Rural areas ‘abandoned’ by phone operators
Towns with poorest signal are ignored by big four operators when it comes to new masts, figures show
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.