem in the spring and summer months, she said, but increasing the height of masts to provide better coverage is a “real struggle” in the UK because local authorities are often reluctant to allow it.

“I think the mentality needs to change in the country.

“We keep trying to convince local councils that it needs to be done, because mobile communications are such a vital part of people’s everyday lives."

There had been "baby steps" towards that, but that was "about it", she said.

“There needs to be a complete change of mindset in terms of how we approach the whole industry.”

Ms Ergul said Vodafone has received “fantastic” feedback on 4G and the installation of 4G sites in an area is the start of an “ongoing cycle” to improve service, eliminating not-spots and improving any weak areas, she said.

“There’s huge effort that goes into strengthening our performance and the network for the benefits of all of our customers, wherever they live and work.”

She added: “Hopefully legislation and changes to outdated property and planning laws will come through which makes it easier for us to achieve our goals in regards to the network, but right now, we’re not worried about that.”

“We will always make sure that the network is ready for the future. We’ll keep an eye on that, but the focus is on 4G.

“There is so much demand for fast, reliable mobile internet right now, and it’s really incredible to see how much data is going through 4G. That’s why it isn’t enough to just spread the network.

“We have to strengthen it too, and keep adding greater capacity so that everyone can use it however they want, whether that means watching videos, streaming music or just web browsing.”

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