Mobile phone operators must fulfil their promises to improve 4G coverage across Wales and reduce the number of not-spots affecting farm businesses, say union leaders. Farm leaders, ministers, Ofcom and representatives from the four mobile phone operators EE, O2, Vodafone and Three held talks to discuss plans to increase poor mobile signal coverage across Wales. The briefing at the Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) stand at the Royal Welsh Show on Tuesday (19 July) was told that operators were seeking to increase 4G mobile coverage to more than 90% of the UK by 2017.
Data from Ofcom s recent Connected Nation report shows that outdoor voice 2G and 3G services by all four operators can be reached by 93% of Wales. However, coverage on A and B roads by the four operators is around 50%, with only one operator reaching 76%.
Wales has about the same level of data not-spots areas where there is little or no mobile phone coverage as the UK overall, with 21% of the landmass not covered by a data service operator. Paul James, of O2, said mobile phone coverage was being constrained by planning issues, especially limits on the size of masts, and bureaucracy at the Assembly.
However, this year EE has deployed a new permanent 4G mast, which allowed visitors to access free wi-fi at the showground in Builth Wells, Powys. Brian Thomas, FUW deputy president, said the farming industry was increasingly reliant on reliable mobile phone access to ensure access to 21st century services.
It s very important for us as farmers to have access to the internet through our mobile phones, he added.
We have got the BCMS (British Cattle Movement Service), SFP (single farm payment) and EID. All of these things are online.
Appropriate mobile phone coverage is needed, especially if no broadband service is accessible.
Mobile phone summit
Wales Office minister Guto Bebb revealed a further summit would take place this autumn to discuss how to improve mobile phone coverage in Wales. He said a multi-billion pound investment by operators would improve mobile phone coverage over the next few years.
The permanent mast which has been established at the showground is an example of what can be done, he added.
It s not just there for the show, but is an example of an improvement to the area. During the four-day show, farmers highlighted areas in Wales on a map where there was still either no broadband, no mobile phone signal, or no broadband and mobile phone signal (See photo).
BT broadband commitment
Meanwhile, at a CLA Breakfast briefing on Tuesday, about 60% of an audience of 50 farmers and landowners raised their hands when asked if they felt their broadband service was inadequate . Alwen Williams, BT director for Wales, said superfast broadband was now available in 50% of homes and businesses in rural Wales.
Robert Dangerfield, CLA
However, she was confident that 96% of homes and businesses in Wales would have access to superfast broadband (speeds of 30MB or above) by next summer. Mrs Williams said her company was committed to finding the remaining 4% with no access to broadband, which includes many farmers.
We will never say no to any community that wants faster broadband.
Rural mobile phone coverage is so bad that in many areas it is often worse than broadband. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) issued the warning after the government s Digital Economy Bill, received its first reading in the House of Commons. See also: Ofcom decision must speed up broadband1
The Bill includes the introduction of a universal service obligation giving everyone the right to demand broadband speeds of at least 10mpbs by 2020.
CLA East regional director Ben Underwood said the CLA had campaigned for many years to secure a universal service obligation but there was still much to be done.
It is time to end the discrimination felt in rural areas and we will continue working to ensure this law delivers for rural communities, he said.
However, progress on improving mobile coverage in rural areas has been slow going. Government and the telecoms industry made a deal 18 months ago based on legally guaranteeing mobile coverage for 90% of the geographic landmass of the UK by end of 2017. But Mr Underwood said: Ever since, the industry has lined up excuse after excuse and there is scant evidence of progress towards this commitment.
The most recent figures showed mobile coverage for only 55% of the country, said Mr Underwood. The government had yielded too much to telecom companies by removing the rights of individuals to negotiate open-market commercial agreements for mobile masts on their land. This has been valued by the government s own economic analysis as a 1bn benefit for the mobile operators, said Mr Underwood.
The pendulum has swung too far in favour of the mobile companies.
We will be lobbying hard, as the Bill progresses, for ministers to reconsider their decision and give back to landowners their right to negotiate a fair value for access to their own property. The CLA would also be working to ensure the delivery of much-needed improvements to mobile coverage that were desperately needed by rural businesses and communities.
Rural communities have had to put up with a second-class service for far too long there are surely now no excuses left for the mobile operators to use, said Mr Underwood. He added the CLA was continuing to lobby ministers to include legislation to ensure mobile phone companies honour existing land access contracts.
Companies must not be allowed to terminate existing contracts in order to take advantage of more favourable terms under the new code, he said. The government said measures within the Digital Economy Bill will ensure Britain remains at the forefront of the global 21st century economy. It said the Bill will empower consumers and provide better connectivity so that everyone has access to broadband wherever they live .
But the NFU has also voiced concerns about the government s ability to deliver on its promises. Only 4% farmers have access to superfast broadband, according to the NFU s Farm Broadband & Mobile Networks report published earlier this year. The roll-out of complete mobile networks and affordable, reliable superfast access in rural areas must be prioritised by government, said the document.
Both were essential to run safe and efficient farms, to comply with regulation, to promote farm diversification and for rural communities to enjoy family life. NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: Poor access to broadband and mobile networks is one such significant barrier and the current situation is neither sustainable nor acceptable. He added: The government is asking farmers to run their businesses in conditions that put them at an immediate disadvantage.