We must collaborate to guarantee a mobile connection all over Wales

Derek McManus, Chief Operating Officer at O2, discusses the importance of working together to ensure everyone in Wales can access a quick and reliable mobile connection.

As 2017 draws to a close, you only need to look back a few years to appreciate the transformative effect mobile has had on the way we communicate, work and play.  Smartphone ownership has soared, bringing new apps, services and the ability to work and communicate on the move. Recent Ofcom figures revealed that almost three in four adults in Wales now own a smartphone and over half use smartphones to access the internet on-the-go.[1] Mobile motors our modern world, so demand for ubiquitous, fast mobile connectivity is going to keep growing. But, there are still too many Welsh communities deprived of a reliable connection.

Last week, we visited residents in towns and villages across South Wales which have recently been connected to 4G, including Haverford, Camarthen and Pembroke Dock, to help them get the most out of their new, high-speed connection. An overwhelming number of residents said they would now shop online more and video call their friends and relatives more often, a small change in their life which makes a big difference. We heard first-hand from them about the significant difference a good mobile internet connection can make.

For example, until recently, residents in one of Wales’s most remote villages, Staylittle, were forced to stay indoors to make phone calls and had to resort to expensive, patchy satellite home internet to get online. In May, O2 installed a permanent 4G mobile mast which provides full 3G and 4G coverage to the entire village. Residents can now make calls, connect with friends and family, reliably access the internet – all the things that many parts of the UK take for granted. Local business owners, such as Becky Williams who runs a children’s clothing company Kids Closet in Staylittle, can now take advantage of a fast mobile internet connection to contact suppliers and customers over the internet. Her business transactions are now faster and more efficient, so she has more time to spend with her family.

We understand the value mobile adds to people’s lives which is why we are working tirelessly to bring a reliable 4G connection to every corner of Wales. This year alone, O2 has connected over 550 new towns and villages from Conwyn to Port Talbot with 4G, providing many Welsh citizens with the connectivity to do what they want, when they want, where they want. We invest more than £2 million every day towards improving our network infrastructure throughout the UK.  But we can’t do it alone.

The Welsh Mobile Action Plan, announced in October this year, recognises this and calls for government, local councils, businesses and mobile operators to collaborate to solve the problem, but, while a step in the right direction, it’s only part of the solution.

Persisting black spots in part exist due to planning limitations. In England and Scotland, permitted development rights require a maximum of 56 days to gain permission for a 25-metre mast. Equivalent Welsh law only allows a 15-metre mast to be approved in the same period, while a 17-metre mast requires full planning permission which takes six months or more. The connectivity from taller masts stretches further, providing more homes with mobile coverage all through one mast rather than a number of shorter masts which can take time to install.

A sufficient change of pace is required to deliver the connectivity people across Wales deserve. We need to hear from the silent majority who want better mobile connectivity, the people who are frustrated by patchy signal or a slow connection which prevents them from getting the most from their device. This will help regulators to understand the importance of reducing the red tape of obstructive planning limitations.

By working together now we can deliver the mobile infrastructure that will give Wales, its households and businesses a prosperous digital future.

As seen in the Western Mail

[1] Ofcom – Communications Market Report 2017