An Update on Rural Connectivity Contents

5Mobile data services

Box 4: Summary of key terms

Mobile Network Operators (MNOs)

Improving coverage of mobile data services requires mobile base stations (masts) to be built. The roll-out of mobile services and infrastructure is led by private Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), who take commercial decisions about where to build masts and deliver services.

There are four MNOs in the UK: EE, Vodafone, Three and O2. These MNOs deliver mobile services via their own physical network of mobile base stations. Several small providers rent space on one of the MNO’s networks to deliver services to consumers.

Coverage obligations

The Government has committed to extend geographic mobile coverage to 95 per cent of the UK by the end of 2022. Since 2016, UK Government policy for improving mobile coverage has focused on coverage obligations for operators and reforms making it easier to build mobile infrastructure.

Coverage obligations are legal requirements on mobile operators to provide a minimum level of mobile coverage across a geographic area or certain number of premises. Ofcom imposes coverage obligations via licences for different bands of airwaves (spectrum). Ofcom is consulting on proposals for new coverage obligations on licences for a new band of spectrum set to be auctioned - the 700 megahertz (MHz) band. Due to its specific qualities, this band is currently a key part of the Government and Ofcom’s proposals to improve mobile coverage in rural areas.

Source: House of Commons Library and Ofcom200

68.According to the trade body Mobile UK, in 2019 mobile data is now regarded by many as an essential service.201 With many people using mobile data instead of fixed line telephone and broadband services, access to mobile data services is increasingly important.202 Given this trend, according to the Local Government Association, mobile data consumption is set to increase sevenfold by 2021.203 In particular, rural businesses stand set to benefit from improved mobile data services, with the Government in 2017 outlining that the rollout of 4G had delivered more than £75 billion in GDP to the UK economy through innovation and productivity.204 There are two main issues with coverage of mobile data in rural areas in the UK:

a)“Not-spots” - areas where there is currently no mobile coverage; and

b)“Partial not-spots” - areas that have coverage from some but not all four of the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

This chapter examines two issues relating to mobile coverage and the problems with it: first, the accuracy of coverage statistics; and second, the proposals from Ofcom and MNOs for improving national coverage.

Accuracy of mobile coverage statistics

69.In response to complaints from numerous councils and rural stakeholders that mobile coverage statistics provided by MNOs were inaccurate (see Chapter 2), Ofcom outlined its methodology to us, explaining that it published data from the four MNOs, each using its own model to give a predicted signal strength across the whole UK.205 Katie Pettifer, Public Policy Director, Ofcom explained that Ofcom quality assured each of the MNOs’ models, as well as conducted its own physical testing to quality assure the data it gets.206

70.The Local Government Association (LGA) criticised Ofcom’s methodology stating that “metrics should be measurable and based on the reality of service and coverage provided to customers, not based on simulated or predicted performance”.207 The LGA also claimed there was an imbalance in the resource intensive work Ofcom had undertaken to test urban coverage compared to its efforts in rural areas.208 Shropshire Council recommended that a proportion of the licence funding paid by MNOs should contribute towards a “testing taskforce” which should be “solely focused on detailed and periodic verification of MNO coverage claims in each geography.”209 In its Statement of Strategic Priorities (SSP), which Ofcom legally must have regard to, DCMS have called on Ofcom to improve the quality and availability of address-level broadband and mobile coverage data.210

71.Despite improvements in national statistics for mobile coverage, stakeholder surveys continue to report that actual coverage varies from patchy coverage to complete lack of coverage in rural areas. We welcome the obligation in the Statement of Strategic Priorities that Ofcom must improve the quality and availability of its coverage statistics. Without accurate and detailed local data, it is easy for national policy makers to ignore the specific needs of consumers in rural areas. Ofcom should report coverage at a lower spatial level and include local 4G coverage targets in addition to national targets. Ofcom should also periodically test providers’ datasets against rural consumers actual experience, rather than relying upon simulated or predicted performance.

Improving mobile coverage

72.In the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review the Government set a target for 4G to reach 95 per cent geographic coverage of the UK by 2022.211 Ofcom told us this ambition could not be achieved solely through regulation.212 Ofcom’s primary regulatory tool is the inclusion of coverage obligations in its auctions of spectrum bands for mobile services, for example its upcoming auctions of the 700MHz band and the 3.6–3.8GHz band.213 Ofcom however explained that the level at which obligations are set is constrained by mobile operators’ willingness to purchase them.214 Beyond its spectrum auctions, Ofcom advised Government in 2018 that a combination of other policies would be required to deliver near universal coverage including public subsidy for roll out, mandating rural wholesale access (known as “roaming”), and increased infrastructure sharing.215

