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Government Pushes Ahead With Rural Mobile Plans

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The government has issued an official notice to suppliers on its plans to tackle rural mobile black-spots

The government is moving ahead with its plans to invest “up to £150m” into extending Britain’s mobile coverage, with the publication of an official tender notice supporting the investment.

The plans are aimed at making mobile coverage available to 99 percent of the population and the new tender opens the door for suppliers to express interest in the scheme, which they must do by 30 December 2011.

Timetable

The Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) office of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has said it expects procurement to begin in the spring of next year, with improved services set to become available in 2013.

“In certain areas of the United Kingdom, particularly remote areas, there is a limited commercial case for market-driven private investments to achieve the required enhancement to coverage and quality of service,” BDUK said in the tender notice. “The aim of the Mobile Infrastructure Project is to improve the coverage and quality of mobile network services; for the five to 10 percent of consumers in areas of the United Kingdom where existing mobile network coverage is poor or non-existent; and with the aim of extending coverage to 99 per cent of the United Kingdom population.”

Chancellor George Osborne  first announced the scheme on 3 October, and the government reiterated its mobile investment plans in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

The mobile investment scheme followed a campaign by Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith, for the government to help improve mobile coverage across the UK’s ‘not-spots’, a campaign that culminated in a House of Commons debate in May. Stewart has estimated that improved coverage could benefit 2 million people.

‘Isolated and undermined’

“This House recognises that rural businesses and rural communities across the UK are isolated and undermined by slow broadband and the lack of mobile voice and mobile broadband coverage,” the House of Commons said in the debate description in May.

Stewart has also pushed Ofcom to oblige 4G network providers to extend coverage to 98 percent of the UK, up from the current 95 percent obligation, but so far Ofcom has declined to make this change. The 4G spectrum is due to be auctioned sometime next year, but the auctions have been delayed several times.

The government is also committed to extending broadband into rural areas, but the Countryside Alliance last week said there had been a “underwhelming” amount of progress in this area. The Alliance made a freedom of information request to each of the four areas that were named by the government last year as launching pilot superfast broadband services, including the Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Herefordshire.

“They were billed as ‘models for how the public and private sectors should collaborate to build high-speed broadband networks in rural Britain’,” said the Alliance. “We asked how much each had received from the government and what they had done in the past year to deliver their rural broadband network.”

“Unsurprisingly the results are very underwhelming, with a couple of the councils not having spent a penny and the others just moving towards finding local suppliers to get working on a process of getting the projects started,” it said.

Last week, BT’s boss admitted that it would take up to six years to roll out fibre-based broadband services to 90 percent of the country.