If you live in a large town or a city, you probably aren’t familiar with the concept of notspots.
Ubiquitous urban mobile phone masts mean areas of weak or non-existent phone coverage simply don’t exist outside solid structures like pub basements.
Rural residents aren’t so lucky. And that can make even simple tasks into a significant challenge.
Mobile banking increasingly demands text-message PIN verification, while appointments and deliveries are often communicated via text message.
If you can’t get a signal, you’ll struggle to keep up with modern life – let alone make and receive calls.
A landline will help to a degree, but that’s a 20th century solution to a problem which arguably shouldn’t exist as we approach the third decade of the 21st century.
The haves and have notspots
Recent estimates suggest a third of the United Kingdom’s land mass has patchy or non-existent phone coverage.
And while most of that area is uninhabited, it’s still regularly visited by tourists, outdoor sports enthusiasts and people simply passing through.
At the end of October, the big four mobile phone networks belatedly took a step towards banishing notspots forever.
EE, O2, Three and Vodafone unveiled a proposal made in partnership with the UK Government, which would tackle dead zones across the country.
This ambitious proposal would see £1 billion invested in phone masts.
Crucially, these would be shared, rather than network-specific.
People living in rural regions wouldn’t be forced to choose the only mobile network with a signal in their area. And visitors on other networks wouldn’t be bereft of connectivity.
Yet despite this, it’s been estimated only 280,000 extra homes and businesses will benefit from these proposals.
You don’t have to spend long poring over maps to understand why.
The Highlands council region in Scotland is home to just 230,000 residents, dispersed across a county almost as big as Belgium.
Providing a useable signal to people in the mountains and valleys of this vast county is a huge technical and logistical undertaking, as it is in other sparsely-populated regions of the UK.
That underlines the economic inefficiency of targeting sparsely populated rural areas from a network operator’s perspective.
And that in turn explains why the UK has one of the worst mobile network coverage ratios anywhere in Europe.
Right to roam?
These radical mast-sharing proposals are due to be formalised early in the new year, after years of wrangling and procrastination.
In truth, the phone companies probably wouldn’t have acted at all if the Government hadn’t repeatedly threatened to force them to permit network roaming in notspot regions.
The networks feared customers might abandon them if rival operators were seen to be providing stronger coverage – especially if their phones were switching networks anyway.
As a result, the big four have agreed to put £530 into the Shared Rural Network proposals. The Government will add a further £500 million.
However, we’ll have several years to wait before these ambitious (if belated) plans bear fruit.