Ofcom CEO: Total UK 4G could still cost millions

Ofcom CEO Sharon White has suggested the total cost of delivering adequate 4G coverage to the entirety of the UK landmass could cost as much as £6 billion.

Speaking at Connected Britain in London, White said she was pleased with the progress in eliminating connectivity ‘notspots’ – both fixed and mobile – noting the improvements in coverage and speed since she assumed her role in 2015.

But she also pledged to do more to close the gap, acknowledging the increasing role of connectivity in everyday life, education and business.

UK mobile coverage

“The number of premises without a decent 4G reception has fallen from 11 million to 1 million today,” she said. “. That solid progress has been driven by commercial ambition, government policy, public funding and, I hope, a favourable regulatory environment.

“But too many people can’t get online. Every year 30,000 people contact Ofcom with broadband or mobile problems. Situations like those are unacceptable in 2018. People must be able to get online and use their phone wherever they live, work or travel. I feel like we’re a marathon runner reaching the final five percent [of the race]. The terrain is getting tough and planning rules aren’t favourable.”

Spectrum licences are likely to be a key vehicle for improving coverage. In 2013, Ofcom required the winner of one 800MHz licence (won by O2) to deliver an indoor signal to 98 per cent of the UK population, while all four operators signed a legally-binding agreement to deliver voice and text service to the UK landmass.

Both these targets have since been met and White has said there will be obligations attached to some of the 700MHz 5G licenses when they go up for auction next year. In addition to landmass coverage, Ofcom is also focusing on ‘comprehensive coverage’, which is the ability to receive a signal from all four mobile operators.

“One quarter [of the UK] and the major road networks lack comprehensive coverage,” she explained. “I don’t want to discourage plans to get a 4G signal on the moon, but we can’t get a signal on the A70.

“We estimate there are 200,000 rural homes and businesses that do not get a decent signal from one operator. So we plan to require one operator to cover these.

“We also plan to require at least two operators to reach 92 per cent of the UK landmass with good reception – that is [a signal] strong enough to make calls, browse the web and watch videos.”

Going forward

EE, the UK’s largest mobile operator in terms of coverage and subscribers, has committed to bring 4G to 95 per cent of the UK landmass, an ambitioned strengthened by its £1 billion Emergency Services Network (ESN) contract.

Ofcom says the current figure is around 92 per cent and earlier this week it offered technical advice to Culture Secretary Matt Hancock about how this might be extended to 100 per cent.

“Our view is that some sort of cross-subsidy might be necessary,” said White. “In terms of cost-effectiveness, we feel there is a case for one operator to build and maintain masts that could be used by all four operators.

How much does [extending coverage] cost? As much as £6 billion. This is an approximate number that can be refined but it gives an indication of how difficult it is.”

Any such programme would do well to learn from the £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which was declared to be a failure by the minister behind the initiative, Ed Vaizey. MIP delivered just 75 masts before it was wound up, with contract winner Arqiva noting that much of the three years was spent overcoming the technical challenges of building infrastructure for all four operators.

Given that these obstacles were eventually overcome, Arqiva viewed the decision not extend the programme a “missed opportunity”.

The greater availability of fibre would also boost any new venture. White gave an update on the government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO), which would require any person in the UK to demand a broadband connection of at least 10Mbps. There is a legal mechanism to increase this speed over time, something that White believes will be necessary.

“We think that specification will need to increase over time,” she said. “Openreach is working on more fibre spines and I know [Openreach CEO] Clive Selley wants to bring the network closer to not spots before the USO [comes into force]. He has mine and Ofcom’s total support on that.”

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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.