Government Pledges £150m For More Mobile Towers

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The Conservatives have pledged money to improve mobile coverage in the UK’s so called not-spots

The Chancellor George Osborne announced at the Conservative Party Conference that the government will invest more money in order to improve the UK’s mobile phone coverage. But the announcement has been greeted with scepticism by analysts.

Osborne said the government will invest up to £150m to improve the coverage and quality of mobile phone services in areas that either currently have poor or no mobile coverage, extending coverage for “up to six million people”, and bringing a mobile signal to 99 percent of the UK.

Planning Difficulties?

However the installation of additional mobile cell towers is always a difficult process, especially bearing in mind planning laws and ongoing health objections from a number of small but vocal campaign groups, who claim that mobile phones cause cancer.

The Government will apparently consult with local communities on installing new cell towers, and said that its action is part of its efforts to  improve the UK economy during these turbulent times.

“We do all this for a better Britain and a stronger economy,” Osborne was quoted as saying. “I don’t pretend to you that these are not difficult days … but together we will move into the calmer, brighter seas beyond.”

Purse Strings

But where exactly will the money be spent? Apparently it will be used to acquire more mobile phone mast sites, a process that will begin in 2012.

Ofcom will be in charge of deciding what sites will need to be acquired in order to prevent so called mobile phone “not-spots,” but the government will hold the purse strings and make the eventual spending decisions.

But not all are convinced by the Government’s investment.

Perplexing Announcement

“Once again, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer has found £150m hidden in the back of a drawer, which is suddenly available for spending despite the overall tightness of funds and the need to deal with the unsustainable public debt,” said Ovum principal analyst Jeremy Green.

“Last week there was £250 million for weekly bin collections; this week it is £150 million for blackspots in mobile network coverage,” he said.

“The announcement is perplexing. While £250m might buy quite a lot of dustmen, £150m doesn’t buy much mobile phone coverage,” he added. “It’s hard to know what the justification is for giving public money to profitable private companies (most of them foreign-owned) to help them to do something that the regulatory framework and licence obligations should be inducing them to do anyway.”

“And it is not at all clear how the money will be used to buy the little coverage it will provide,” he said. “Will this be a straightforward hand-out to the network operators? Or will it go to an entity like Arquiva, which provides shared resources to the operators? If that’s a good model, maybe it should be extended so that even more coverage can be provided, even in the absence of government funding.”

Where the BBC's data came from

UK’s Not-Spots

In August the BBC’s crowdsourced survey revealed that a 3G signal is generally unavailable 25 percent of the time in Britain, despite billions of pounds worth of investment in the technology.

The problem is of course especially bad in rural areas, where often 2G handsets deliver better performance than modern smartphones.

It is hoped that Ofcom’s forthcoming auction of 800MHz spectrum for 4G mobile services will help to extend mobile coverage to rural areas, as more than three million people are still living in mobile “not-spots”. However, there is some concern that 4G services will not extend beyond the existing 3G mobile coverage areas.

Last week femtocell maker Picochip warned that London needs large numbers of micro cell towers by 2015 to provide good LTE  mobile broadband.

And in July Ofcom faced criticism over the current state of mobile coverage in rural areas.

The Communications Consumer Panel urged Ofcom to ensure that the forthcoming 4G spectrum auction extends mobile coverage to rural areas, and suggested that money made from the spectrum auction should be utilised to help operators upgrade rural coverage.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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