Ofcom Faces Criticism Over Rural Mobile Coverage

An advisory panel has urged Ofcom to ensure that rural areas suffer no more mobile ‘not-spots’

The Communications Consumer Panel has urged telecom regulator Ofcom to ensure that the forthcoming 4G spectrum auction extends mobile coverage to rural areas.

In its report on the forthcoming spectrum auction, it suggests that money made from the spectrum auction should be utilised to help operators upgrade rural coverage.

Rural Not-Spots

The report estimates that three million people live in mobile “not-spots”.

The panel is concerned because it does not believe that new 4G services will extend beyond the existing 3G mobile coverage areas. It warns that the money freed up by the 4G auctions must be ploughed back into rural not-spots.

The panel estimates that the UK needs an extra 1,400 base stations to improve rural coverage.

“The forthcoming auction presents an opportunity to address the fact that GSM coverage has largely stood still since the arrival of 3G – most coverage not-spots ten years ago are still not-spots today,” it said. “For the first time in over 25 years significant spectrum is about to be released that is lower frequency than any that is currently deployed … 800 MHz is a good solution for rural coverage and presents the opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity within the next decade, to correct the adverse coverage position.

“The arrival of new spectrum and new technology should not cause a loss of focus on maintaining the standard of GSM coverage … it will remain everybody’s mobile link to the emergency services at least over the next decade, and for many in areas of poor coverage it will be the only effective means of mobile communication,” the panel added.

Ofcom Options

Ofcom is currently evaluating many different options for solving the vexing problem of providing both a decent mobile signal and broadband service to rural areas.

Back in May, MPs debated the upcoming 4G auction and said that 4G technologies could play a crucial role in extending broadband provision to rural areas. In the end, 105 MPs signed a motion calling for action to counter the digital divide.

Meanwhile an Ofcom spokesman told eWEEK Europe that the regulator is considering its options as part of the 4G auction.

But Ofcom’s hands are tied over the Communications Consumer Panel suggestion that Ofcom holds onto the revenue from the 4G auction in order to provide incentives for the roll-out of better mobile coverage in rural areas.

Cash Incentives?

“Ofcom does not currently have the power to hold onto revenues, as we have to pass it onto the Treasury,” said the spokesman.

“Ofcom recognises the benefits of securing wide scale mobile phone coverage,” an Ofcom spokesman said later in an emailed statement. “That is why we are currently considering options to ensure widespread coverage as part of our consultation on the design of the 4G auction and considering options for increasing mobile coverage more generally.”

“However we have no power to retain auction proceeds, which are passed to the Treasury. It is therefore up to the government to decide if it wants to use some of those proceeds to address mobile coverage issues,” he added.

Ofcom is currently preparing for the long-awaited auction of spectrum around 800MHz and 2.6GHz, which is due to take place in the first quarter of 2012.

Ofcom has set strict maximum and minimum limits to the amount of spectrum which can be bought by any one operator, in an attempt to maintain competition in the market and allay fears that the auction could squeeze out smaller players.