Ofcom’s 700 MHz Spectrum Auction

73.Ofcom’s initial proposal for its coverage obligation in its 700 MHz auction was 92 per cent geographic coverage of 4G but this was later reduced to 90 per cent. The LGA criticised Ofcom’s decision, and further argued that there was “no clear guarantee on how progress to reach these goals will be monitored”.216 Which? commented that Ofcom had been “overly cautious in its approach” to coverage obligations “with only secondary regard given to the consumer perspective”.217 In its Statement of Strategic Priorities, the Government has stated that the 700 MHz auction presents an important opportunity for improving mobile coverage “particularly in rural areas and on the UK’s major roads” and that this “should, if necessary, be the key priority in the conduct of that auction”.218

74.Katie Pettifer, Public Policy Director, Ofcom, explained to us that the initial 92 per cent target was very ambitious and that the decision to reduce the obligation to 90 per cent was made after operators provided more detailed information on the entailed costs.219 She explained more broadly that Ofcom had “pushed up the boundaries” of the obligations as far as they could in line with its legal duties, and suggested that this approach had helped to prompt the voluntary proposal from the MNOs on infrastructure sharing (see the “Shared Rural Network” proposal below).220

75.Shropshire Council commented that the auction did not include any targets for indoor coverage, despite Ofcom data showing that poor coverage inside buildings was a particular rural issue.221 It argued that “users should not have to step outside every time they want to make a phone call, let alone use an app or go online”.222 Katie Pettifer, Ofcom, explained the decision to not include indoor targets, stating that the focus of the coverage auction was to focus on “bringing good outdoor 4G coverage to 140,000 premises that do not currently have it”, which in turn would improve indoor coverage due to additional signal strength.223 Ofcom should set targets for both outdoor and indoor coverage. People living in rural areas shouldn’t have to step outside every time they want to use their phone, either for a phone call or the internet. Ofcom should include indoor coverage targets when setting coverage obligations.

The “Shared Rural Network”(SRN) proposal

76.In response to coverage obligations included within Ofcom’s 700MHz spectrum auction, the four MNOs have recently come together to propose a partnership with Government to tackle the issue of poor coverage in rural areas. Mobile UK, their trade body, stated that their proposal - called the “Shared Rural Network” (SRN) - goes “beyond what Ofcom is proposing for the 700MHz auction” and does so at less cost to the public purse.224 The proposal suggests “enhanced mast sharing” to eliminate the issue of partial not spots and bring coverage from all four operators up to 88 per cent (currently 67 per cent).225 It also calls for Government support to bring commercial services to the Home Office’s Extended Area Service (292 mast sites being built as part of the Emergency Services Network being built by the Home Office to provide coverage for the emergency services).226

77.To address “not spots” the proposal also calls for government support to build additional network, “prioritising where there is community led demand”, to bring coverage up to 95 per cent of the UK landmass from at least one operator.227 Mobile UK has said that the proposal requires measures from government, including reform of permitted development rights, business rates relief, and easier access to public assets under the recently reformed Electronic Communications Code (ECC).228

78.Mark Bridgeman, Vice President, CLA, told us that he commended the idea of the SRN but stressed that the arrangement would need to be “legally binding”.229 The CLA published a letter, with co signatories from the Rural Services Network, National Farmers’ Union, Countryside Alliance and Which?, agreeing in principle to the proposal, but stating their support was subject to:

Rural roaming

79.There was a lot of support from rural stakeholders for mandating a “rural roaming” solution to improve coverage in rural areas.231 MNOs would be required to allow customers of another operator to “roam” onto their network in areas where the customer’s provider did not have coverage, in a similar way to how customers roam onto local networks when abroad. This differs from the SRN proposal in that, rather than MNOs sharing physical infrastructure such as masts to provide coverage from multiple networks in an area, individual MNOs would be required, for a fee, to provide a service to their competitors’ customers through their own infrastructure.

80.The CLA noted that Ofcom’s September 2018 advice to Government stated that coverage could be improved by 10 per cent within 12 months if rural roaming was introduced.232 More broadly, it argued that rural consumers had been told for too long to just “wait and see” with the unfulfilled promise that coverage would be improved.233 They argued that “giving too much flexibility to mobile network operators by removing rural roaming” would “take away the level of urgency that is required to solve the 4G coverage crisis”.234 The Rural Services Network agreed that “network providers would be more incentivised to improve their rural coverage if they knew that failure to do so may result in roaming being imposed at some future date”.235

