Getting rural areas connected
Mobile and broadband coverage are improving in the UK, but too many rural areas still get a poor signal, according to Ofcom research.
Our annual Connected Nations report shows mobile coverage has continued to improve:
- Almost all homes and offices can get a good, indoor 4G signal from at least one operator, while three-quarters (77%) are covered by all four networks. This is up from 65% last year.
- When it comes to outdoor coverage, 78% of the UK has call coverage from all four operators – up from 69% a year ago.
- And 91% of the UK has a good 4G mobile internet signal from at least one operator, up from 80% last year. Meanwhile, two-thirds (66%) has 4G coverage from all four, up from 49% last year.
However, too many rural areas have patchy or unreliable mobile reception. For example, while 83% of urban homes and offices have good 4G coverage, only 41% of those in rural areas do. In some remote rural areas there is no coverage at all.
We want to see faster progress in rolling out 4G to areas still lacking good coverage – allowing people to make calls, access the internet, stream video and use smartphone apps wherever they are.
Today we have set out updated plans to release new airwaves for mobile services, and requirements for firms to significantly increase outdoor 4G coverage, using at least 500 new transmitter sites to reach more people and businesses.
Releasing more airwaves for mobile
We plan to auction two spectrum ‘bands’ for mobile services by spring 2020.
The 700 MHz band. These airwaves help to provide good mobile coverage, both indoors and across very wide areas, including the countryside.
The 3.6 GHz – 3.8 GHz band. This spectrum is suitable for supporting lots of data-hungry connections in concentrated areas. It can be used to offer 5G services – the next generation of mobile broadband.
We plan to include rules with the spectrum, which mean winning bidders would have to do the following within four years of being awarded the airwaves:
- Extend good, outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK.
- Improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices that they don’t already cover.
- Provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas.
During the auction, the price for winning airwaves that carry these rules will be discounted by up to £300m to £400m to reflect the investment required, and the social benefits they will bring.
Ofcom’s priority is working towards comprehensive mobile broadband coverage across the UK. At the same time, we are supporting the development of 5G – the next generation of mobile networks – to increase mobile capacity and help the UK remain a world leader in mobile technology.
Philip Marnick, Ofcom’s Spectrum Group Director, said: “Mobile coverage has improved across the UK this year, but too many people and businesses are still struggling for a signal. We’re particularly concerned about mobile reception in rural areas.
“As we release new airwaves for mobile, we’re planning rules that would extend good mobile coverage to where it’s needed. That will help ensure that rural communities have the kind of mobile coverage that people expect in towns and cities, reducing the digital divide.”
Sharing spectrum to support coverage and innovation
We have also published plans to allow certain spectrum to be shared by different users, to support innovation and local coverage initiatives.
This could support wireless technology in a range of sectors, and other airwaves could be used to build and operate own local mobile networks, improving coverage indoors and outdoors.
For example, we propose making spectrum available for shared use in bands used by existing mobile phones. We also plan to allow organisations to use airwaves that are licensed to mobile firms, but not currently being used. This could help local communities to boost coverage in their area.
Today’s Connected Nations report shows progress made in achieving decent broadband coverage across the whole country.
The proportion of buildings that cannot receive decent broadband (which we define as offering a download speed of 10 Mbit/s, and an upload speed of 1 Mbit/s) has halved this year from 4% to 2%.
However, 677,000 homes and offices still can’t get decent broadband and the large majority of these (496,000) are in rural areas. Ofcom is working to implement the UK Government’s universal broadband service. This will give eligible homes and offices the right to request decent broadband by 2020.
- Superfast broadband – which offers a download speed of at least 30 Mbit/s – is now available to 94% of homes and offices, up from 91% last year. We expect this growth to continue as companies extend superfast networks.
- Ultrafast broadband, which is around ten times faster, is available to half (50%) of homes, up from 36% – largely as a result of continued upgrades by Virgin Media to its high-speed network.
- Around 1.8 million premises now have access to ‘full-fibre’ broadband – an increase of one million in a year. This uses fibre-optic cables to connect buildings to the local street cabinet, replacing older copper wires. Full fibre is very reliable and can deliver speeds above 1 Gbit/s. Ofcom has taken a range of steps to promote investment in full fibre, and we expect coverage to increase in the coming months.
Safer, more reliable networks
Connected Nations also looks at the resilience and security of telecoms networks, which are especially important as people become reliant on them, and as cyber-threats increase.
Most incidents reported to Ofcom in the last year were interruptions to landline services, usually affecting a small number of customers for a short period of time. But while major incidents remain rare, Ofcom was concerned by the outage suffered by O2 on 6 December.
Today’s report sets out three, industry-wide measures to mitigate against the risk of major outages.
- We are collecting information on how networks are designed and will propose checks that companies should apply to hardware, software and their internal processes.
- We will set out a code of best practice to reduce the time taken to reconnect customers after large-scale network outages.
- We are examining how network companies that provide services to mobile firms might strengthen the software that controls how data is managed.
What is spectrum?
Spectrum is the invisible infrastructure that supports all devices needing to communicate without wires – such as televisions, car key fobs, baby monitors, wireless microphones and satellites. Mobile phones use spectrum to connect to a local mast so people can make calls and access the internet.
Only a limited amount of spectrum is available, so it needs to be managed carefully. Certain bands of spectrum are also used for different purposes.
The airwaves we’re making available are often referred to as ‘millimetre wave’ spectrum. They involve radio waves operating at extremely high frequencies. Frequencies in this spectrum range are currently used for a number of different services, including helping to provide wireless internet services.
What difference is 5G expected to make?