Three Quits £150m Government Rural Mobile Coverage Plan

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Three upsets government plan to build better mobile coverage for rural not spots

Mobile operator Three has said it will not take part in the government’s £150m plan to improve rural mobile coverage by building extra masts for so-called ‘not spots’.

Last October by Chancellor George Osborne pledged £150 million to improve the UK’s rural mobile coverage, a sum experts warned would be too small. Now, Three has walked away from the scheme, saying it won’t work with the radio spectrum it has.

Mobile coverage

Despite the negative feedback, the government said last December it was moving ahead with the plans, which aim to provide mobile coverage to 99 percent of the population and help the estimated 6 million people in the UK who do not have adequate mobile phone coverage.

In August 2011, a BBC 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.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Three, which has eight million UK customers,  told civil servants that it is not prepared to put its equipment on the 900 or so masts that would be erected by the Chancellor’s mobile infrastructure project.

The operator is said to be concerned it will not have enough lower-end spectrum to deliver a good service. Only Everything Everywhere, Vodafone and O2 currently have spectrum below 1000MHz, which can travel further and penetrate obstacles better than  higher-frequency signals.

Three  has delayed its decision to participate until after the forthcoming 4G auction in Q1 2013, which used to guarantee that a fourth operator – presumably Three – would get access to lower-frequency spectrum. However Ofcom’s second auction proposal has removed this guarantee.

Meanwhile the operator’s rejection will not please the government, which had hoped to put out a tender contract for construction of the mobile phone masts this month, so that consumers could begin to benefit from improved mobile phone signals in early 2013.

A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which is overseeing the work, said the contract would be published “in due course”.

“The focus of the project is on maximising the number of people benefiting from the investment, as far as reasonably possible. It is still our aim to cover the majority of the premises and key roads situated in complete not-spot areas,” a DCMS spokesperson said.

Pressure to act

Last July, the Communications Consumer Panel said the forthcoming 4G spectrum auction should extend mobile coverage to rural areas. It suggested that money made from the spectrum auction should be used to help operators upgrade rural coverage.

The government is already facing problems with another of its infrastructure funding projects, namely its BDUK scheme designed to rollout superfast broadband into rural areas that will be left in the broadband slow lane after missing out on BT’s fibre investment programme.

The BDUK scheme is already facing European objections and an official investigation, because the process has effectively turned into a two horse race, after only BT and Fujitsu signed a Framework Agreement with the DCMS.

Three had not responded to a TechWeekEurope request for comment at the time of writing.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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