As we move closer to the Emergency Services Network (ESN) completion date, we've undertaken a progress review from over the last few months. In this article, we cover the current status of 4G coverage and the work involved behind-the-scenes in rolling out this network.
Let's first look at the last few months’ activity by BT-owned EE.
In March 2018, EE announced that they had covered 12,000 square kilometres of mobile not-spots in the prior 12 months, which forms part of their aim to extend geographic (landmass) of 4G network coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of December 2020 (currently 90%).
EE have said that they’ve upgraded more than 4,000 existing sites to provide 4G service and built 105 brand new sites (with a further 350 being built) across the UK. The new sites, many of which are in areas that have previously had no coverage from any operator, are said to have already carried more than 200 emergency '999 calls' from people that may previously have been left without help.
In April 2018, EE completed its 90th new site in Scotland in the last 12 months in Carsphairn, a village in Dumfries and Galloway. EE’s work to increase 4G coverage is bringing 4G connectivity to some Scottish locations for the very first time. EE now covers more than 75% of Scotland’s landmass, with new sites like Carsphairn. EE is building a further 200 sites in Scotland in the coming months, as well as upgrading existing sites that currently only provide 2G. This short video talks about this particular deployment:
In the past six months, the Home Office has separately applied to build five telecommunications masts in some of the most remote parts of the Dales National Park, as part of a new ‘Emergency Services Network’ (ESN). Three out of the five applications have been approved, with two yet to be decided. Over roughly the same period, EE has applied directly to upgrade or build five further masts in the Dales, under a separate strand of the ESN programme.
So why does it take so much time to roll-out a 4G network?
Planning permission for mobile masts is a complicated process, and site upgrades often require negotiations with the landlords – adding to the cost and complexity of network deployment. Local authorities can also be hostile and some even require individual planning applications for every proposed small cell, a time consuming and expensive process. Not unsurprisingly, plans for phone masts often face significant opposition from those living nearby because of their appearance, but industry figures argue they are becoming as important as utilities such as water and must be given a higher priority.
The mobile networks have flagged repeatedly for a number of years that this process needs to improve, particularly as thousands more approvals will be required for implementing the next generation of mobile data, 5G. Mobile operators believe changes could be brought forward quickly but these would likely face strong opposition from councils, which are responsible for approving mast applications.
Rural vs Urban
That being said a recent freedom of information request shows that in England on average less than five planning applications per year were made for new masts in each rural planning authority area, across the three years from the start of 2015 to the end of 2017. This is on a par with applications in England’s urban local authorities across this time period, where coverage is already far superior. The average in urban local authorities is 4.3 masts per year, the average in rural local authorities is 4.54.
The FOI results also show that the planning approval rate in rural local authorities is 84.5%, in urban local authorities it is 86%.
As you will see from Ofcom data below, the more rural areas in the UK suffer much more from poor coverage.
Ofcom has been working with the UK Government and governments in the devolved nations to ensure site access and planning requirements are not a barrier to the deployment of mobile network. In the past few years, reforms to planning policy and the UK’s Electronic Communications Code have been introduced to make it easier to build mobile networks. Planning reforms were introduced in England in 2016 to make it easier to deploy masts to support rural coverage, with Scotland introducing its own reforms in 2017. Wales has identified planning reform as a possible step under its 2017 mobile action plan, but is still considering its approach, and Northern Ireland is currently considering changes following a consultation in 2016.
So, if planning isn’t the only problem, why does it take so long to get strong coverage across the UK?
100% geographic coverage is not a technical challenge, although many people in the telecoms industry would say otherwise. 100% coverage is achievable using any existing technology and could be achieved by any network operator. Operators decide where to place cells based on the cost to prepare the site to establish a cell to cover a specific area balanced against the benefit of the cell providing coverage for a specific geographic area. This in turn makes certain cell sites and coverage areas - such as rural areas and indoor coverage - the subject of difficult business decisions. The commercial investment required to cover that last 5 - 10% of geographic of coverage is huge versus the commercial benefit it delivers and the time taken to deploy new masts and associated backhaul infrastructure is not insignificant and technically challenging.
Aside from the challenges above, there are still three areas where current 4G networks, once they have fully completed their roll outs, will not fully meet users’ needs in the UK:
- Coverage for key transport links: Rail – underground, rural and urban; Roads – Main motorway corridors
- Indoor coverage
- Backhaul capacity in dense urban areas.
These challenges will require further technical investment with potentially different technologies to make them fit for purpose. It may be that increased network sharing or a wholesale ‘Openreach’ type arrangement is taken forward in these commercially and technically challenging areas.
The UK's 4G networks are without doubt improving, but the country has some way to go before it catches up with its European neighbours. The UK came 29th out of 36 European countries in a recent 4G download speed metric in a recent analysis of European 4G performance, and 19th in terms of 4G availability.
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