Suffolk: Taskforce aims to “do a broadband” on mobile phone coverage

Mark Bee and Therese Coffey are hoping to improve mobile coverage in Suffolk.

Mark Bee and Therese Coffey are hoping to improve mobile coverage in Suffolk. - Credit: Archant

A major campaign to improve mobile phone signals across Suffolk is to be spearheaded by the county council.

It is to use lessons learned from the successful campaign to improve broadband coverage in the county – and is seen as vital to boost Suffolk’s economy.

County council leader Mark Bee – who also holds the economic development brief on Suffolk’s cabinet – is assembling a taskforce of business leaders, technology experts, and senior council officials to push the case to improve coverage.

The four mobile phone networks cover most of the county – but there are significant gaps for one network or another in rural areas and in particular in some of the tourist hotspots.

Vodafone, in particular, has gaps along the Suffolk coast – there is no signal at all from the company in busy tourist spots like Aldeburgh, Thorpeness and Orford – and there are also gaps in the Suffolk/Norfolk border area and in large parts of West Suffolk.

Businesses in the area have talked about the frustration they hear from tourists who are unable to use their phones during visits to the area.

Mr Bee said: “We see this as the same issue as broadband. For Suffolk, and especially the market towns and rural areas, good mobile coverage goes hand in hand with broadband.

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“There is a significant difference because there is not much government money on offer for the mobile expansion as there is for broadband – but we need to engage with mobile companies to make them see how important it is for them improve their coverage.”

He hoped that mobile phone companies would join the taskforce – and said the county should be able to offer practical help.

Mr Bee added: “The county owns a significant amount of land, especially when you consider the farms in the area, I’m sure we could offer sites for new masts if that is the issue.”

The government is helping to fund mobile infrastructure to enable transmitters to be put up in “not spots” which cannot be reached by any mobile network – but in most of Suffolk the problem is that blackspots open up for those on the wrong network.

A spokeswoman for Vodafone, whose coverage is among the worst in the county, said it was continuing to invest and it had launched a competition to bring signals to up to 100 small communities across the country.

However the company did need to be sure of the commercial benefits of investing significant amounts of money on improving the network.

Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Therese Coffey said the government was aware of the need for good mobile coverage in rural areas.

She said one option could be to compel companies to use each other’s network to cover blackspots: “There are other ways they could compete – on tariffs or on phones they offer – but having good coverage is vital.”

Terry Hunt, EADT editor and a member of the mobile phone task force, said: “I warmly welcome this initiative. In 2014, it is simply unacceptable for swathes on our county to have unreliable or non-existent mobile phone signals.

“It is inconvenient and irritating. More seriously, it causes major damage to the county’s reputation as an enterprising place. It is an impediment to business, and at worst the lack of signal could cost lives in emergency situations.”

The Suffolk Chamber of Commerce put its weight behind the taskforce. Chief Executive John Dugmore said: “This is a welcome statement from Mark Bee on an issue that effects the day to day operation of business big and small in Suffolk.

“There is no doubt that mobile phone coverage in the county is woefully inadequate and is damaging investment. The fact that in some areas of County there is no signal is not acceptable to modern business in any shape or form.”