ANALYSIS: Farmers are demanding rural areas get better coverage to improve business. Mobile operator say rent demands are to high. Something has to give
For those of us who live in large towns and cities, the issue of rural mobile coverage is more of an annoyance rather than a big deal. In remote parts of the UK, it is an emotive, divisive debate.
It often means being unable to send photos of the countryside to friends and family, or having to endure a few minutes without connectivity on a train. But imagine having to put up with that all the time?
A report published last week by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) claimed 90 percent thought a reliable mobile signal was important for their business, but just half have a “reliable” connection and only 30 percent have “some 4G”. Sixteen percent have no indoor signal whatsoever.
The NFU wants the mobile industry and the government to do more. This includes a review of the £150 Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which ended this year after delivering 75 sites after 600 were identified at the start.
For its part, the government has secured assurances that all four mobile operators will deliver a voice service to at least 90 percent of the UK, while EE has promised to bring 4G to 95 percent by the end of the decade.
However mobile operators will rollout, that rollout will be slow so long as they don’t have the same access to land and sites that utilities firms enjoy. They claim they are being ‘held to ransom’ by landowners and must negotiate new rents every time they want to upgrade a mast.
The government has taken the first step to solving the issue by promising a new Electronic Communications Code (ECC) that eliminates some of the bureaucracy associated with infrastructure rollout, but the NFU’s report still calls for farmers to be paid if their land is used.
“Despite willingness to provide land for infrastructure, farmers tell us that the mast providers have been slow to engage and deliver coverage and that licenses for masts are not being renewed,” said the NFU.
“In some rural areas this means that the signal is getting worse. If a mast is for a commercial mobile operator and not part of a community project, farmers must get a fair market value for mobile equipment being hosted on their site and the rights being given to the operator. This should include consideration for mast sharing and upgrading equipment.”
Have your cake and eat it too
This insistence is puzzling. Mobile operators will continue to complain about the cost of deployment and landowners will continue to rant about poor coverage. Someone needs to back down and it’s the farmers that stand to lose more.
If coverage is so important to their business, then surely the economic benefits outweigh what could be generated in rent? The issue of government intervention is one thing, but if it’s left to industry, they’ll make an economic choice.
If operators are actively not renewing licences then the sums might not add up in some parts of the UK – no matter how ‘fair’ the market price.
Even the MIP, a government-sponsored initiative, failed to deliver its goals partly because of the difficulties in gaining planning permission.
No one is suggesting operators should have the freedom to do whatever they want on privately owned land, nor that the situation is entirely fair, but at some point rural communities are going to have to decide just how much they want the mobile coverage that is supposedly so important to their business.