What Next For Rural Mobile Coverage After Government’s £150m MIP Builds Just 75 Of 600 Targeted Masts?

windmill suffolk country rural © Douglas Freer shutterstock

The government will not extend Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) despite falling short of goal and increasing calls for better rural 3G and 4G coverage

A £150m UK Government initiative aimed at boosting mobile coverage in rural parts of the country delivered just 75 new mobile sites before it concluded at the end of last month – significantly less than the original goal of 600.

Work on the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) started in 2013 and despite missing its target by such a wide margin, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has elected not to exercise an option to extend the rollout by another year.

‘Unsuccessful MIP’

Even Ed Vaizey, the minister behind MIP, told Parliament that the initiative had been successful in a rare admission of failure.

ed vaizey at pivotal london 2014 © PeterJudge“I do not think the programme has been a success, and I do not think that Ministers often say that about their programmes,” he said earlier this year. “I think that when Ministers defend their programmes, they should have credibility.

“I am happy to defend the superfast broadband roll-out, which I think has been an unequivocal success despite the occasional criticism I receive … but I am fully prepared to stand up in the Chamber and admit that the [MIP] has not been as successful as we had envisaged.

“We set aside £150m. We talked about 600 sites. Our heart was in the right place…we wanted to eliminate the ‘not spots’ that exist as best we could.”

‘Missed opportunity’

But why was it not a success and why has the Government not extended the programme?

Arqiva, which won the contract to deliver MIP, said delivery was particularly challenging but says that many of the obstacles that hindered the rollout were overcome during the project’s three year lifespan. It thinks the decision not to extend the project is a “missed opportunity.”

Nicolas Ott, head of telecoms and M2M at Arqiva, claimed the task of building sites for all four operators at the same time was a “first in Europe” and required time, technical innovation and the diplomacy skills to build MIP sites in rural areas, many of which are in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

mobile phone train signal © Peter Bernik Shutterstock“That brings about a unique set of challenges including physical access, visual disturbance, capital expenditure constraints, power supplies, 4G transmission connections and securing community and stakeholder buy-in.” he told TechWeekEurope.

“To move a site from planning permission to delivery all of these elements have to align, and, crucially, have to do so within the allotted timescale.”

Connecting proposed sites to fibre backhaul and gaining planning permission were the chief obstacles and it was more than a year before the task of identifying sites could even begin. By August 2015, more than 200 potential sites had been identified and 105 sites received planning approval. Just five applications were rejected.

“This is well above the industry standard and an achievement we are proud of,” said Ott.

MIP challenges

“MIP was a ground breaking project in many ways. While we can’t underestimate the challenges involved, we must recognise the success we’ve had in addressing those challenges. All parties involved have worked closely together to achieve the 50+ masts that will have been delivered under the MIP programme by its close, and together we have resolved a lot of individual issues along the way. As a result, the project has been exciting from a technical innovation perspective too.

“For example, we’ve deployed new laser mapping techniques using helicopters and drones to get an accurate 3D view of potential routes from the masts back to networks – a technique that hadn’t been done before.”

Given that 600 sites were targeted, 200 had been identified and 105 had gained planning permission, it’s not unreasonable to suggest another year of rollout could have delivered more. At the end of November 2015, just 15 MIP sites were live, indicating that deployment accelerated in the final six months.

“We believe that this was a missed opportunity,” lamented Ott, although he accepted that the government had to make a decision.

Government plans

“Government is committed to making sure there’s better mobile coverage across the UK, and we have overcome technical and geographical challenges to deliver coverage to communities in some of the remotest parts of the UK for the first time,” a DCMS spokesperson told TechWeekEurope, stressing that rural coverage would be improved through other measures.

Vodafone semtocell walls shetland All four mobile operators have entered into a ‘legally binding’ commitment with the government to invest a combined £5 billion in their networks in order to extend at least voice and text services to 90 percent of the UK land mass.

