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The government-run Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) has proved to be a flop and will be wound up on schedule despite delivering just a fraction of the hoped-for infrastructure.
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The MIP was designed to run alongside Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) to help address the problem of rural not-spots – areas where mobile coverage drops out – in parts of the country where it was not cost-effective for the mobile network operators (MNOs) to build out their networks.
Under EU funding rules a sum of up to £150m was set aside for the project – although only a fraction of this money was ever handed out. Infrastructure provider Arqiva was tasked with scoping out 600 potential sites for mobile masts and delivering on those that were deemed viable.
Despite initial high hopes, only 16 masts have been erected in two years, according to digital economy minister Ed Vaizey.
“I must admit that I am guilty as charged. I do not think the programme has been a success, and I do not think ministers often say that about their programmes,” said Vaizey. “I am fully prepared to stand up in the chamber and admit that the Mobile Infrastructure Project has not been as successful as we had envisaged. Our heart was in the right place.”
Dogged by problems
Salisbury MP John Glen said he had hoped the project would improve poor or non-existent coverage in a number of villages in his constituency, but told a Westminster Hall debate “none of the proposed masts at those sites have been seen through to completion”.
Glen alleged that the project had been dogged by problems, such as a lack of accurate data on where the not-spots were, difficulties with planning permission, as well as local opposition, particularly in beauty spots and national parks, with objections including from the height to the colour of masts.
“We had not anticipated just how difficult some of the planning issues are, particularly when we were dragging four operators with us, metaphorically kicking and screaming. Although we were paying for the mast, we were asking them to meet the operating costs going forward, which includes the land rental as well as the transmission costs for what is, by definition, an uneconomic area,” responded Vaizey.
Vaizey added that identifying precisely what a not-spot was had taken a long time and had been slower than expected because of the distraction of the concurrent national 4G roll-out, which also changed a number of coverage criteria for those working on the MIP.
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It is understood that it may still be possible for the remaining funds to be repurposed for further projects.
Vaizey said that if a community was genuinely willing to host a mobile mast and its local council was on side, it would be incumbent on the government to consider that option.
He said a number of things would play a role in addressing not-spots moving forward, including the change in licensing conditions for MNOs so that coverage is now measured by geography and not premises; the merger of O2 and Three; work on altering planning regulations to permit taller masts; and rapid implementation of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), which will see EE extend its public mobile network in support of universal networking capability for the blue light services.
In late 2014, the government also struck a major deal with the MNOs under which EE, O2, Three and Vodafone are collectively stumping up £5bn to address partial not-spots, meaning areas covered by some, but not all, of the operators.
Arqiva stood by the MIP, saying it was on track to deliver 50 masts by the end of March 2016. A spokesperson said: “To extend mobile coverage to remote and rural not-spots is an incredibly complex task that requires technical innovation, a pioneering attitude, time and tenacity. By their nature, MIP sites are located in the most rural and remote parts of Britain, bringing about a unique set of challenges.
“From May 2014 to August 2015, more than 200 potential MIP locations were progressed to the next stage of acquisition, and 105 sites received planning approval. Only five planning applications were refused, so Arqiva had a 95% success rate with planning applications. This is well above the industry standard and an achievement we are proud of.”