Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Mark Bridgeman, Deputy President of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), argues that we need to finish 4G before we get carried away with 5G.
A quick browse of this website and one is immediately struck at how important 5G is. It is clear, even to an ‘outsider’, that this has the potential to revolutionise both the mobile industry and the user experience – and consumers are beginning to feel this excitement as they start to access 5G services themselves.
Indeed, some of you may even be using the burgeoning network to read this in one of the limited number of cities where it has launched. While you enjoy browsing the internet on the go in lightning speed, please spare a thought for those living in rural communities who are barely able to receive a signal, yet alone 4G.
There are more of us than you might think. Despite living on the cusp of the 5G era, according to official statistics only 67% of the “geographic UK” is currently able to receive 4G from all the mobile operators. Coupled with poor fixed speeds – Ofcom states some 619,000 homes and offices still don’t get “decent” broadband – this means we’re left with a stark urban/rural digital divide.
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has long-rallied against this divide and, most recently, this has taken the form of its #4GForAll campaign. The campaign has brought politicians, rural stakeholders and those who live in the countryside together to argue for a better mobile deal.
In the modern age connectivity is crucial. Of course, on one level it’s about streaming and social media – why shouldn’t those who live in the countryside be able to watch Netflix? – but on another it is fundamental to rural businesses of all shapes and sizes. For example, holiday lettings that don’t offer adequate connectivity won’t be able to compete for urban customers used to being continuously online. Farms cannot invest in next generation technology without a robust connection to the cloud. Businesses are unable to fulfil basic administrative tasks which are increasingly digital only – for example, accessing online banking or sending in VAT returns to HMRC. Meanwhile, proposals to help the NHS deliver its services more effectively and to more people through video consultation, will remain an aspiration rather than a reality.
These were some of the messages I took to Parliament recently when I was called upon as a witness to the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee on rural connectivity. There I was questioned by MPs on the difficulties for rural businesses, the issues users in the countryside face, and why the current plans by mobile operators to bridge the divide are, to put it simply, inadequate. I also highlighted my own frustrations at a lack of connectivity affecting my own tourism business in Northumberland.
This appearance, and our ongoing work promoting the campaign, is building political support for our cause. Just last week more than 50 MPs and Lords joined the CLA at our Celebration of Rural Business event. Many voiced the concerns of their rural constituents living with poor mobile reception and shared their support for our campaign across social media.
The mobile industry has long argued that it should not be footing the bill for expanding coverage in areas where it is not economical to install masts. Meanwhile, Ofcom has attempted to rally the industry behind common goals and taken a practical approach to improving coverage. Firstly, by suggesting that upcoming spectrum auctions could offer price reductions for industry improvements in 4G coverage. Secondly, by suggesting a range of options for improving coverage, including allowing rural users to share networks if their own was not available, also known as ‘rural roaming’.
To my mind, these are perfectly sensible ideas and with additional reporting and transparency and by ensuring targets are legally binding, could become a workable and cost-effective solution towards increasing geographic coverage. Indeed, these could easily be worked up to become formal and legally binding coverage obligations, which would be the industry’s first since previous obligations expired in 2017.
However, in the last few weeks, the industry have responded to these ideas with proposals of their own, the first time that the four British networks have worked collectively to come up with a firm proposal. They argue that they can increase coverage through the creation of a joint company to build new masts and the sharing of equipment on existing pylons.
The CLA, along with other countryside groups and consumer group Which?, responded by writing to Jeremy Wright MP, Minister for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DDCMS), outlining the four key tests that are needed: 1) legal obligations for improved coverage; 2) for this to be delivered as soon as possible; 3) robust monitoring arrangements by Ofcom; and 4) a requirement for operators to publish a roll-out plan, as is the case with broadband today.
To my mind we are nearly there. For perhaps the first time, we have rural users and businesses, the mobile industry and the regulator all proactively seeking practical solutions to increasing rural coverage. We have the industry working together to work up cross-industry proposals and responses. On behalf of our members and rural users, we have argued for additional robustness on proposals put forward to date. We have repeatedly done this because we know that the countryside cannot afford any additional delay; we have been waiting for far too long already.