Leading politicians have branded a situation in which French, Dutch or even Bulgarian tourists are able enjoy better mobile phone coverage across England’s largest county than local residents due to EU red tape as “perverse”.
Only government intervention to force mobile operators to sign up to a mast-sharing agreement will bring mobile coverage up to acceptable standards in parts of North Yorkshire, the county council’s executive has heard.
Mobile UK says that by 2025 it is expected the average customer, who today uses 1.9GB of data per month, will be consuming 90GB. According to Ofcom’s most recent Connected
Nations report, geographic 4G network coverage from all operators is 97 per cent in urban locations and 62 per cent in rural areas.
Earlier this year Telecoms giant BT (EE) rejected an industry proposal from rival operators Three UK, Vodafone and O2 that would have aimed to improve national 4G network coverage via ‘rural roaming’, where signals in remote areas could roam onto whatever alternative network was available, as is mandatory elsewhere in the EU.
Industry commentators claimed the proposal could be viewed as giving “a free ride to rivals of BT that haven’t made the same level of investment” in boosting coverage.
North Yorkshire County Council says enhancing 4G in one of the country’s most rural areas remains critical, both economically and socially. To address the situation it has identified a number of areas, including near Leyburn, Masham, Selby, Appletreewick, Skipton on Swalen and West Tanfield, where connectivity remains poor.
In a concerted drive with the Local Enterprise Partnership, mobile operators were offered free masts in a £1m scheme, that also saw district councils defend a controversial move to offer the phone firms exemptions from business rates on the masts for seven years.
But the county council’s top officers and leaders have now expressed fresh frustration after their latest attempt to improve the county’s patchy mobile coverage appeared to have been rejected by the firms.
David Bowe, the authority’s director of business and environmental services said while great strides were being made improving broadband coverage it was “proving incredibly difficult to progress with mobile connectivity”.
He said the government needed to attract the attention of, or alternatively, force network operators to increase their coverage in rural areas.
Mr Bowe said: “The easiest way to gain coverage for mobiles is to get some form of rural roaming. There’s talk of network roaming at a national level and you’ll never get that off the ground, mobile operators have too much control and too much influence in that area.
“But if you can create a rural exception position where you allow rural roaming between networks then you would find that the majority of our county would be covered by one network or another and we would all immediately have significantly enhanced mobile access.”
The meeting was told that if North Yorkshire residents registered their phones on the continent they would be able to roam between masts and networks in the county.
Councillor Carl Les, the authority’s leader said he could understand the commercial argument that as fewer people used phones in rural than urban areas investing in mobile masts was not attractive to the operators, but added the situation had to change.
He said: “It seems perverse that a French tourist coming to North Yorkshire actually gets better service than residents in North Yorkshire or even visitors to North Yorkshire who happen to be on British networks.
“It’s not just the French, it’s anybody who comes from the continent. When we go ourselves to the continent we can roam from mast to mast and from network to network because that’s part of the regulations in the EU.
“But when people come to this country they can do the same, they can roam on our masts. I would call on the government to say let us introduce mast-roaming network roaming even if it is only in the rural areas.”