Ru­ral ar­eas ‘aban­doned’ by phone op­er­a­tors

Towns with poor­est sig­nal are ig­nored by big four op­er­a­tors when it comes to new masts, fig­ures show

The Sunday Telegraph - - News - By Christo­pher Hope CHIEF PO­LIT­I­CAL COR­RE­SPON­DENT

PEO­PLE liv­ing in the coun­try­side have been aban­doned and left in the “dig­i­tal wilder­ness” by big mo­bile phone op­er­a­tors, it has been claimed, with the worst-hit ar­eas get­ting no new masts.

A Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest has found that in ar­eas where the sig­nal is the poor­est, no ap­pli­ca­tions have been sub­mit­ted for new mo­bile phone masts in the past three years.

The worst af­fected ar­eas were Rut­land, For­est of Dean, Selby and Tun­bridge Wells, where no plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tions were sub­mit­ted for new phone masts be­tween 2015 and 2017.

Ac­cord­ing to Of­com, the reg­u­la­tor, these ar­eas have some of the poor­est mo­bile phone cover­age. The news comes days after the UK’s big­gest mo­bile op­er­a­tors – Voda­fone, EE, O2 and Three – spent al­most £1.4bil­lion to se­cure spec­trum to launch next-gen­er­a­tion 5G mo­bile phone ser­vices.

The FOI re­quest found that in Rut­land only 3.4 per cent of homes can ac­cess a 4G mo­bile phone sig­nal from all four op­er­a­tors. The fig­ure for For­est of Dean was 23.3 per cent, Tun­bridge Wells was 30.4 per cent while Selby had 41.4 per cent cover­age.

Of­com dis­closed at the end of last year that av­er­age in­door 4G cover­age from all four op­er­a­tors in ru­ral ar­eas was 18 per cent, com­pared with 64 per cent in towns and cities. The Coun­try Landown­ers As­so­ci­a­tion said mo­bile phone cover­age was so poor in ru­ral ar­eas be­cause it was not as “lu­cra­tive for mo­bile net­work op­er­a­tors to pro­vide their ser­vice”.

Mark Bridge­man, deputy pres­i­dent of the as­so­ci­a­tion said: “This data shows what ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties have sus­pected for a long time, that the mo­bile in­dus­try is will­ing to aban­don ru­ral ar­eas to the dig­i­tal wilder­ness. We ex­pect govern­ment and the reg­u­la­tor to take a tough line on this, and if Of­com won’t then min­is­ters must step in.”

A spokesman for the Dig­i­tal, Cul- ture, Me­dia and Sport depart­ment said Of­com was “cur­rently look­ing at plac­ing new obli­ga­tions on in­dus­try to drive up ru­ral mo­bile cover­age even fur­ther”.

He added: “We have im­ple­mented ma­jor changes to plan­ning laws and made it cheaper and eas­ier for in­dus­try to roll-out masts, but the mo­bile com­pa­nies now need to act fast on these re­forms and de­liver bet­ter cover­age across the UK, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral ar­eas.”

Of­com said that cover­age fig­ures looked bet­ter if they took into ac­count just one op­er­a­tor and not all four. For ex­am­ple, in Rut­land 41 per cent of homes can get a 4G sig­nal from at least one of the main op­er­a­tors. A spokesman said: “We want mo­bile com­pa­nies to ex­tend their net­works as a pri­or­ity, and we’ve an­nounced plans to make them in­crease cover­age for ru­ral ar­eas as we re­lease more air­waves next year.”

All four phone firms said that they were con­tin­u­ing to in­vest in their net­works and look­ing for ways to im­prove sig­nal cover­age.

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