The coverage debate calls for collective effort

By Derek McManus, COO Telefónica UK
British smartphone users can be forgiven for feeling confused over the state of the the UK’s mobile networks. Consumer watchdog surveys, reports from the regulator, commentary in the press, advertising billboards and commitments from government all muddy the water when it comes to the perception of mobile network quality in this country.

The attention mobile networks receive is certainly justified. Over the last decade, the UK’s mobile infrastructure has fast become the backbone of modern life and the lifeblood of the digital economy.

The mobile sector contributes an estimated £4.5 billion per annum to national economic output and this is only set to increase. In fact, it has been recently reported that a 10 percent increase in digitalisation of our economy could increase GDP per capita growth rates by as much as 40 percent.

There will be just shy of 50 million smartphone users in the UK in 2017, which is a simply a staggering volume. These smartphones will be used to run lives, conduct business and seek entertainment with increasing reliance and regularity.

And there is another trend on the rise. The number of machine-to-machine connections is likely to grow from 4.9 billion in 2015 to 12.2 billion in 2020, according to Cisco’s annual Visual Networking Index. This growth will be driven by the innovation behind the Internet of Things – the phenomenon enabling smart devices to talk to each other in the home and elsewhere.

All these smartphones and connected devices must be powered by a mobile network in order to function – just like a train must run on its tracks. The UK’s mobile networks are operated and funded by the big four mobile operators, which together form one of Britain’s major industries, supplying over 35,000 full-time equivalent jobs, and supporting some 140,000 UK jobs overall.

The health of this industry is regularly cited at government level as fundamental to the health of the British economy and the lives of British citizens. In fact, a report published this month by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has stated that increased connectivity and coverage will be key to the continued economic development of the UK.

That is why we – O2 or Telefonica UK – are investing more than ever before in our mobile network, which serves over 25 million customers across the country. We spend the equivalent of £2 million a day on strengthening our network and increasing its reach. In the last three months alone, we have made a £200 million investment overall, which is an 18 percent increase on what was spent in the equivalent quarter in 2015.

This year alone, we have enhanced thousands of masts to bring high-speed mobile data to thousands more people and many rural communities for the very first time. Our rollout program continues, and will not cease until all UK populations are served by quality mobile connectivity.

The fact is, this rollout is not without its difficulties. Despite best efforts, mobile operators still face tough restrictions on site planning as well as experiencing challenges with landlords. Gaining permission to build new sites in certain locations can take many months. Only when this stage is complete, can the process begin to deliver the necessary cabling and power to masts, which is both time-intensive and costly.

The allocation of radio spectrum – the frequencies through which mobile traffic can be carried – is also a barrier. The distribution of spectrum across the industry is unbalanced and some operators are stockpiling additional capacity, rather than being asked to release it back to other operators who could use it to improve the experience for customers country-wide.

There is an answer to all this. We believe is can be found in a proper partnership between operators, national and local government, businesses and local communities, and the regulator. Together, the onus should be the creation a framework that facilitates the efficient and effective deployment of mobile networks.

We would like to see a planning system that allows for a better experience for customers throughout Britain and fair competition in the market. This planning system should embed mobile connectivity development into the plans for other infrastructure projects, including that of the railways, roads, shopping centres and new housing developments. It could also sanction higher masts for some areas or access to public land for site development in other cases.

Continued competition and a competitive four player market will stimulate further investment. To unlock this, the UK needs a framework that supports a more equal distribution of mobile spectrum – one that gives mobile operators a fair opportunity to improve the experience offered to UK citizens, businesses and public services.

The forthcoming spectrum auction planned for next year will release the latest allocation of mobile spectrum to the industry to pave the way for universal 5G services. This presents a perfect opportunity to assess and reset the terms on which mobile operators can gain and must use their allocation, in the best interests of the country at large.

It is noted in the recent NIC report that the regulator, Ofcom, recognises that the UK leads Germany, France and Italy when it comes to the availability of 4G. It must now act fast to corral a collective effort to ensure we maintain this lead as we enter a new phase of the digital revolution – one that Britain must support if its economic aspirations are to become a reality.

Broader and better coverage will not be achieved by pointing fingers or fighting over who has the biggest or best coverage. It’s time for the whole industry along with national and local government, businesses, local communities and the regulator to work together to make sure the country’s digital infrastructure is fit for future demand.