Mobile Operators Commit To 90 Percent UK Geographic Coverage By 2017

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Operators and government formalise compromise but will consumers foot the bill?

The government has formalised a legally-binding agreement with the four major UK operators that will see the number of rural ‘not spots’ with poor mobile coverage slashed by two thirds.

EE, O2, Three and Vodafone will invest a combined £5 billion in their respective mobile infrastructures to provide guaranteed voice and text coverage to 90 percent of the UK’s geographic area and full coverage to 85 percent by 2017.

The deal was first announced last December as an alternative to government proposals for a ‘national roaming network’ that would require operators to share their networks. All four argued that the idea was unworkable and would remove the incentive to invest.

Coverage requirements

Ofcom UK MapIn return, Ofcom has promised to review the companies’ annual licence fees to take into consideration the agreement, which allows the regulator to enforce consistent signal strength from each operator across the whole area they serve.

No government funding will be handed out, but operators will have access to a number of public buildings to deploy masts and the networks’ commitment will be noted when Ofcom reviews the cost of spectrum licences.

The new investment complements the existing £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project and the government claims that the UK will have some of the best mobile coverage of any major European country when the project is completed.

“For far too long, too many parts of the UK have regularly suffered from poor mobile coverage leaving them unable to make calls or send texts,” said culture secretary Sajid Javid. “Now at last we have progress that will give the UK the world-class mobile phone coverage it needs and deserves.

Operator support

Ofcom will monitor each operator’s progress closely and the Secretary of State expects an unspecified interim goal to be reached by 2016. All four networks have voiced their support for the arrangement.

“We are delighted that this agreement has been completed, ensuring that once rolled out, our customers will be able to stay connected in even more places up and down the country,” said EE CEO Olaf Swantee.

“A partnership between government and the mobile operators is required to maximise coverage across the UK, so this agreement is a good outcome for our customers,” said Derek McManus, COO of O2. “It will support investment in our network, while ensuring that strong competition remains between the different networks.”

“We now expect the Government to reform and modernise the Electronic Communications Code to ensure it better supports our ability to invest, build, upgrade and maintain our fixed and mobile network,” added Vodafone.

Higher bills?

Analysts have welcomed the deal but have voiced concerns that consumers may end up footing the bill.

“We’ve reached the stage where mobiles are considered an essential service, and so partial not-spots are no longer excusable,” said Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at uSwitch. “When we commit to a certain mobile network, often for up to two years, we expect to get what we signed up for. It’s incredibly frustrating for those people who can’t access the services they’ve paid for.

“We will have to wait and see whether the mobile companies honour the timescales of this agreement. £5 billion is a big investment for the networks, so we sincerely hope the costs will not be passed onto the consumer as a result of these changes.”

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