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£150m, three years... TWO base stations. You guessed it

Mobile coverage project stymied by not-spot ignorance

A government project funded with £150m of taxpayers money to improve rural broadband with mobile coverage has managed to erect just two base stations in three years.

The project needed EU approval to ensure that it wasn’t the UK government unfairly subsidising the mobile networks. The plan was to provide basic voice and data – that is to say: 2G.

Industry trade paper Mobile has reported that the project, which was originally announced in 2011, has only built sites in Weaverthorpe in North Yorkshire and North Molton (population 1,047) in Devon.

As a result of this delay, the project – which was due to be completed by 2015 – has had its deadline extended until at least spring of 2016.

The project was supposed to cover 60,000 premises and more than 10 major roads that had no outdoor coverage from any of the operators. The sites are defined by Ofcom as any 10,000m2 grid with a signal of less than -86dBm. It’s a metric which allows lots of “not-spots” to be fixed with a single cell.

The roads to be covered included the A2 and A29 in Northern Ireland, the A591, A169, A57, A360, A143 and A352 in England, the A470 in Wales and the A82 in Scotland. None of these have yet been covered – despite the project getting the operators' blessing in 2013.

The contract for the non-not-spot project, under the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, was awarded to infrastructure company Arqiva, in the belief that a single source would improve the speed of roll-out. Arqiva blamed poor data from the networks for the delay.

The plan was for Arqiva to identify the sites, get planning permission, build the sites – which needs to have line of sight to somewhere with back-haul for the microwave link to work – and then to get the operators to pay the transmission costs, land rental, electricity and all the other running costs. All four operators agreed to do this for 20 years for all the sites. It needs to be borne in mind that this is in areas the operators have already deemed as uneconomic.

Last year, Arqiva promised that residents in Cornwall, Northumberland, Strabane, Aberdeenshire and Powys would have sites set up by the end of the 2013.

Peter Wingate-Saul from Arqiva laid the blame for the delays on the poor data which was supplied by the operators through Ofcom.

The operators supplied Ofcom with details of where they did not have coverage and Ofcom aggregated the information. Unfortunately, as we’ve said before, operators don’t present information in a homogeneous way, so Ofcom had to do a lot of work to find places with no coverage from any network. And indeed Vodafone has called for consistency in the figures.

This data was then passed onto Arqiva, which then set about getting permission for cell sites and acquiring leases – only to find that some of the places where it was doing this did indeed have coverage.

So the data had to go back to Ofcom, which then went back to the operators and was updated and sent round the loop. This apparently took many months. ®

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