Consumer watchdog Which? has urged mobile operators and the government to conclude to a network sharing arrangement if a target of 95 per cent landmass 4G coverage is to be achieved.
The organisation has published a report that shows 80 per cent of the 650 UK parliamentary constituencies do not have complete 4G coverage from all four major operators – EE, O2, Vodafone and Three.
Although the issue predominantly affects rural constituencies, some towns and cities – including Brighton, Cardiff, Sheffield, and Leeds – cannot claim complete connectivity.
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Rural 4G coverage
Nearly a quarter of all English constituencies have complete coverage from all four operators, but only three in Scotland can claim the same feat. Cardiff Central is the only constituency in Wales, while there are none in Northern Ireland.
Former culture secretary Jeremy Wright had said the increase from 67 per cent landmass coverage to 95 per cent was a “non-negotiable” objective. Seven per cent of the UK isn’t served by any operator at all.
This has led to MPs and other organisations to call for a national roaming network that would allow customers of one operator to switch to another network if they can’t get a signal. This would effectively see operators carrying their rival’s traffic.
Such a move would be widely opposed, with Vodafone stating that operators would simply stop investing in network infrastructure as a result.
As an alternative, the CEOs of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone have proposed a system whereby they would share radio equipment in the most rural parts of the country and a site ‘trading’ system for underserved locations.
A company, funded by a £200 million reduction in annual licence fees, would manage the system and the plans would replace a proposal by Ofcom to offer discounted 5G spectrum in exchange for coverage commitments. It would also end the spectre of a national roaming network for good.
The talks have been ongoing for months, but there are fears that if a deal is not reached by October, the government could revert to its 5G auction plans – a move that could delay the availability of much-needed spectrum.
Which? argues the shared infrastructure option is the best option to rapidly increase coverage.
“Millions of people are finding it difficult to get a reliable mobile connection and risk missing out on digital services we increasingly rely on like online banking, maps and NHS information – while some even struggle to receive important calls and messages,” said Carolina Normand, director of advocacy.
“To tackle this unacceptable and widening digital divide, the government must act now to connect the UK with truly comprehensive mobile and broadband by swiftly putting in place a plan to give communities the infrastructure they need.”
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