Rural communities still suffering from lack of 4G despite improvements

Mobile phone coverage can be patchy in Suffolk. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Mobile phone coverage can be patchy in Suffolk. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

Homes and businesses in rural communities across Suffolk and north Essex are still suffering from a lack of 4G mobile phone coverage, according to latest figures from Ofcom.

Paul Simon, Suffolk Chamber of Commerce.

Paul Simon, Suffolk Chamber of Commerce. - Credit: Archant

Statistics from the communications regulator’s Connected Nations report highlighted areas in January 2018 which, despite improvements from last year, are struggling to deliver a comprehensive 4G service across all four networks.

The worst affected district was Mid Suffolk, where two thirds of homes and businesses (66%) do not have full 4G coverage, while more than half of premises in Suffolk Coastal (59%) and Babergh (54%) suffered.

Figures for homes and businesses in St Edmundsbury (48%) and Tendring (42%) also highlighted 4G coverage problems in Suffolk and Essex.

More than a third of homes in Forest Heath (38%) and Colchester (36%) do not have full 4G and more than one home in five in Ipswich (22%) was affected.

The Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, which has strongly backed the No More Not-Spots campaign launched by the British Chamber of Commerce this year, said the figures show that mobile phone operators “still have a long way to go”.

Paul Simon, communications and marketing manager at the Suffolk Chamber, said: “A reliable mobile phone signal is one of the most basic requirements for any business, as more and more conversations and transactions take place while people are on the go.

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“Unfortunately, dropped calls and poor signal are making life unnecessarily tough for Suffolk’s businesspeople.

“This Ofcom data shows that the network operators still have a long way to go in delivering a comprehensive 4G service in Suffolk.

“We are looking to bring together the mobile network operators, businesses and landowners to focus upon solutions that ensure all not-spots are eradicated by 2020, if not earlier.”

The County Land and Business Association is calling on the Government to introduce legally binding targets to force the mobile phone networks to extend 4G coverage.

It said that mobile phone operators were letting rural areas become “a digital wilderness”.

Charles Trotman, CLA senior economic adviser, said: “State-of-the-art coverage will improve productivity of businesses and make them far more profitable.”

Dr Trotman said that the CLA’s aim is to push for comprehensive and reliable 4G coverage from all four major mobile networks - EE, 3, Virgin and O2.

“Our objective is universal coverage,” he added. “But everything is predicated on the operators themselves to put the infrastructure in place.

“We need to incentivise all operators to branch out, to give consumers more market choice and avoid localised monopolies.”

Ofcom has proposed introducing obligations that require networks to deliver better quality indoor coverage.

An Ofcom spokesman said: “We agree mobile coverage must improve, particularly in rural communities, and we’re working with the Government and the industry to support this.

“We want mobile companies to extend their networks as a priority, and we’ve announced plans to make them increase coverage for rural areas as we release more airwaves next year.”

Ofcom’s report also measures coverage by geographical area, for someone using their phone outside.

The figures show that 60% of the total area of Suffolk Coastal is covered by all four 4G networks, with Mid Suffolk at 61%, Colchester at 70%, St Edmundsbury at 72%, Babergh and Forest Heath at 76%, Tendring at 88% and Ipswich at nearly 100%.

A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “We have implemented major changes to planning laws and made it cheaper and easier for the industry to roll out masts.

“But the mobile companies now need to act fast on these reforms and deliver better coverage across the UK, particularly in rural areas.”

A spokesman from Mobile UK, which represents the four mobile networks, said: “Huge improvements have been made to mobile coverage in recent years, as a result of the £2billion invested each year by the industry.

“For this to continue, we need the active co-operation of landowners to provide operators with suitable, cost-effective sites.”

The Government target is 95% geographic coverage across the UK from at least one network by 2022.