Mobile supplier Vodafone has launched a major campaign to bring reliable mobile signal to up to a million people living in some of the UK’s few remaining mobile signal black spots, or ‘notspots’, by running 3G services over existing broadband networks.
The national programme, Rural Open Sure Signal, will follow a pilot scheme that has already seen 12 rural communities connected to 3G mobile coverage.
Vodafone will enable up to 100 communities to apply for the installation of its Open Sure Signal femtocell technology in locations that traditional forms of mobile coverage cannot reach, either due to peculiarities of local geography or planning concerns in areas such as national parks.
The femtocell units are roughly the size of a domestic broadband box and Vodafone claims they can be installed unobtrusively on any number of buildings.
Ofcom’s most recent Communications Market Report highlighted that 50% of the UK population uses mobile phones to access the internet. Vodafone said extending mobile connectivity to as many people as possible was now becoming vital in supporting rural economies.
Jeroen Hoencamp, Vodafone UK chief executive, said: “This is an opportunity for people to make a real difference to their community and to be part of our commitment to close the digital divide between rural and urban areas.
“Bringing mobile coverage and mobile internet to rural areas gives communities a real boost – both economically and socially. I’m looking forward to seeing the successful communities light up and start to experience the benefits mobile connectivity will bring to each and every community involved.”
The trial scheme spanned the length and breadth of the country from Devon and Wiltshire, to Wales, Yorkshire and Cumbria, the Scottish Borders and Shetland.
David Blake, project development officer at Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs AONB, said the Sure Signal technology had “lifted the blight of being a notspot for mobile phone reception from our village”.
“[It] shows what can be done when small businesses, large companies and public organisations work together for the common good.
“Being an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty does not mean we are preserved in aspic like an exhibit. On the contrary, it means sustainable development is the key to our future, and this cannot be achieved without modern communications.”
Alick Grieve, village champion for Caldbeck in Cumbria, said: “The positive impact of having strong, reliable mobile coverage in the village is reflected in the uplift for local business and happier tourists who can now stay in contact with their more urban lives while enjoying the beauty of our countryside.”
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Alastair Carmichael, MP, whose Northern Isles constituency includes the village of Walls, another pilot community, said: “Last year I was proud to help Walls take part in the Open Sure Signal programme, which meant that the village has reliable mobile phone coverage for the first time. Improved mobile phone coverage could be a real boost to communities and businesses across Orkney and Shetland, and so I’m delighted that Vodafone is offering the technology to more areas.
“I know Vodafone couldn’t have delivered the project in Walls without the direct involvement of everyone in the community, and I hope that other areas will be inspired to see if they would be eligible, too.”
Local businessman Michael Tait, who runs Walls-based Shetland Mussels and employs 20 people, harvesting around 1,000 tonnes of shellfish a year, said a lack of mobile signal in the area had constrained the growth of his business.
This became more critical as customers – which include major restaurants and supermarket groups – moved to online business and procurement models.
“I do understand that it’s not always economically viable to invest in major infrastructure in remote areas – but at the same time our needs are the same as the rest of the country,” said Tait. “In fact, given our location and the fact our community is quite dispersed, we would argue that our need is even greater.
“So it’s great that this solution is becoming available and can provide the coverage that we need in such a simple way. I am now confident that my customers or colleagues will be able to get hold of me even if I am away from my desk or down by the shore. Having simple things like being able to text and communicate via social media makes such a huge difference to us.”
The Open Sure Signal scheme will form part of a £1bn commitment by Vodafone to improve its network services around the UK. The operator has pledged to provide either 2G, 3G or 4G coverage to 98% of the UK population in the next few years.
Applications for the 100 open spots on the scheme will close in October with the first connections expected by Christmas.