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LGA: MNOs ‘marking their own homework’

January 10, 2020

Millions of mobile phone users could not be receiving the outdoor coverage network operators say they are providing and their customers are paying for, the Local Government Association — the national membership body for local authorities in England and Wales – is warning.

Mobile ‘coverage checker’ websites are often used by people to decide which phone contract to buy. However, these rely on computer modelling by operators to predict mobile signal strength and are not based on the real-life experience of phone users.

Across the country, local government is working on behalf of residents to hold mobile network operators to account on their coverage commitments. Yet some are finding that where coverage is supposedly fast and reliable, users have frequently reported being unable to make phone calls or get online.

For example:

  • Shropshire Council is undertaking work to verify coverage. Working with local parish councils, it has already found 28 areas where operators’ outdoor coverage claims fail to match the quality of coverage on the ground and has asked them to take action.
  • In Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, the Connecting Cambridgeshire programme has drawn up a ‘Top 20’ list of priority areas identified by comparing detailed local mobile connectivity surveys commissioned by Cambridgeshire County Council with the latest Ofcom mobile coverage data. The list of partial not-spots has been shared with mobile network operators for collaborative action, following a summit convened by Mayor James Palmer.

The new Government has committed to sign a new deal with mobile operators within 100 days to create a Rural Shared Network. The deal will commit the big four mobile operators – EE, Vodafone, Three and O2 – to pool their resources to ensure coverage reaches 95 per cent of the UK by 2025.

The LGA says that without an accurate picture of outdoor mobile coverage on the ground, the Government and Ofcom will be unable to hold mobile network operators to account to meet this pledge. By relying solely on operators’ own computer modelling rather than on the ground testing, the Government and Ofcom are at risk of letting operators mark their own homework.

Before signing up to any deal with operators, the LGA is calling on the Government to give Ofcom the powers to independently verify coverage, with local areas given annual speed and reliability health checks using on the ground testing.

According to the LGA, councils are best-placed to understand the digital needs of their areas and ensure that local policy, such as planning and highways regulation, is streamlined to help improve connectivity. Only by empowering local government and holding providers account for poor coverage can they help the Government increase the spread of digital connectivity.

“The industry’s proposal to increase mobile coverage across local areas is a positive step,” noted Cllr Kevin Bentley, Chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board. “However, we know that the way mobile operators and Ofcom measure outdoor coverage does not account for real life experience.

“Like housing, education and transport provision, digital connectivity is central to thriving communities – with millions of people relying on mobile coverage every day, including businesses and our most vulnerable. It is important our communities are not cut off from the digital age.

“Councils are government’s key partners in driving improvement in people’s lives across the whole country. Before the Government signs up to any new deal, we want to work with them to ensure that we can properly measure whether mobile operators are achieving coverage that improves mobile signal in the real world, rather than numbers on a spreadsheet.”


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