House of Commons Library

Mobile Coverage in the UK

Published Friday, February 22, 2019

A House of Commons Library Briefing Paper on mobile coverage in the UK. It provides mobile coverage statistics and information about recent reforms and proposals aimed at improving mobile coverage in rural areas.

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Mobile services are now at the heart of how most people stay in touch and go online. Ofcom reported that in 2018, 78% of adults use a smartphone and that smartphones are now the most popular internet-connected device. The National Infrastructure Commission stated in 2016 that mobile connectivity had become a “necessity”.

According to Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2018 report, 65% of the UK landmass has 4G data coverage from all four mobile network operators (MNOs) – EE, Vodafone, Three and O2 – but 9.3% of the UK had no 4G data coverage from any operator. In terms of coverage at individual premises, 77% of premises had indoor 4G coverage from all four MNOs and 92% of premises had indoor voice call coverage from all four operators. Coverage varies in different parts of the country and Section 1 of this paper provides further details and maps showing mobile coverage variation across the UK.

The Government has committed to extend geographic mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2022. Since 2016, UK Government policy for improving mobile coverage has focused on coverage obligations for operators and reforms to make it easier to build mobile infrastructure.

Coverage obligations

Coverage obligations are legal requirements on mobile operators to provide a minimum level of mobile coverage across a geographic area or certain number of premises.

Coverage obligations have previously been used as a means of improving coverage and Ofcom is consulting on proposals for new coverage obligations to be imposed on some licences for new airwaves which are expected to be released by 2020, called the 700 megahertz (MHz) band. The release of the 700 MHz spectrum for mobile is a key part of Ofcom and the Government’s proposals to improve rural mobile coverage and meet increasing demands for mobile data. Ofcom’s proposals for the 700 MHz band include an obligation to provide good quality mobile service, including data, outdoors to at least 90% of the UK landmass, with minimum amounts for each nation.

Building mobile infrastructure

Improving mobile coverage in an area requires mobile base stations (masts) to be built. The roll-out of mobile services and infrastructure is led by private operators, who take commercial decisions about where to build masts and deliver services. Once a suitable location for a mast has been identified, operators require an access agreement with the landowner to use the land and may require planning permission or approval from the local authority.

Since 2016 the Government has introduced two main reforms intended to make building masts easier: changes to permitted development rights (in 2016) and reforms to the Electronic Communications Code (in 2017).

The Government has launched a Digital Connectivity Portal that provides resources and advice for local authorities and commercial providers that is intended to facilitate deployment of broadband and mobile networks.

The roll-out of 5G will require even more mobile and full-fibre infrastructure to be built, which is leading to calls for further reform to make building digital infrastructure easier. For more information, see the Library briefing papers on 5G and Full-fibre networks in the UK

Commons Briefing papers SN07069

Authors: Georgina Hutton; Carl Baker

Topics: Information technology, Telecommunications

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