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Poor rural mobile signal could have fatal consequences, farmers warn

Monday, January 11th 2016 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Unreliable and sometimes non-existent connectivity has potentially life-threatening consequences, members of the agriculture industry have told Cable.co.uk.

Farmers are calling for more to be done to improve connectivity in rural areas, including "severe penalties" for providers for dropped calls and compensation when poor connectivity affects their livelihoods.

According to research by the National Farmers' Union (NFU), just 15% of farmers have a reliable mobile signal in all parts of their farm, while only a quarter of the 850 farmers and growers surveyed had access to 4G.

Suzanne Clear, the union's senior advisor on planning and rural affairs, said: “There are many wider impacts for farming directly, for example not being able to contact suppliers, keep in contact with workers around the farm and conduct business online, in addition to be able to innovate and use labour and timesaving applications on farm.

“Health and safety is [also] a major issue, as if there is no signal there is no one to contact in an emergency and possibly a farmer may attempt to deal with a possibly dangerous situation alone, when he would otherwise be able to call for help."

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), around 4% of workers in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry sustain a work-related injury each year.

There were 33 fatal injuries in the sector in 2014/15, bringing the total for the past five years to 160. The industry's fatal injury rate, at 9.12 per 100,000 workers, is much higher than any other industry sector – around six times that in construction and 20 times the overall average.

Last year Essex farmer Chris Nott narrowly escaped serious injury when his combine harvester caught fire. Mr Nott told the BBC that his friends and family had spotted that dust had ignited at the back of the machine but were unable to warn him because they had no mobile signal.

If it wasn't for his daughter's boyfriend running alongside the combine waving his arms in the air, prompting him to jump clear, the “outcome would have been a bit different”, he said.

'Adverse consequences'

Phil Latham, a dairy farmer from Cheshire, told Cable.co.uk: "The first thing I'd do in a serious accident would be to call the ambulance, if you have to run to a landline then you're delaying treatment and that has potential consequences.

"Having been through the trauma of having a man die in my arms as I was giving CPR it's not something that I'd like to repeat.

He said when someone suffered a heart attack in the milking parlour on his farm, it took 25 minutes for emergency services to attend and that was close to a landline, but if it had happened in one of the fields it would be a different proposition.

"Farms are statistically dangerous places to work with all the kit, the unpredictability of cattle and the variation in tasks. Poor coverage will impact on some situations which will have adverse consequences for the victims."

Mr Latham said poor mobile signal on his two sites makes it difficult for colleagues to communicate as calls regularly drop out so they have resorted to sending text messages then finding a landline to make a call.

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He said customers should be charged according to the service they get, with severe penalties for providers for dropped calls.

“Calls failed ought to be compensated for the frustration of having to call again.

“It should cost them money and we should be getting compensation for that frustration. That would stimulate them to do something.”

If people get an inferior service from their mobile or broadband connection, they should pay proportionately less, Mr Latham said.

“You’re paying full whack for a service you’re not receiving and that to me is unfair.”

'Inconsistent'

Gary Yeomans, a dairy farmer from Monmouthshire, agreed with Mr Latham's call for providers to be punished for poor service, adding that both his mobile and broadband connections are "very poor".

“If it is windy the broadband drops so badly you can’t even access emails," he said.

Mr Yeomans, who is the county chairman for NFU Cymru in Monmouthshire, has been given a signal booster by EE but says mobile coverage on his farm is still only good enough for sending texts.

“The main problem is the inconsistant nature of both [mobile and broadband] as you can be in the exact same place and have a full mobile signal one day, and none the next.

“Also, calls drop and delivery drivers and contractors can’t understand why they can’t get hold of you.

“Safety is a big concern – if you are working alone you cannot summon help without a signal in the event of an accident and in the event of breakdowns you can’t get help.”

'One of the most dangerous jobs'

Cheshire farmer Peter Clayton said farmers have "one of the most dangerous jobs", often working alone in remote places.

He said patchy mobile coverage on his farm does raise safety concerns.

“I spend a lot of time in Italy and I have better phone coverage around the Alps than where I live," he said.

“We do rely on them for safety and if there’s an accident or anything like that your mobile phone is your way forward.”

The unreliable coverage means he doesn't have a fixed contract with one provider, in case he needs to switch to an alternative network when masts go down, or networks experience problems.

“If you live in the countryside and your mast goes down you need to be able to jump ship.”

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The NFU agrees that being able to get out of contract easily is vital for farmers struggling with poor connectivity.

“It is important for mobile operators to be upfront about the services they provide and for them to allow customers to change contracts quickly if they aren’t getting the service they need,” said Ms Clear.

“We believe Ofcom are monitoring the services provided by the mobile phone operators and we are encouraging our members to report back to them where there are signal problems.”

Broadband essential to farming businesses

Of those farmers responding to the NFU's digital technology survey, which took place over the summer of 2015, 92% said access to a mobile signal was important to their business, while just a small percentage actually enjoyed reliable coverage.

86% agreed that broadband was essential to their business but only 23% said their service was sufficient for their needs.

The majority of respondents received speeds of less than 2Mbps and 4% said they were unable to access the internet through either a fixed or mobile connection.

Earlier this year, digital minister Ed Vaizey said that broadband customers might benefit from contracts that more accurately reflect the speeds they receive.

Speaking at a parliamentary debate on the progress of the broadband rollout, Mr Vaizey said although the issue was a “contractual matter for BT and its customers”, it was an important point.

“I want to look at whether we can have different levels of contracts for people who clearly receive slower speeds,” he said.

The minister was responding to Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt, who asked Mr Vaizey if he would look into the opportunity for different contracts based on actual speeds.

Additional reporting by Ellen Branagh.

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