As the impending launch of 5G in the UK promises to usher in an age of ubiquitous connectivity, we ask why so many people in rural communities are still unable to access basic mobile network services

Today’s Friday Review comes to you from a coffee shop in rural Kent.

As I sit tapping away at my keyboard, life is pretty good: The coffee is flowing and outside on the village green the local church is holding its bank holiday weekend fete. A little slice of rural England at its finest. There is one thing spoiling this bucolic scene, however, I have no mobile reception and neither does anyone else in the coffee shop. In fact, no one in the entire village is able to get a good enough signal from any one of the UK’s four mobile network operators to make or receive a call, let alone access mobile broadband services.

Welcome to my life! Just a mile down the road from the coffee shop, my house also sits in one of Britain’s connectivity not-spots, meaning that I get no mobile signal at home and can only access the crappiest of fixed line broadband options.  Ever fancied watching your favourite BBC show on iPlayer, buffering every 30 seconds and leaving a ghostly silhouette streaking across the screen when the action gets ‘too fast’? Swing over to my place, I’ll hook you up.

But I am not alone in my no-network chagrin. According to the latest statistics from Ofcom, 5 per cent of Britons – that’s a staggering 3 million people by my calculations – live in an area that is not covered by mobile network reception. It’s worth remembering, also, that I am not writing to you from the Outer Hebrides or from deepest, darkest Devonshire. I’m in Kent. Still technically inside London’s travelcard zone 6 – just 25 minutes southeast of London Bridge. It feels faintly ridiculous to be so close to Britain’s administrative and financial capital and to be, at least from a connectivity point of view, completely and utterly isolated.

To that end, Total Telecom will be dusting off its soap box and launching its Bringing Britain Together campaign (with accompanying hashtag – #BringingBritainTogether). Over the course of the next few weeks, in the run up to Connected Britain, I’ll be talking to (and ranting at) the top brass from EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three, discussing why it is that so many people in Britain are being left out of the digital revolution.

Today, though, I’ll be donning my local reporter cap and talking to the people of rural Britain, to find out how living in a connectivity black hole is impacting their daily lives.


Business Impact

While it is supremely irritating that I can’t catch up on the football highlights on my morning commute, the absence of mobile network connectivity is a good deal more profound for local business owners. A recent study by Virgin Media Business claimed that poor broadband access was costing the average worker 15 minutes of productivity per day. While that survey was talking about fixed line services, rather than mobile (and while you might ask just how exactly one would go about quantifying something like that), there are certainly parallels to be drawn.

Simon Casey, owner of my local coffee shop in Kent, likens doing business in a connectivity blackspot to working with one hand tied behind your back.

“It’s a total nightmare. You don’t realise how much you rely on connectivity on a day-to-day basis, until it’s not there anymore. If we have a delivery coming in and the driver gets lost en-route, we basically know that he isn’t going to be able to call and ask us for directions. Similarly, if he is going to be late, he has no way of getting in touch to tell us. You end up sitting around waiting for him to arrive, with no idea of when he is going to turn up,” he said.

EE (BT), Vodafone, O2 and Three are currently quibbling over the best strategy for boosting rural connectivity. There has been much talk of launching one single rural mobile network to cover Britain’s hard to reach communities, which customers from all four MNOs would be able to access – in a roam-like-at-home style network sharing agreement. Vodafone, O2 and Three are keen on this option, but BT is not a fan (perhaps understandably, seeing as it has invested the most in rural network infrastructure at this point – it seems a bit rich for the other three to just come along and demand access to their network!).

While Britain’s MNO’s haggle over the fine details of providing mobile network coverage to rural communities, rural businesses are struggling to compete with those in metropolitan areas.

“Really the government should be stepping in to prioritise mobile network coverage for rural businesses. The more money we make, the more taxes we pay, so it a win-win situation for everyone,” Casey said.

To be fair, the current UK government has made reducing Britain’s digital divide one of its key priorities. The country’s digital minister Margot James has spoken repeatedly about the importance of boosting rural connectivity to safeguard the UK’s digital economy post-Brexit.

“If you look at the last 5 per cent of people who cannot receive superfast mobile broadband services, a lot of them live in rural communities,” she said, speaking at the Connected Britain event last year.

“5G has the potential to completely revolutionise the agricultural sector, which is clearly based in rural areas, so I don’t think its particularly good enough for us to take the same approach that we used for superfast, where we roll it out in the cities and urban areas first and then worry about the rural areas later. I don’t think that is acceptable and with the coming revelation of 5G, it would represent an enormous opportunity missed.”

In an attempt to boost rural mobile network coverage, the UK government is offering discounted spectrum at its forthcoming auction. MNOs will be given a discounted rate on 5G spectrum (reportedly of around 25 per cent) in exchange for them agreeing to meet minimum coverage levels in rural areas.

The question remains whether the discount on spectrum will be enough to incentivise the UK’s MNOs to extend their networks into areas where population density is sparse and return on investment is almost non-existent. Should the UK government be doing more to improve connectivity in areas that are economically unviable for telcos?

“Ultimately, I don’t really care whether it’s the government incentivising the telcos, or the telcos just giving something back to the community – I just need to be able to get a mobile network signal while I’m at work. You hear people talking about ‘ubiquitous connectivity’, smart cities and how much of a big deal 5G is going to be – to me that’s irrelevant when I can’t even call my supplier to tell him I need more coffee beans," Casey said.

While I strongly believe that 5G will be a genuine game changer for connectivity in Britain, it’s clear that people in rural communities are running out of patience with regard to their basic connectivity rights. How long will it be before 5G is rolled out to cover rural areas comprehensively? 2 years? 3 years? Maybe more. 

At last year’s Connected Britain event, TalkTalk’s CEO Tristia Harrison said that access to decent connectivity services should be thought of as a “basic human right” – I’m inclined to agree with her.

How is it possible that in a world where Vodafone can set up a 4G connection on the moon, 5 per cent of the UK population is still unable to receive any network signal at all? It isn’t good enough and it needs to change. Now!