Last week the big four mobile network operators were in Whitehall to make a case for taller masts. But in an age where people demand complete mobile coverage, the big four took the opportunity to complain that this is just not possible because people don’t want unsightly masts sprouting up in their area.
A huge bone of contention for our beleaguered operators is they are faced with particular criticism about poor coverage in rural areas. But when they propose to put up masts, the locals object.
‘It doesn’t work by magic,’ Vodafone’s policy chief, Helen Lamphill remarked at a media briefing.
But its not just rural nimbys. Last month people in Barnes, an affluent area of London, were successful in stopping O2 replacing a 12m mast with a 15m one.
And there’s the rub. While across Europe 50m masts are widespread, operators here are currently limited to 25m. And while Ofcom demands operators reach certain coverage levels, there is little advantage or incentive to the operators to be the first into a remote area and sometimes having to face local hostility.
For each 10m you double coverage. I’m sympathetic in the sense that these things are not attractive. 15m is a good three-storey house.
They want coverage where nobody lives, while people want coverage where people go. If you take the limit of 95% geographical coverage, you’re going to find yourself where nobody has been for years, if ever.- Howard Jones: head of network communications, EE
Last month the Welsh Assembly relaxed the planning rules on the size of masts to help improve coverage. Masts of up to 25m will no longer require planning permission from this April.
The Assembly’s economy committee said last month that Wales risked falling behind when 5G arrives and they are committed to covering those not-spots in rural areas. According to their figures, not having a need for planning permission could save the operators £2,250 per mast and cut eight weeks off the process.
The purpose of changing permitted developments rights to allow taller masts is to enable the further roll-out of mobile coverage across Wales, particularly in those areas with limited or no coverage currently.
We must remember that the main levers to improve mobile coverage lie with the industry, Ofcom and the UK government.- Lee Waters: Deputy Economy Minister, Welsh Assembly
Recently operators have moved more towards mast-sharing as a possible solution for rural areas. Vodafone, for one, did not rule it out when quizzed by journalists. And while a welcome move, it still does not get away from the inherent contradiction between those who don’t want the masts in their area and everyone’s desire for better coverage.
Image: Kate Mereand