Mobile coverage target will be missed, Ofcom boss tells Parliament

The UK Government is not going to hit its target for 95% of the country to have mobile coverage, a senior officer at the UK’s telecommunications regulator has said.

The current deadline for the target, which is expected to boost UK GDP by £75 billion, is the end of 2022.

Mansoor Hanif, Ofcom’s chief technology officer, revealed it would be missed in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee.

He told MSPs: “I think we are very clear that we are not going to get to the 95%.”

Mr Hanif said the problem of parts of the country having no mobile signal at all is “really hard to solve”.

“The reality is, it is improving but clearly not fast enough and demands are increasing,” he added.

“The Government has set a target for 95% geographical coverage, which is a revolution in the way we measure coverage because before we would only target coverage to where people actually lived, to houses.”

Mr Hanif said 95% coverage is achievable and Ofcom is pursing a stepped approach through its current spectrum auction, which involves “reasonable targets which operators can reach” of at least 90% in England and Northern Ireland, 83% in Wales and 74% in Scotland.

He added: “The next thing we can do seeing where the gap is … a lot of those areas are national parks, like the Cairngorms, a lot of those are mountains.

“I just flew over them yesterday and I was thinking what a challenge that is. It can be cracked but only through innovation.”

Technological developments such as low orbit satellites and device-to-device technology could help go further, he said.

“I don’t really think anyone wants to build thousands of ugly towers in national parks, ” he added.

“If there are smarter ways to achieve that (coverage) through innovation then I think we should be looking at that.”

Stewart Stevenson MSP
Stewart Stevenson criticised Ofcom’s target reduction in Scotland (Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament/PA)

Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee member Stewart Stevenson criticised Ofcom’s decision to reduce the geographical target in its coverage obligations from at least 76% in Scotland to at least 74%.

The target for England and Northern Ireland was also reduced by 2%, while Wales remained static.

Mr Stevenson asked: “Isn’t it is absolutely perverse that we are seeing the target for coverage being reduced at the present when in fact it should be increased?”

The SNP MSP said his Banffshire home gets “0G”, adding: “I would say that we should have no improvements in telephony services in cities, of any kind, including 5G, until we get decent rural coverage.”

Ofcom’s regulatory affairs manager Jonathan Ruff said: “More needs to be done to improve rural coverage.

“The 74% target we’ve proposed for Scotland … is the largest increase of any of the UK nations.

“Scotland is coming from a lower point, I think the average 4G coverage is around 50% of landmass.”

He said the “vast majority” of the value of the spectrum auction is going to Scotland and Ofcom has had to weigh up the costs and benefits for operators.

Mr Ruff added: “If we don’t get the balance right on setting that coverage target there is a real risk that the spectrum obligation would go unsold.”

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