Getting rural areas connected in Wales
- Mobile and broadband coverage improve, but more progress needed in rural areas
- New Ofcom rules to boost mobile reception in areas that need it most
- Plans for ‘spectrum sharing’ to support improved mobile coverage and innovation
Mobile and broadband coverage are improving in the UK, but too many rural areas still get a poor signal – according to Ofcom’s major study of the UK’s communications networks.
Our annual Connected Nations report shows that mobile coverage continues to improve but remains limited in many rural areas of Wales. 98% homes and offices can get a good, indoor 4G signal from at least one operator; while 69% are covered by all four networks, up from 45% a year earlier.
Indoor reception is important, but people also expect a good signal when outdoors and on the move. Today’s report finds that 75% of the land mass in Wales has ‘complete’ call coverage from all four operators – up from 62% a year ago.
And 90% of Wales’ geography has a good 4G mobile internet signal from at least one operator, compared to 80% last year. Over half (57%) of the land mass has ‘complete’ 4G coverage from all four, up from 30% last year.
People in rural areas still struggle to get good mobile coverage, and Wales has the biggest urban-rural divide for 4G coverage. While 79% of urban homes and offices have complete 4G coverage, the figure for rural premises is less than half that (36%). In some remote parts of the country, there is no coverage at all, 10% of Wales (9% UK) is not covered by a good 4G service from any operator.
Ofcom wants to see faster progress in rolling out modern 4G mobile internet to areas still lacking good coverage – allowing people to make calls, access the internet, web video and use smartphone apps wherever they happen to be.
Today we have set out updated plans to release new airwaves for mobile services, including requirements for operators to significantly increase outdoor data 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 together, in late 2019 or early 2020.
The 700 MHz band. These airwaves are well suited for providing good-quality mobile coverage, both indoors and across very wide areas – including the countryside.
The 3.6 GHz – 3.8 GHz band. This ‘mid-frequency’ spectrum, which will be auctioned alongside the 700 MHz band, is suitable for supporting lots of data-hungry connections in concentrated areas. It can be used to offer 5G services – the next generation of very fast mobile broadband.
Ofcom plans to include binding coverage rules with the spectrum. These mean that up to two winning bidders would each have to, within four years of the award:
- Extend good, outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area within four years of the award, including at least 90% of England, 90% of Northern Ireland, 74% of Scotland and 83% of Wales.1
- Improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices which they do not already cover. This means new coverage will be targeted at areas that are harder to reach; and
- Provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas. This will ensure operators transform coverage in areas where it is lacking, rather than meeting the rules by just boosting existing signals.
During next year’s auction, the price for winning airwaves that carry these rules would be discounted by up to £300-400m – to reflect the significant investment required to meet them, and the social benefits they will deliver.
As well as working towards comprehensive mobile broadband coverage across the UK, Ofcom is supporting the development of 5G – to increase mobile capacity and help the UK remain a world leader in mobile technology.
Eleanor Marks, Ofcom’s Director in Wales, said: “The findings of today’s report are encouraging – Wales has seen the greatest improvement across the UK in terms of 4G coverage being available from all operators, but more must be done so communities are not left behind.”
“Coverage is improving, but expectations are also increasing. So we are continuing to support competition and innovation, to help improve coverage across Wales - especially in our most rural areas.”
Sharing spectrum to support coverage and innovation
Ofcom has today also published plans to allow certain spectrum to be shared by different users, to support innovation and local coverage initiatives across the UK economy.
Some of these airwaves could support wireless technology in areas as diverse as logistics, mining, agriculture and connected devices that will form the ‘Internet of Things’. Other airwaves could be used by organisations and groups to build and operate their own local mobile networks, improving coverage indoors and outside.
For example, we propose to make spectrum available for shared use in the 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz bands, which can be used by existing mobile handsets. We also plan to enable third parties to use airwaves that are licensed to mobile operators, but not being used by them. This could be particularly suitable for local communities to boost coverage.
