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NIC calls for end to ‘digital deserts’ on rail routes

The UK is being held back by poor mobile connectivity with the country’s rail services needing particular improvement, the National Infrastructure Commission has found.  

A report by the government infrastructure watchdog concluded that the UK’s 4G mobile phone coverage ranks 54th in the world, with data volumes four to five times smaller than other major powers, and called for an end to “digital deserts” in other places that should have better signal like roads and city centres.

The commission, chaired by Lord Adonis, said the government must now ensure better coverage and that the next generation of 5G, due to become available in 2020, does not have the same failures.

Lord Adonis said: “Our 4G network is worse than Romania and Albania, Panama and Peru. Our roads and railways can feel like digital deserts and even our city centres are plagued by ‘not spots’ where connectivity is impossible.

“That isn’t just frustrating, it is increasingly holding British business back as more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce.”

The report recommended that there should be a new cabinet minister in charge of the UK’s digital future and called for ministers to work with Ofcom to ensure a universal service obligation no later than 2025.

In an interview, Lord Adonis suggested that Highways England and Network Rail should take as much direct responsibility for improving coverage on the railways as mobile phone operators.

“The government has been putting more investment and obligation requirements on the mobile operators but we think that needs to be taken further,” Lord Adonis told the BBC’s Today programme. “Up to 25% of the time it is not possible to get a decent signal.”

Grant Shapps MP, leader of the British Infrastructure Group of MPs, called the report “a wakeup call” for the government, as he criticised them of being too willing to listen to excuses from mobile phone operators about poor signal.

“This confirms what we have been saying for a long time. Over the years, ministers have been far too easy on the glib promises given by the telecoms providers and I think that has been combined with ineffective and weak regulation from Ofcom,” Shapps said.

“Britain cannot afford to repeat the outcome of the 5G network that we have had with the 4G network and so the British Infrastructure Group is calling on the prime minister to appoint a cabinet minister to oversee the recommendations of this report and make sure this person is accountable for delivering 5G throughout the UK.”

The British Infrastructure Group recently proposed an amendment to the government’s planned Digital Economy Bill to allow Ofcom to fine mobile operators that do not meet the target of a 2014 agreement to provide mobile coverage to 90% of the UK’s geographic area.

This comes as part of a wider debate about connectivity on the railways. Last month Matt Hancock MP, the digital policy minister, revealed that franchise bidders are only required to offer 1 megabit per second (Mbps) of data per passenger as part of the government’s commitment to provide free wi-fi on trains. This minimum requirement is expected to be increased by 25% a year.

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Noam Bleicher   15/12/2016 at 12:08

This is spot on. There is almost no 4G, 3G, voice [or even FM radio!!!] signal for the 40 miles between Oxford and Leamington Spa. As the train wifi relies on 4G there is hardly any of this either. How this is allowed in a major Western economy just defies belief.

Jerry Alderson   16/12/2016 at 16:26

One of the problems in the Uk is that the operators refuse to allow national roaming - something that is common in other countries such as Austria. With national roaming it will always try your mobile operator first but it there is no signal it will try other operators. The operators have to pay each other but it does not affect the customer's bill.

Grammarpolice   16/12/2016 at 19:37

It's Dessert not desert. I thought this was going to be a story on digital freebies offered by train operators! Still though a serious issue. Some urban areas only have one mast for all so if the mast goes down there is no backup. Especially bad for people who use mobile Internet.

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