New 4G and 5G spectrum auction aims to fix rural mobile not-spots

Nearly half of all rural homes have access to poor or no mobile coverage.

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Over half of all rural premises have a poor mobile signal and some areas still have no coverage at all, according to a new study by UK communications regulator Ofcom. 

To improve mobile coverage across the UK Ofcom today announced plans to hold new spectrum auctions offering mobile operators the 700 MHz band, as well as 3.6 GHz to 3.8 GHz band. The auction will take place in 2019 or early 2020. 

While the 700 MHz band is intended to boost 4G coverage across rural areas, the mid-frequency spectrum targets future 5G networks.    

Ofcom is also planning to require operators boost outdoor coverage with over 500 new base stations as part of the auction. 

Ofcom's study found that only 41 percent of rural premises had mobile data speeds of 2 Mbps, the minimum considered sufficient to browse and stream HD video. By contrast, this speed or higher was available to 83 percent of urban areas. 

"Mobile coverage has improved across the UK this year, but too many people and businesses are still struggling for a signal. We're particularly concerned about mobile reception in rural areas," said Philip Marnick, Ofcom's spectrum group director. 

"As we release new airwaves for mobile, we're planning rules that would extend good mobile coverage to where it's needed. That will help ensure that rural communities have the kind of mobile coverage that people expect in towns and cities, reducing the digital divide."   

Ofcom plans to offer up to two winning bidders of spectrum auction discounts of up £300m to £400m on the condition they deliver to its plans to improve coverage. 

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The targets include extending outdoor data coverage to at least 90 percent of the UK's land area within four years of winning the spectrum; delivering coverage to at least 140,000 homes and offices that the operator doesn't already cover; and providing at least 500 new mobile base stations in rural areas. 

BT/EE currently has the highest 4G coverage in the UK, with 84 percent coverage of the UK land area and 88 percent of UK premises indoors. O2 has 74 percent outdoor coverage and 94 percent indoor coverage, Three has 78 percent and 89 percent, and Vodafone has 79 percent and 94 percent, respectively.     

Things are improving on the fixed line broadband front, with those stuck with download speeds of less than 10 Mbps halving from 4 percent to 2 percent over the past year. Though rural areas are still underserved with 73 percent of the 677,000 homes and offices are on substandard broadband in rural areas.    

Meanwhile, 94 percent of homes and offices in the UK can now access broadband speeds of 30 Mbps and higher, up from 91 percent last year. Also, access to fibre broadband with speeds of at least 1 Gbps has nearly doubled in the past year to 1.8 million premises.    

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