Lord Adonis today urged urgent action to protect mobile network customers, after new figures showed large parts of the country may not be even getting the most basic services expected.

The chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission said he has written to the head of Ofcom, pressing for concerted action between the regulator and the Government to tackle the situation.

He insisted that the regulator should “put all options on the table” to improve mobile phone coverage between now and the next mobile spectrum being auctioned – including possible legal and regulatory changes.

A new definition of good mobile coverage published by Ofcom shows that geographic landmass coverage – that is, coverage enabling users to make an uninterrupted mobile phone call for 90 seconds – could be as much as ten percentage points lower than previously published under old measurements.  Where network operators are expected to deliver coverage to 90 per cent of the country, today’s figures suggest that it could be 80 per cent that is achieved in practice.

This new data reflects the true customer experience more accurately than ever before, fulfilling a key recommendation from the National Infrastructure Commission that coverage should be measured in a genuinely meaningful way.

It also means whole areas could be suffering far poorer mobile services than previously thought.

The findings also show that:

  • Total 4G coverage, where reception is available from all four mobile operators, is available across just 43 per cent of the UK’s landmass; and
  • For calls and text messaging, 30 per cent of the UK’s geography does not receive a signal from all four operators
  • Just 40% of the landmass in Scotland is covered by mobile telephone services from all operators

Lord Adonis said it was “deplorable” that large parts of the country are still not receiving the minimum signal needed simply to make a quick phone call.

He argued that it demonstrated the need for “urgent and radical action” to ensure customers are not paying for services they don’t receive.  He added that this also underlined the need for greater use of shared data to increase awareness of coverage, and in turn improve services.

Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Lord Adonis said:

“In an age when access to a mobile signal is regarded as a must-have, it is deplorable that even in areas previously considered to have strong coverage, operators are still delivering such poor services that customers can struggle to make a quick phone call.

“This new measure for coverage comes almost a year to the day after we first warned about the poor mobile signal communities can face, but now suggests the situation is even worse than we thought.  It demonstrates the need for urgent and radical action to tackle this issue immediately, ahead of new mobile spectrum being auctioned and 5G technology being rolled out.

“That’s why I want Ofcom as the industry’s regulator to urgently take concerted action with Government to tackle this situation. They should put all possible options on the table – including legal and regulatory changes – to ensure customers can be confident they are will get the service they deserve and pay for.”

Considering all possible options to improve services

Publication of Ofcom’s revised mobile coverage map comes a year after publication of the Commission’s report, which warned that with the UK lagging in the league tables for 4G coverage, action was needed to both support “not spot” areas and to prepare for new 5G technology.

Lord Adonis said that while there are plans to improve coverage, including roll-out of the next mobile spectrum within the next three years, immediate action is required before then to boost services in the short-term.

In his letter to Ofcom chief executive Sharon White, he urges her to consider all possible options for increasing and improving coverage, including but not limited to:

  • Mobile mast sharing, helping to improve coverage for the users of all networks across areas of poor coverage;
  • Using unused spectrum, taking action to ensure that valuable spectrum allocated for mobile services is not wasted but used to improve coverage across the country; and
  • Introducing roaming, so customers can move from their network provider to signals offered by other companies where they are stronger

The new definition also comes after a National Infrastructure Commission report last week, which called for a shift away from the assumption that all operational data – including mobile coverage data held by network operators – should be kept private, and towards more open data sharing with clear security safeguards in place, to make the most of new technologies as they become available.

Doing this would mean the UK could benefit from using the latest innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning, to improve the performance of the infrastructure network.

But for this to work, the report also warned that collecting and sharing the necessary data would also need to be supported by a reliable and high speed broadband and mobile network across the country.

Notes to Editors:

Connected Nations, Ofcom’s new mobile coverage map, can be found at: http://bit.ly/2odFilP

Paragraph 5.31 of the detailed analysis annex of Connected Nations says: “When…coverage obligations were established they adopted the approach to measurement that had historically been used by the mobile industry. Since then, consumers have come to expect better coverage and the increased use of smartphones to access mobile services means that the levels of coverage actually achieved will be lower – by approximately 10 percentage points. Based on how we now measure coverage to reflect modern smartphone use, and assuming the operators meet their obligations, the historic coverage obligations would in practice mean that all operators would provide outdoor coverage to 80% of the UK landmass (rather than 90%), and O2 would deliver an indoor data service to 88% of UK premises (rather than 98%).”

Data for the Public Good, the National Infrastructure Commission’s latest report, is available at: http://bit.ly/2zbwWOP

Connected Future, the National Infrastructure Commission’s report, was published on 14 December 2016 and can be found at: https://www.nic.org.uk/publications/connected-future/