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Providers respond to minister’s rural mobile challenge

Tuesday, September 30th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

The UK’s main mobile providers have defended their efforts to improve coverage in rural areas, as the Culture Secretary vowed to “make sure” they do more.

Sajid Javid told the Conservative Party Conference that it was “simply not good enough” that some areas of the countryside still lacked a decent mobile signal.

But mobile providers said operators already invest more per capita into their networks in rural areas than in urban areas, while claiming there are “other, more sensible things” the Government could do to improve coverage, including addressing business rates and the cost of electricity.

A spokesperson for the Mobile Operators Association (MOA), which represents the four main UK providers (Vodafone, EE, O2, Three), said: “There is good mobile coverage across the UK, reaching 99% of the population.

“UK consumers enjoy one of the cheapest telecoms pricing environments in the EU.

“Operators are investing £3bn in improving their UK networks this year. 4G will also improve mobile broadband coverage in rural areas.

“Operators already invest more per capita on their networks in rural areas. There are other, more sensible things the Government can do immediately to improve coverage, such as reforming the Electronic Communications Code, and addressing other barriers like the burden of business rates in rural areas, the cost of backhaul and electricity.”

The issue of mobile phone coverage in rural areas is ongoing, with David Cameron even weighing in with his own frustrations with the lack of signal in areas such as Cornwall.

Culture secretary Mr Javid has previously hinted that he will force the four major mobile providers – Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three – to share masts in a “national roaming” scheme if they cannot find their own solution to the problem.

In his speech in Birmingham, he said: “We need to work harder at improving mobile phone coverage, especially in rural areas.

“There are still vast swathes of our countryside where you still can’t get a decent mobile signal and that is simply not good enough.

“Our mobile companies must do more and I will make sure that they do.”

A Vodafone spokesman said the company remained “fully committed” to improving mobile coverage across the country.

“We are already investing £1 billion in our network and services this year alone, with a similar amount in 2015, to achieve improved coverage across the UK.

“Our existing ambitious roll out plans, backed up by this investment, will largely deliver the coverage improvements the Government is looking for.

“We have already discussed a number of reforms with the Government, such as cutting red tape to speed up network roll out, as well as recommending some new approaches, including a more strategic approach to site sharing.

“We believe that our proposals combined with a more positive public attitude to masts will produce a much better outcome, by improving coverage in both partial and total not spots, for both voice and mobile internet whilst providing a far better and sustainable customer experience.”

An O2 spokesperson said: “We continue to work with government and the wider industry to find the most effective ways of improving mobile coverage in rural areas.

“Our network currently covers 99% of the UK population for mobile phone calls, and we’ll be investing £1.5 billion over the next three years to extend this further, continuing to deliver a great network experience for our customers.”

Having contributed to the MOA statement, both Three and EE did not comment further on Mr Javid’s challenge, which was welcomed by campaigners.

John Allan, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), told Cable.co.uk that national roaming might be the only way to make sure issues of partial coverage and “not spots” are addressed.

He said: “The clear importance of mobile services to small business - with 71% of our members viewing mobile use as crucial to the success of their business - means that national roaming may well be the only way to ensure that the issues of partial coverage and 'not-spots' are effectively addressed.

“If this policy is to be introduced, the Government and mobile operators will need to work together to ensure that it is done fairly and effectively and that long-term investment in the UK's mobile infrastructure is secured.”

A spokeswoman for Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) welcomed the fact that Mr Javid had acknowledged a problem with mobile coverage, adding: “We hope he will keep his promise to make sure rural communities don’t get left behind”.

The Countryside Alliance said both the Government and mobile companies seemed to be working to find a solution and it hoped they continued to.

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