However this was a reaction to plans to enforce participation in a ‘national roaming’ network, that would have allowed mobile users to automatically switch to the best available service – a proposal met with universal disdain in the telecoms industry.

O2 is also required to deliver indoor 4G coverage to 98 percent of premises in the UK by the end of 2017 as per the terms of its 800MHz spectrum licence and the suggestion is that other operators will come close to matching that.

However the most significant measure could be the relaxation of planning laws for mobile masts – a constant source of frustration for operators.

Planning reform

Earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted more needed to be done to improve rural coverage and suggested that campaigns to stop masts from being built a decade ago over aesthetic reasons and unproven health concerns had actually had a detrimental impact.

“There’s clearly more that needs to be done and I think this is something for members right across the House [of Commons],” he said. “Ten years ago, I think we were all guilty of leading campaigns against masts and all rest of it. Our constituents now want coverage for the Internet and their mobile phones.

The suggestion is that regulations will be relaxed.

Planning permission for masts is a complicated process, and site upgrades often require negotiations with the landlords – adding to the cost and complexity of network deployment. Local authorities can also be hostile and some even require individual planning applications for every proposed small cell, a time consuming and expensive process.

Arqiva has welcomed Cameron’s proposals and claims it once withdrew from a village because they couldn’t decide what colour the mast should be. Without reform, it is argued, network densification and expansion will be too expensive.

Operator view

Indeed, some of the operators have suggested the reasons for MIP’s failure are that the government realised just how difficult it is to build mobile infrastructure.

“The government decided to stop funding the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) and the main reason for this cancellation is the fact that it encountered many of the same difficulties operators face when attempting to build infrastructure that will deliver coverage for customers: gaining planning permission in the face of nimbyism, high rents, limited access rights,” said O2.

“As a result, MIP fell significantly short of its stated aims: target of 600 new sites that would result in 99 percent coverage by 2015.”

Operator measures and improvements

O2 added that it is committed to fulfilling the coverage requirements of its 800MHz licence and says it is in the middle of a £3 billion network modernisation. Three’s efforts to boost coverage are centred on the rollout of long range 800MHz spectrum, Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) to improve its network coverage.

EE 4G Micro Network CumbriaVodafone told TechWeekEurope it had spent around £2 billion in its UK network and services over the past couple of years and was actively working to ensure ‘thousands’ of small communities had access to 4G and to improve its indoor and outdoor 3G coverage. It also has its Rural Open Sure Signal (ROSS) project, which us delivering mobile coverage to 100 locations using femtocell technology.

But ultimately, all four major operators are in agreement about the need to reform planning laws, especially the Electronic Communication Code (ECC) if the UK is to get better mobile coverage – especially in rural areas.

“The ECC underpins relationship between mobile operators and site providers,” Inge Hansen, EE’s head of spectrum told a Westminster eForum earlier this week. “We need to get to a much more reasonable setup. We need better rights to automatically upgrade sites. It can’t be right that we go to a site to upgrade it to 4G and we’re held to ransom.”

Infrastructure sharing

Despite the apparent failure of MIP, Arqiva thinks infrastructure sharing is essential if mobile operators are to continue to invest in the UK and believes government should be receptive towards consolidation.

Vodafone and O2 share some infrastructure as part of their ‘Beacon’ joint-venture, as do Three and EE as part of MBNL. As an owner of mobile infrastructure itself, Arqiva’s position is obvious as it has 2.5 operators on every mast it owns. Getting all four on board would reduce rents, and changes to legislation would make it easier to add new operators without increasing costs.

Ott said many operators invest in the UK as a “last resort” because of difficult planning laws and intense competition.

“EE has been sold by Orange and Deutsche Telekom, so you can see that selling EE is a way of exiting the UK market, and Orange is investing in other countries,” he said. “Telefonica is potentially selling O2 to Hutchison, yet is investing in other countries.

“Vodafone’s Project Spring [is investing in the UK] but applies to many other countries and BT [owner of EE] is the UK incumbent.”

“I think when you see [these trends], the UK is a demanding market.”

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