The government should consider mandating universal mobile phone coverage in the UK, Ofcom has proposed.
On Friday, the telecoms regulator released an update on research it is carrying out into the issue of 'not-spots', which are areas that receive no cellular coverage at all — only 2G coverage or coverage from a limited number of operators. In its update, Ofcom said not-spots "raise important wider policy issues because of the reliance that our society now places on mobile phones".
"Here, we can also seek to contribute to and implement public policy on relevant issues that government may wish to consider," the document reads. "For example, government may wish to consider whether it is appropriate to ensure all people have access to mobile coverage to help them participate in society on digital inclusion grounds. We can help inform this consideration."
Ofcom said it could provide advice to the government on the matter in its first report on the state of the UK's communications infrastructure, which will be made next year. The regulator has to make such a report every three years, as mandated by the Digital Economy Act, which was passed earlier this year.
According to Ofcom's figures, approximately 97 percent of the UK population and 91 percent of the UK land mass has 2G coverage, providing voice and basic text connectivity. 3G coverage reaches around 87 percent of the population and 76 percent of the land mass. Five percent of the population can only access one operator's network.
Coverage varies from region to region — Scotland, for example, has only 87 percent population coverage for basic 2G services, and Northern Ireland has no more than 40 percent 3G population coverage.
Ofcom commissioned PA Consulting to carry out case-study research into the causes of not-spot areas, and Illuminas to carry out qualitative research into the effect such coverage failure has on businesses and individuals. The main concern of businesses was "loss of workforce efficiency, a growing problem given the innovations in mobile data services and applications", while societal concerns centred on problems in contacting emergency services.
"In the vast majority of case-study areas, not-spots existed because it was not a commercial priority for mobile operators to extend their coverage, influenced by low levels of traffic discouraging investment," Ofcom's document stated, adding that operators do not tend to make investment decisions on a site-by-site basis.
Ofcom pointed out that there was no evidence that planning and technical issues act as barriers to the installation of base stations for communities that need them, despite these factors being cited in some cases. However, it noted that planning-related issues factor in the failure to provide consistent cellular coverage on trains.
"Our work so far on railway coverage shows that mobile operators face problems accessing sites along railway tracks and train stock, in order to improve rail coverage," Ofcom said. "Discussions between relevant industry players are underway, but the slow speed of improvements in this area indicates there could be some co-ordination issues. We intend to consider this further, in discussion with relevant stakeholders, to understand whether potential improvements in co-ordination could help improve railway coverage."
The regulator noted that the extension and consolidation of operators' networks was serving to improve outdoor 3G coverage. It also pointed out that Vodafone's femtocells — mini base-stations for the home — were improving indoor coverage for that operator's customers.
However, Ofcom said operators' commercial plans did not seem to include extending 2G coverage to address the not-spot issue. "It is conceivable that in the longer term, commercially driven improvements in 3G coverage may eventually help improve complete [2G] not-spots," the regulator said. "However, complete not-spots are likely to continue to persist to some extent, particularly in rural areas."