Dartmoor looks set to benefit from improved mobile coverage

Eric Partridge

Since mobile phones have become an essential part of everyone’s daily life, users in many parts of Devon, and especially Dartmoor, have generally suffered from erratic and unstable mobile coverage depending on their network provider.

For several years many rural communities across the moor have lacked mobile coverage altogether but have pragmatically resigned themselves to living in a virtual wasteland after being met with total ambivalence and patronising rhetoric from providers each time they raised the emotive topic. The problem is that rural areas have fewer potential customers so have not seen the level of investment needed to provide the coverage they deserve.

It appears that this could now be about to change as the Shared Rural Network (SRN) – a £1 billion deal – has been signed by the government. The four major UK mobile phone operators will take 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by the end of 2025 and make poor and patchy rural phone coverage a thing of the past.

The world-first deal will be a huge boost for people across the country in rural areas and will deliver strong 4G coverage irrespective of what network provider people use.

As its name implies, the SRN is a shared deal with EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, investing in a network of new and existing phone masts, overseen by a jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited. The ambition is to make sure everyone can benefit from fast services on the go – from those running small businesses to people shopping or booking travel online to speaking to friends and family. It will spur economic growth and close the digital divide across the country through better connectivity.

Upon announcing the £1 billion deal, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden underlined the government’s commitment: “For too many people in the countryside a bad phone signal is a daily frustration. So we’re delivering on the Prime Minister’s 100-day promise with this landmark deal with industry to end poor and patchy mobile rural coverage. This is an important milestone to level up the country, improve people’s lives and increase prosperity across the length and breadth of the UK.”

The long-overdue initiative will provide guaranteed coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads. There will also be further indirect improvements over time, including a boost to ‘in car’ coverage on around 45,000km of road and better indoor coverage in around 1.2m business premises and homes.

Rural parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales appear to have been identified for the biggest coverage improvements but according to the  announcement, coverage in England will improve to 98% coverage from at least one operator and 90% from all four operators by 2025. This compares to 97% and 81% today.

But the big question which The Moorlander posed to the key stakeholders is of course ‘How will this affect the South West? How will WE benefit?’

Hamish MacLeod of Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – was first to respond and appears to indicate that the South West will not be overlooked.

He told us: “The SRN is a UK-wide initiative and will benefit all areas of the UK. At this stage, with the signing only happening recently, we are working through where precisely the SRN will be built. In addition, whilst this is on-going, the networks continue to upgrade, extend and enhance their existing networks. Mobile UK looks forward to supporting the delivery of the programme in the coming years.”

There were also encouraging signs that the South West would receive fair consideration from Vodafone’s UK Chief Executive Officer, Nick Jeffery. “A rural postcode should not be a barrier to receiving a decent mobile signal.

‘Together, we have created a programme that is unmatched anywhere in the world. It will mean an end to mobile ‘not-spots’ for people in the more remote areas whether they are at home, at work or on the move. We will now get on with the job of delivering it.”

Further news that should raise the spirits of Dartmoor’s long-ignored and mobile-starved communities is that the £1 billion investment will also be backed by more than £500 million of government funding to eliminate hard-to-reach areas where there is currently no coverage from any operator. This will provide new digital infrastructure in total not-spot areas not commercially viable for the operators.

Philip Jansen, Chief Executive of BT Group added: “High-speed mobile connectivity is a central part of modern life whether you live and work in a city centre or in the countryside. Building our fast and reliable access to 4G across the country is a national mission and we’re playing a leading role, collaborating with government and the other mobile network operators in the UK, to make this happen. The Shared Rural Network is something we can all be proud of.”

“We’ll listen to rural communities and strive to maximise the benefits it will bring,” ensured Ben Roome, CEO of Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited. “The Shared Rural Network is fantastic news for people who live and work in our beautiful countryside.”

Caroline Normand, Director of Advocacy at Which?, welcomed the government’s announcement. “Substandard 4G and broadband continues to be a huge problem for many people around the country, shutting them out of important online services and frustrating their daily lives, so it is good to see the government keeping its promise on this much-needed investment.

‘When it comes to 4G, the government and industry must urgently clarify plans and how the right level of geographic coverage will be delivered if it is to match what people actually need.”

To ensure that coverage targets are met, Ofcom has developed legally enforceable coverage obligations that are attached to the mobile network operators’ radio spectrum licences.

These commit the four operators to:
•    Each reach 88% coverage of the UK by 2024;
•    Each reach 90% coverage of the UK  by 2026;
•    Each reach nation-specific coverage targets
     in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and
     Wales by 2026;
•    Collectively provide additional coverage
     to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads
     by 2026.

Together this means all four mobile network operators will deliver 95% combined coverage across the whole of the UK by the end of 2025. Ofcom will have the power to issue fines up to 10% of an operator’s gross revenue if they fail to meet their targets.

“The collaboration between the industry, government and Ofcom should be seen as a leading example of how to deliver infrastructure investment,” said Mark Evans, CEO of O2. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done to secure the SRN agreement, ensuring customers living in rural areas will be able to get the fast and reliable coverage they need and deserve.”

Dave Dyson, CEO of Three, added: “The Shared Rural Network is a game-changer for the country with coverage from each of the four operators expanding to at least 90% of the UK’s geography.”

How Dartmoor will benefit from the Shared Rural Network agreement, and to what extent, remains to be seen but at least the signs are more positive than ever before with all parties agreeing to improve rural mobile coverage and eliminate total not-spots. With Dartmoor qualifying on both counts surely this agreement can only be good news. Rest assured that The Moorlander will continue to monitor progress very closely indeed.

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