Making the data more available at levels that are of most interest
Alongside this report, we are also publishing an interactive dashboard, allowing people to see data at the level and locations they are most interested in. People will have the option to choose from various levels of geographical detail, including local authorities in Wales and National Assembly for Wales constituencies.
Areas of North East Wales have some of the best 4G mobile coverage in Wales with Vale of Clwyd, Wrexham and Delyn constituencies having 100% 4G geographic coverage.
Of the ten devolved constituencies in the UK with the lowest good 4G outdoor geographic coverage, Dwyfor Meirionnydd is seventh from the bottom (37%). When looked at by local authority, Gwynedd is ninth from bottom (42%) and Conwy tenth (43%). Brecon and Radnorshire has the highest number of premises in Wales (4,948) unable to access services of 10Mit/s or more. Four mid and west Wales constituencies each have double digit percentage of premises in this category.
The granularity of the data is illustrated in this year’s Connected Nations report for Wales with a case study comparing the availability of communications services in two of Wales’ most rural and sparsely populated constituencies – Ceredigion and Montgomeryshire.
Superfast Broadband is available to 93% of premises in Wales
Today’s Connected Nations report also shows the progress made in extending decent broadband coverage to the whole country.
The proportion of premises that cannot receive decent broadband – offering a ‘download’ speed of 10 Mbit/s, and an ‘upload speed’ of 1 Mbit/s – has fallen to 3%.
However, that still leaves 48,000 homes and offices in Wales without decent broadband. As operators continue to extend networks, Ofcom is working to implement the Government’s universal broadband service. This will give eligible homes and offices the right to request decent broadband by 2020.2
Superfast broadband – which offers a download speed of at least 30 Mbit/s – is now available to 93% of homes and offices in Wales – up from 89% last year. This follows the completion of the Welsh Government’s Superfast Cymru programme earlier this year, which has delivered superfast broadband to 733,000 homes and businesses in Wales. The Welsh Government has announced its plans for the next stages of roll-out in those areas of Wales where public intervention is permitted.
However, of the 93% of homes and businesses in Wales where superfast broadband is available, only 38% of homes and businesses have taken-up these services. This is the lowest take-up in any of the UK nations (Northern Ireland 45%, England 44% and Scotland 40%).
Around 95,000 premises in Wales now have access to ‘full-fibre’ broadband3 – an increase of 51,000 premises in a year. Full fibre coverage to rural premises is highest in Wales compared to the other nations in the UK with 16% of premises having access to this technology compared to 8% in rural England and Northern Ireland and 3% in rural Scotland.
NOTES TO EDITORS
What counts as mobile coverage?
Ofcom has raised the bar for defining mobile coverage in recent years, to reflect the demands of modern smartphones. In today’s Connected Nations report, and in setting our proposed new coverage requirements, we define an area as having mobile coverage if:
- more than 95% of 90-second voice calls can be made without interruption; and
- a data connection speed of at least 2 Mbit/s is available
1. Fixed broadband networks in Wales and UK
Fixed broadband networks
Coverage of broadband faster than:
Premises that don’t have access to decent broadband
Superfast broadband coverage (% of premises with >=30Mbit/s)
Superfast broadband coverage in rural areas (% of premises)
Superfast lines delivering superfast speeds (% of premises – indicative of superfast take-up)
Average broadband speed (download)
Average broadband speed (upload)
2. Mobile coverage highlights in Wales
Indoor voice premises (coverage by all four operators)
Geographic voice (coverage by all four operators)
Indoor 4G premises (coverage by all four operators)
Geographic 4G (coverage by all four operators)
Indoor voice premises (complete not-spots)
Geographic voice (complete not-spots)
Indoor 4G premises (complete not-spots)
Geographic 4G (complete not-spots)
3. Full-fibre broadband involves using 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 accelerate in the coming months.