It’s rare for telecoms issues to become political ones. Sure, there will be occasions like the spectrum allocations and the launch of major new services but, outside of these, the telecoms industry exists in a bubble of its own, divorced from important issues of the day – such as porn on a politician’s computer or a royal wedding.
But events in the last couple of weeks have changed all that and telecoms now has a prominent place in the national debate. The decision by Andrew Adonis, the head of the National Infrastructure Commission to be so vocal about his complaints to Ofcom – and that following the publication of Ofcom’s own criticism, has engendered debate up and down the country.
Adonis made his intervention after Ofcom revealed that a signal from all four operators is available across just 43 per cent of the UK, and that about 20 per cent of rural Britain is not covered by any signal.
The news brought an outpouring of recrimination: everyone it seems, everyone had a story of the day out where they were left stranded without a signal. When everyone is waiting for the next trance of 4G spectrum to be released, it’s also a reminder that in some parts of the country, 3G would be a nice idea.
But mobile is only part of the story that enraged the UK. There’s still a lot of ill feeling about the level of broadband penetration and, for the second time in a week, telecoms made the main body of news again, albeit as a follow-up to the Ofcom admission that rural communities were getting a bad deal. The decision to give home owners the legal right to broadband must have shaken BT, who lobbied hard to avoid this situation.
The government is now treating broadband in the same way that it’s treating postal services: there’s now a universal services obligation on BT, who have to get cracking in trying to fix a service that’s been underfunded for years. BT’s previous attempts to implement broadband have been along the lines of “You fund it, we’ll provide it”. Not surprisingly rural residents have baulked at the idea of paying £10,000 to £15,000 to provide a cable to their houses.
The lack of any serious attempt to roll out It’s a bit of a headache for BT to try to make it work, but at least it’s not got a legal obligation to get mobile working in rural areas too.
To be fair to the network operators, there’s a particular problem about supplying mobile services to rural Britain – masts. Moving to a rural idyll means that residents are often in the countryside to enjoy the views: having a metal tower placed in their way is not something they left Wandsworth for. There’s a history of complaints and objections to masts – whether they be standalone metal structure or additions to on top of church towers. It seems that we all want a mobile service in rural Britain but we don’t want the means to make it possible.
A Conservative government is in a tricky position here. These rural dwellers are, on the whole, their natural supporters and it has been hard for them politically, to lay down the heavy hand and force the countryside population a mass of radio masts to ensure that there’s a good signal in every corner of the country.
But, at the same time, it’s staked a reputation on the development of broadband and, in particular, with the growth of 5G. That’s why it’s going against the grain and relaxing the planning restrictions on cellular masts – we should say the changes by next month. Whether it has the nerve to stick with the plan (in the face of opposition from its own supporters) remains to be seen.
Of course, rolling out mobile is just part of our love-hate relationship with technology. We want broadband to our homes, but then quietly seethe as we get stuck in traffic while the roads are being dug up to lay down the cables. No doubt, when the 4G service is rolled out across London Underground, there will be passengers fulminating against the inconvenience as lines are closed for the upgrades – but then will happily sit in the carriages checking their email as they go to work.
Despite the complications involved – and the mixed messages - Adonis’s complaint to Ofcom made sense. We’ve had mobile networks for about 30 years in this country, we’ve had competition, supposedly, to give customers want they want. It’s a shocking that so much of the country is still out of range of mobile services. It’s not just rural services either, there are still dead spots well in sight of London and let’s not talk about transport, there are still areas on motorways and our trains that are completely inaccessible to mobile.
For a country that wants to make a name for itself as a home of mobile innovation, this is not good enough. It seems that now, a conjunction of demand for new services, the need to forge a new industry, post-Brexit, has all led to the current situation. Governments, of both colours, have dragged their feet on this issue and it’s something that needs to be fixed.
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