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CLA calls for government intervention on rural 4G coverage

Country Land and Business Association urges government to consider broadband-style interventions to improve 4G mobile network coverage in rural areas

Mobile network operators (MNOs) will only invest in rural 4G mobile network connectivity if forced to do so by the government, and Westminster should consider taking similar steps to those it has taken to improve the reach of fixed broadband services, according to the Country Land and Business Assocation (CLA).

The CLA, which represents the interests of 30,000 members who between them own or manage about 10 million acres of land, believes the government’s plans for universal broadband access – including, but not limited to, the incoming 10Mbps universal service obligation (USO) – can act as a blueprint for positive action.

It has highlighted this in its submission to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) consultation on strategic priorities for telecoms, in which it also made reference to chancellor Philip Hammond’s 2018 pledge to give every home in the UK access to a full-fibre broadband connection by 2033.

“Since 2002, the CLA has been campaigning for a universal pledge on digital connectivity and we are delighted to finally see this on broadband,” said CLA deputy president Mark Bridgeman. “While we need to wait to see how this is met, great strides have been taken towards unlocking the potential of the rural economy.”

The CLA’s submission also repeated its previous calls for the government to consider rural roaming – the practice of enabling customer devices to roam onto other networks when they cannot receive a signal on their own network in much the same way as how travellers roam when abroad – as an option to help improve coverage.

Rural roaming is an idea that has been offered up several times in the past, but it is also a highly contentious issue, and tends to be resisted strongly by operators and industry experts, who believe it is technically more complex, slow to implement, damaging to network resilience, and challenging from a legal and regulatory perspective.

Last autumn, Ofcom published a number of recommendations for improving mobile coverage, and said rural roaming could improve coverage by 2-3% for operators that hold the future 700MHz coverage obligations, and 5-10% for those that do not, and could give customers of all four operators network access in about 90% of the UK.

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However, it again acknowledged that enforcing rural roaming introduces investment risks and consumer experience issues, and said it expected operators to continue to resist if any obligations were imposed.

In response, the CLA’s submission described rural roaming as a “common-sense solution to increasing coverage”.

Bridgeman added: “We need to learn the lessons from the successes with broadband where government and stakeholder consensus, as well as leadership by the regulator, achieved real wins for those who live or work in the countryside. There is no reason why a similar approach should not be applied to rural 4G, starting with forcing mobile operators to adopt rural roaming.”

The organisation’s response also highlights a disparity between the consensus on broadband targets that DCMS and Ofcom have reached, and a more divided approach on mobile – DCMS is working towards 95% geographic coverage by 2022, while Ofcom proposes to reach 90% by 2024.

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