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Divine intervention? Adonis flexes his muscles to improve UK mobile broadband

Andrew Adonis

© Flickr/cc-licence/Institute for Government

  • Head of National Infrastructure Commission bangs heads together
  • Regulator told to work with government to ensure country gets decent coverage
  • Mobile operators urged to share masts and antennas
  • House of Lords man says existing coverage levels are "deplorable"

Believe it or not, the UK actually has a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). However, it isn't very high-profile, doesn't loom large in the consciousness of the British public and only occasionally makes any meaningful impact on the sectors that make up its bailiwick – one of which is telecoms. Basically, to bowdlerise the words of Theodore Roosevelt, the NIC speaks softly but doesn't carry a big stick.

We should be grateful then for an intervention by Lord (Andrew) Adonis, the Commission's chairman (and a sometime telecommunications journalist for the Financial Times newspaper) has written a stiff letter on heavily-starched paper to Sharon White, the CEO of the all-but-useless UK regulator, Ofcom demanding that that body should work urgently and directly with the British government to ensure that the entirety of the UK gets decent mobile broadband coverage.

The intervention by the good Lord comes after published figures show that whole swathes of Britain do not get even the most basic coverage and services, never mind anything as exotic as 4G. In his missive Andrew Adonis demands Ofcom "put all its options on the table" to ensure that mobile coverage is greatly improved. He requires that this change begin henceforth and be in full play before the next mobile spectrum auction. He also says that new legislation and enforced changes to the regulatory environment may be necessary if no action is seen to be taken.

Ofcom's latest definition of "good" mobile landmass coverage is a textbook example of the lack of imagination and drive that characterises the moribund regulator. Towards the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, for Ofcom "good" coverage is that which enables users to make an uninterrupted mobile voice call for 90 seconds (yes, a whole a minute and a half! We are not worthy.)

The National Infrastructure Commission requires that user experience of mobile coverage and service should henceforth be measured in a more accurate and more "meaningful" way. The net result is that "good" coverage has been discovered to be 10 percentage points less that had previously been estimated. UK mobile operators are supposed to provide 90 per cent coverage of the country but it seems that actually they are achieving no more than 80 per cent. Lord Adonis described this pathetic state of affairs as "deplorable" and pointed out that many subscribers are, effectively, paying for services they are not getting.

Andrew Adonis commented, “In an age when access to a mobile signal is regarded as a must-have, it is deplorable that even in areas previously considered to have strong coverage, operators are still delivering such poor services that customers can struggle to make a quick phone call. This new measure for coverage comes almost a year to the day after we first warned about the poor mobile signal communities can face, but now suggests the situation is even worse than we thought.  It demonstrates the need for urgent and radical action to tackle this issue immediately, ahead of new mobile spectrum being auctioned and 5G technology being rolled out. That’s why I want Ofcom as the industry’s regulator to urgently take concerted action with Government to tackle this situation. They should put all possible options on the table – including legal and regulatory changes – to ensure customers can be confident they are will get the service they deserve and pay for.”

Subscribers routinely paying for services they don't receive

The NIC's intervention comes just days after a newly published report showed at over a million UK homes have very poor broadband connectivity and that huge areas of the country still have no 4G coverage. It also transpired that voice calls and SMS messages cannot be transmitted on all the UK's four mobile network across 30 per of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Lord Adonis says part of the solution to a problem that really shouldn't exist in this day and age is for mobile networks greatly to boost their signal strengths. He also pressed for action to compel mobile network operators to share their masts and antennas with rivals as, where and when necessary to improve coverage. More mobile spectrum will be made available and auctioned-off over the next three years but other actions must be taken now. Among those the NIC suggests are pressing unused spectrum into service and enforcing roaming agreements on mobile service providers so that subscribers be enabled seamlessly roam between them and to take advantage of those providing higher power and better coverage.

The National Infrastructure Commission is also demanding that the operational data held and jealously-guarded by the country's competing mobile network operators be shared to ensure that mobile coverage and the introduction of new technologies is subject to a coherent strategy. This, says the NIC will allow the nation to benefit much more quickly from innovative new areas such as AI and machine learning whilst also enhancing the performance and efficiency of the overarching infrastructure.

Just how much pie in the sky these suggestions will turn out to be but we can be sure that mobile operators will not be willing to share operational data no matter how sophisticated a data security system might be put in place to help persuade them.

Matt Hancock, the UK's "minister for digital" said that the NIC is right, there is a "clear need" for the industry quickly to do more to provide good quality mobile broadband access across the length and breadth of the country. He said, "We have recently removed outdated restrictions, giving mobile operators more freedom to improve their networks including hard-to-reach rural areas but industry needs to play its part too through continued investment and improvement in their networks, making sure that customers are not paying for services they don't receive."

And, of course, the regulator, as it always does, mouthed the usual platitudes about the urgent need for improved mobile broadband coverage. And, if you think you have heard it all before, it's because you have. Just take a look at Ofcom's very own website. A posting dated February 2013, reads, "Almost the whole UK population will be able to receive 4G mobile services by the end of 2017 at the latest". And a Christmassy "Ho, Ho, Ho" to that.

There are 13 days to go to ensure that the more than 40 per cent of the country that does not have 4G coverage today will have it by January 1, 2018. The trouble and reality is that next year little of significance will change in the provision of 4G to those large areas that still don't have it and it's entirely likely that the same will apply in 2019 as well. Put not you trust in Ofcom, it only ends in disappointment.

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