81.Hamish MacLeod, Mobile UK, outlined to us the operators’ resistance to roaming, arguing that “by mandating national roaming you could create a situation where you actually incentivise a reduction in investment”.236 He stressed that coverage was a key selling point for MNOs and that rural roaming removed the potential for competition, reducing the incentive for investment.237 Mobile UK further asserted that a roaming solution did not have the full support of industry, whereas the SRN proposal did, meaning it had “the greatest chance of success”.238 BT argued that roaming would “not be an effective solution to delivering a high-quality experience for customers”, stating that it would not address total not spots and would “significantly dilute the incentive for operators to invest in extending coverage”.239 BT further argued it would degrade the customer experience with increased dropped or blocked calls, less reliable access to data, poorer service and decreased battery life.240

82.Ofcom told us that it believed the SRN proposal was a “potentially very positive development” and informed us that they were providing technical support and input into the discussions between the operators and Government.241 On roaming, Ofcom concluded in advice to the Government published last year that roaming introduced investment risks and consumer experience issues, but that these could be mitigated to a degree.242 It also concluded that the most effective way to introduce a roaming arrangement was with the cooperation of the MNOs.243 Ofcom said it would continue to keep the question of rural roaming under review, but that it had no plans to conduct a specific review given the advice to Government last year and the ongoing SRN discussions.244 DCMS stated that the terms of the SRN proposal were still being developed, and that it looked forward to hearing the industry’s potential solution.245 In its Statement of Strategic Priorities, DCMS have stated that “Ofcom should consider the costs and benefits of [roaming in rural areas] and maintain the option of requiring roaming by including appropriate provisions when granting rights of use for spectrum”.246

83.Rural communities have been told for too long to just wait and see with the unfulfilled promise that mobile coverage will be improved. On the eve of the roll out of 5G, rural communities will only feel more marginalised if they continue to be denied access to 4G, or even 3G. With many now regarding mobile data as an essential service, the Government and Ofcom has to be ambitious in setting coverage targets and obligations.

84.Relying on competition between the Mobile Network Operators to tackle not spots and partial not spots in coverage has not worked. The Committee therefore supports a rural roaming solution to tackling poor mobile coverage in rural areas if the industry cannot find a comparable or better solution quickly. We await the detail of the Shared Rural Network proposal with interest, as we recognise it could have significant benefits for rural communities. Any arrangement must include legal guarantees on Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to ensure they meet coverage targets. Parallel to the talks over the Shared Rural Network, Ofcom should urgently conduct a specific review on the costs and benefits of roaming. Should a voluntary agreement between Government and MNOs not be reached by the end of 2019, the Government should instruct Ofcom to impose a rural roaming solution to tackle partial “not-spots”.

200 Mobile coverage in the UK, Briefing Paper CBP 7069, House of Commons Library, 22 February 2019; see also Ofcom, Improving mobile coverage: Proposals for coverage obligations in the award of the 700 MHz spectrum band, (May 2018), last accessed 6 September 2019

201 Mobile UK (RBD0041), para 14

202 Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 3.9

203 Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 3.9

207 Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 3.12

208 Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 3.12

209 Shropshire Council (RBD0040), para 3

211 DCMS, Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (July 2018), p 10

212 Ofcom (RBD0051), para 3

213 Ofcom, Consultation: Award of the 700 MHz and 3.6–3.8 GHz spectrum bands (March 2019), para 1.2; Ofcom, Improving mobile coverage (March 2019), para 1.7–1.8

214 Ofcom (RBD0051), para 3

216 Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 4.4

217 Which? (RBD0029), para 11

221 Shropshire Council (RBD0040), para 3.10

222 Shropshire Council (RBD0040), para 3.10

224 Mobile UK (RBD0041), para 26

225 Mobile UK (RBD0041), para 28

226 Mobile UK (RBD0041), para 30

227 Mobile UK (RBD0041), para 30

228 Mobile UK (RBD0041), para 31

230 CLA, Rural 4G proposals need guarantees for consumers and businesses (June 2019), last accessed 30 August 2019

231 North Yorkshire County Council (RBD0024), para 6.1.8; Action with Communities in Rural England (RBD0019), para 11; Leicestershire County Council (RBD0015), para 3.1.6; Hampshire Rural Forum (RBD0013), para 2.5; Rural Services Network (RBD0012), para 10; CLA (RBD0011), para 6; Local Government Association (LGA) (RBD0010), para 2.4.3

232 CLA (RBD0011), para 8

233 CLA (RBD0011), para 9

234 CLA (RBD0011), para 11

235 Rural Services Network (RBD0012), para 10

238 Mobile UK (RBD0041), para 36

239 BT Group (RBD0048), para 45

240 BT Group (RBD0048), para 46

241 Ofcom (RBD0051), para 5

242 Ofcom (RBD0051), para 6

243 Ofcom (RBD0051), para 6

244 Ofcom (RBD0051), para 7

245 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (RBD0046), para 13

Published: 18 September 2019