The ancient hamlet of Huish Champflower sits on the cusp of Exmoor national park in south-west England. Like many rural areas, it suffers from poor mobile phone connections, meaning that most of its 200 residents are on the wrong side of the “digital divide”.
Stephen Kimsey, chair of Huish Champflower parish council, said some parts of the village could get a mobile signal but coverage was patchy at best. “On some networks you have to stand on a garden wall and jump up and down to get a signal,” he added.
Theresa May’s government last month put a radical solution to the problem of mobile “not spots” on its agenda by asking the industry regulator to study the costs and benefits of forcing telecoms companies to provide access to each other’s networks.
This idea — dubbed national roaming — would enable people’s phones to connect to the strongest signal, if necessary by using a different network to the one that bills them.
The government’s interest in national roaming is driven by its target for 95 per cent of the UK’s landmass to have mobile coverage by 2022, compared with 91 per cent currently.
Digital minister Margot James said the introduction of a new law in 2017 — called the electronic communications code — had made it cheaper and easier for the industry to erect masts to improve mobile phone and internet coverage.
“Mobile companies need to act on these reforms and deliver better coverage across rural areas,” she added. “Covering 95 per cent of the UK with good mobile signal is a priority for us and we are considering all of the options available to us, including rural roaming, to facilitate this.”
National roaming has been looked at before: in 2014, David Cameron’s government gave serious consideration to the idea, but the telecoms industry was opposed and successfully lobbied against it.
The sector remains opposed to the idea, arguing that compulsory roaming would reduce the quality of calls as phones constantly switch between networks.
It also argues the arrangement would provide a free ride for small telecoms companies to piggyback on the infrastructure of large mobile network operators that have invested in providing broad mobile coverage.
National roaming is not the only solution to fixing not spots. Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, has attached mobile coverage obligations to a planned sale to network operators this year of spectrum — the airwaves used to carry wireless signals.
Two of the spectrum licences to be awarded by Ofcom would have obligations to cover 90 per cent of the UK landmass within four years — providing 140,000 homes with wireless signals for the first time.
In an effort to avert government intervention, the network operators have been looking at ways to tackle the not spots problem.
They have held talks in recent months about a voluntary network sharing plan that would address “partial” not spots: an operator with a weak mobile signal would be able to piggyback on a rival’s infrastructure.
But the negotiations stalled after opposition from BT, which owns the EE network, according people briefed on the discussions. EE has the largest infrastructure, with 18,500 masts, and BT regarded the network sharing plan as an “unfair trade”, said one of these people. BT declined to comment.
The network operators have since reopened talks to try to strike a compromise agreement, said two people with knowledge of the negotiations.
At the heart of the not spots problem in rural areas is insufficient numbers of masts.
The 2017 electronic communications code was meant to make it simpler to erect new masts, but preparatory work in this area had virtually ground to a halt, said one person briefed on the situation.
There have been disputes over the impact of the law, with network operators pressing for reductions in the payments they make to owners of buildings and land where masts are placed.
In February, a London tribunal ruled that EE and Three, another operator, would only have to pay £2,551.77 a year to lease a London rooftop site from Islington council. That compared with the £13,250 that the council sought based on previous legislation.
Another key factor holding back the installation of new masts in rural areas is local residents’ opposition.
“The challenge is that the deeper into the rural environs we go, the resistance from local communities becomes stronger,” said Rob Matthews, a network engineer at Vodafone.
The good news for residents in Huish Champflower is that a farmer has contacted telecoms companies to say he is open to installing a mast in his fields to service the village.
Mr Kimsey said in recent years that the local church had decided against installing a mast in its spire as it would disturb the bells. He added the “conundrum” for small villages was overcoming “nimbyism” that agitates against masts even if residents want better mobile connections.
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