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Government not doing enough to address mobile not-spots

The National Infrastructure Commission has criticised the government for a lack of progress in addressing mobile network not-spots, particularly along key road and rail links

Limited progress has been made on improving 4G mobile network connectivity along the UK’s key road and rail routes, and the government is in danger of missing a “real and exciting” chance to build world-leading infrastructure for Britain, according to the chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), John Armitt.

The NIC’s second annual monitoring report, which tracks six sector-specific reports it has published in the past four years, covers 45 recommendations to government in areas such as network connectivity, energy grids and transport.

The NIC considers 10 of these recommendations to have been fully met at this point, but warned that elsewhere, progress has been varied, most notably on mobile network availability.

“There is a real and exciting chance available to ensure the UK benefits from world-class infrastructure, particularly through the forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy – a first for this country,” said Armitt. “We cannot afford for ministers to take their eye off the ball.”

“With this issue at the heart of the Industrial Strategy, I would urge the government to adopt the recommendations from our National Infrastructure Assessment, and use this to offer industry the long-term, fully costed infrastructure plan they need.

“But I also want to see ministers go even further and faster in enacting those more challenging proposals from our six other reports, where progress has been lagging in certain areas – such as improving mobile connections on our road and rail networks,” he said.

The availability of mobile connectivity along the UK’s transport routes has become a contentious issue in the industry, as more and more people, particularly office-based commuters who rely on the national and suburban rail networks, use their time spent on trains to catch up on emails, or while away delays by streaming Netflix.

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  • A CBI report has warned that Brexit is “sucking the oxygen” out of digital priorities such as full-fibre broadband roll-out and 5G mobile network deployment.
  • 4G mobile network coverage along the UK’s motorways has seen substantial improvement, with Greater Manchester’s urban M60 having 100% availability and the Birmingham to Carlisle M6 seeing the greatest growth in coverage.
  • New broadband engineers from “all walks of life” will be trained at one of 12 educational facilities Openreach is set to open across the country.

Areas of poor connectivity, or not-spots, such as one that frequently occurs in between London’s Clapham Junction, Victoria and Waterloo stations at peak hours, can become notorious as angry commuters take to social media to complain.

While operators make much out of improving network availability at transport hubs such as stations – one EE mast at Waterloo is held to carry 100TB of data every day – issues such as access to trackside locations has hamstrung roll-outs that would better address the needs of travellers.

Armitt called on the government to more clearly set out the steps it plans to take on mobile connectivity for rail, both to offer more clarity for operators and network builders, and to ensure the infrastructure that is being put in place is in step with the development and deployment of 5G.

He also called for a plan to scale motorway mobile connectivity beyond existing trials by the end of this year, with a particular emphasis on meeting the needs of future autonomous vehicles.

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