Mobile operators abandoning the countryside to a digital wilderness

08 April 2018

New information shows that mobile network operators are failing to submit planning applications for new mobile phone masts to resolve the coverage in some of the worst served rural areas. 

In Rutland (which has the worst 4G coverage of any local authority area in England or Wales at 3.42% 4G indoor coverage from all operators) not one planning application for a new mast was made by any mobile operator in 2015, 2016 or 2017. Other rural local authority areas where no applications were made in any of those three years include Tunbridge Wells.

The CLA, which represents 30,000 landowners, farmers and rural businesses in England and Wales, obtained the new data through Freedom of Information requests to planning authorities across England and Wales.

CLA Deputy President Mark Bridgeman said: “This new data shows what rural communities have suspected for a long time, that the mobile industry is willing to abandon rural areas to the digital wilderness.

“Three years ago, we were told that coverage would be delivered in the countryside and yet rural communities are still waiting. In the same period the mobile industry has extracted concession after concession from Ministers. They have got the new legal powers they wanted, on the basis that they are a utility service. Now they must be forced to deliver the universal service that a utility operator provides. We expect government and the regulator to take a tough line on this, and if Ofcom won’t then Ministers must step in.”

The CLA has highlighted Ofcom’s failure to push mobile network operators to achieve universal coverage for consumers. It is calling on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to review Ofcom’s statutory remit and confirm that the body should prioritise working towards universal, quality mobile coverage for consumers.

Mark Bridgeman added: “The mobile operators have no market incentive to improve coverage in these rural areas. It is absolutely clear that the only way they will deliver the coverage the countryside needs is if they are forced to do so. However rather than pushing them to achieve universal coverage for consumers, Ofcom is setting soft targets for rural coverage. As a result rural consumers face inadequate service and lack of network choice for years to come.”

The new FOI data shows that in England on average less than five planning applications per year were made for new masts in each rural planning authority area, across the three years from the start of 2015 to the end of 2017. This is on a par with applications in England’s urban local authorities across this time period, where coverage is already far superior. The average in urban local authorities is 4.3 masts per year, the average in rural local authorities is 4.54.

The FOI results also show that the planning approval rate in rural local authorities is 84.5%, in urban local authorities it is 86%.

To read the data, click here

Further information can be found at www.cla.org.uk/4gForAll and Ofcom's 700Mzh spectrum auction proposal