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Getting rural areas connected

Tags: Ofcom

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PRESS RELEASE

  • Mobile and broadband coverage improve, but more progress needed in rural areas
  • New Ofcom rules to boost mobile reception in areas that need it most
  • Plans for ‘spectrum sharing’ to support improved mobile coverage and innovation

Mobile and broadband coverage are improving in the UK, but too many rural areas still get a poor signal – according to Ofcom’s major study of the UK’s communications networks.

Our annual Connected Nations report shows that mobile coverage continues to increase. Almost all homes and offices can get a good, indoor 4G signal from at least one operator; while 77% are covered by all four networks, up from 65% a year earlier.

Indoor reception is important, but people also expect a good signal when outdoors and on the move. Today’s report finds that 78% of the land mass has ‘complete’ call coverage from all four operators – up from 69% a year ago.

And 91% of the UK’s geography has a good 4G mobile internet signal from at least one operator, up from 80% last year. Two thirds (66%) of the land mass has ‘complete’ 4G coverage from all four, up from 49% last year.

But too many rural areas are left with patchy or unreliable mobile reception. For example, while 83% of urban homes and offices have complete 4G coverage, the figure for rural premises is less than half that (41%). In some remote parts of the country, there is no coverage at all.

So Ofcom wants to see faster progress in rolling out mobile internet to areas still lacking good coverage – allowing people to make calls, access the web, stream video and use smartphone apps wherever they happen to be.

Today we have set out updated plans to release new airwaves for mobile services, including requirements for operators to significantly increase outdoor data coverage, using at least 500 new transmitter sites to reach more people and businesses.

Releasing more airwaves for mobile

We plan to auction two spectrum ‘bands’ for mobile services together, in late 2019 or early 2020.

  • The 700 MHz band. These airwaves are well suited for providing good-quality mobile coverage, both indoors and across very wide areas – including the countryside.
  • The 3.6 GHz – 3.8 GHz band. This ‘mid-frequency’ spectrum, which will be auctioned alongside the 700 MHz band, is suitable for supporting lots of data-hungry connections in concentrated areas. It can be used to offer 5G services – the next generation of very fast mobile broadband.

Ofcom plans to include binding coverage rules with the spectrum. These mean that up to two winning bidders would each have to, within four years of the award:

  • Extend good, outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area within four years of the award. [1]
  • Improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices which they do not already cover. This means new coverage will be targeted at areas where it is needed; and
  • Provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas. This will ensure operators transform coverage in areas where it is lacking, rather than meeting the rules by just boosting existing signals.

During next year’s auction, the price for winning airwaves that carry these rules would be discounted by up to £300-400m – to reflect the significant investment required to meet them, and the social benefits they will deliver.

Ofcom’s priority is working towards comprehensive mobile broadband coverage across the UK. At the same time, we are supporting the development of 5G – the next generation of mobile networks – to increase mobile capacity and help the UK remain a world leader in mobile technology.

Philip Marnick, Ofcom’s Spectrum Group Director, said: “Mobile coverage has improved across the UK this year, but too many people and businesses are still struggling for a signal. We’re particularly concerned about mobile reception in rural areas.

“As we release new airwaves for mobile, we’re planning rules that would extend good mobile coverage to where it’s needed. That will help ensure that rural communities have the kind of mobile coverage that people expect in towns and cities, reducing the digital divide.”

Sharing spectrum to support coverage and innovation

Ofcom has today also published plans to allow certain spectrum to be shared by different users, to support innovation and local coverage initiatives across the UK economy.

Some of these airwaves could support wireless technology in areas as diverse as logistics, mining, agriculture and connected devices that will form the ‘Internet of Things’. Other airwaves could be used by organisations and groups to build and operate their own local mobile networks, improving coverage indoors and outside.

For example, we propose to make spectrum available for shared use in the 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz bands, which can be used by existing mobile handsets. We also plan to enable third parties to use airwaves that are licensed to mobile operators, but not being used by them. This could be particularly suitable for local communities to boost coverage.

Broadband progress

Today’s Connected Nations report also shows progress made in extending decent broadband coverage to the whole country.

The proportion of premises that cannot receive decent broadband – offering a ‘download’ speed of 10 Mbit/s, and an ‘upload speed’ of 1 Mbit/s – has halved this year from 4% to 2%.

However, that still leaves 677,000 homes and offices without decent broadband. The large majority of these (496,000) are in rural areas. So as operators continue to extend networks, Ofcom is working to implement the UK Government’s universal broadband service. This will give eligible homes and offices the right to request decent broadband by 2020. [2]

Superfast broadband – which offers a download speed of at least 30 Mbit/s – is now available to 94% of homes and offices – up from 91% last year. We expect this to continue increasing as companies extend superfast networks, backed by funding from the UK Government and those in the Nations.

Ultrafast broadband, which is around ten times faster, is available to half (50%) of homes, up from 36% – largely as a result of continued upgrades by Virgin Media to its high-speed network.

Around 1.8 million premises now have access to ‘full-fibre’ broadband – an increase of 1m in a year. This newer form of broadband uses fibre-optic cables to connect buildings to the local street cabinet, replacing older copper wires. Full fibre is very reliable and can deliver speeds above 1 Gbit/s. Ofcom has taken a range of steps to promote investment in full fibre, and we expect coverage to accelerate in the coming months.

More reliable, secure networks

Connected Nations also considers the resilience and security of telecoms networks – which are especially important as people become reliant on them, and cyber threats increase.

Most incidents reported to Ofcom in the last year were interruptions to landline services, usually affecting a small number of customers for a short period of time. But while major incidents remain rare, Ofcom was concerned by the outage suffered by O2 on 6 December.

Today’s report announces three areas where Ofcom will work with industry to help avert large-scale outages, and reduce their potential scale and impact:

  • First, we are collecting targeted information from industry on network design, to identify elements which are paramount to ensuring availability. We will propose systematic, preventive checks that companies should apply to hardware, software and their internal processes to improve network availability and resilience.
  • Second, we will propose a code of best practice to reduce the time required to reconnect subscribers after large-scale network outages.
  • Third, we are examining how network companies that provide widespread, wholesale services – for example, to mobile ‘virtual network operators’ – might add extra protections for these customers.

What counts as mobile coverage?

Ofcom has raised the bar for defining mobile coverage in recent years, to reflect the demands of modern smartphones. In today’s Connected Nations report, and in setting our proposed new coverage requirements, we define an area as having mobile coverage if:

• more than 95% of 90-second voice calls can be made without interruption; and
• a data connection speed of at least 2 Mbit/s is available. This supports reliable web browsing and streaming of HD video services.

1. Mobile network operators’ current 4G coverage

4G coverage (% UK land area)
BT/EE: 84
O2: 74
Three: 78
Vodafone: 79

2. On 5 December we proposed that BT would be the universal broadband service provider across the whole of the UK, excluding the Hull area; and KCOM would be the provider for the Hull area. In Scotland, we are working closely with the Scottish Government to ensure smooth interaction between its ‘Reaching 100%’ programme and the universal broadband service. 

3. Mobile coverage comparisons are July 2017 to September 2018.