Plans to boost mobile 4G connectivity in rural areas must pass four tests if they are to deliver real benefits for rural communities, countryside and consumer campaigners have told the Government.
Proposals drafted by the major mobile phone companies for a single rural network would mean mobile operators sharing masts on a reciprocal basis and forming a new company to build joint masts in rural areas.
In return, operators are asking for rural coverage obligations associated with upcoming spectrum auctions to be ditched and a reduction in the annual licence fees paid by networks for the funding of new masts.
However, campaigners are concerned that the plans are not legally binding and say that even if they are delivered, there would only be 95 per cent 4G coverage by 2026 – four years later than committed to by the Government in its manifesto.
An open letter to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, signed by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the Countryside Alliance, National Farmers’ Union, Rural Services Network and Which?, calls for the networks’ proposals to include legal obligations to deliver improved coverage and for coverage improvements are delivered as soon as possible.
The groups also want the proposals to outline robust monitoring arrangements for Ofcom and for operators to be required to publish a 4G roll-out plan, as is the case with broadband.
Tim Breitmeyer, president of the CLA, said: “I’m pleased to see mobile companies engaging with the issue, but any suggestion that rural users can wait seven years for 4G coverage is totally inadequate.
“Furthermore, it leaves too much riding on the goodwill of operators when previous voluntary targets have been missed. Only a strong, robust, transparent and legally binding regulatory framework will ensure the needs of the countryside are met in a timely manner.”