Dear Britain's mast-fearing Nimbys: Do you want your phone to work or not?

Building to nowhere

Analysis The UK's four big mobile network operators dropped in on Whitehall yesterday to plead their case for taller masts and other policy tweaks. With the public thirsting for better data, but derailing attempts to improve it, they're treading a delicate line.

One of the concerns is the policy emphasis on providing coverage where nobody goes – except perhaps sheep (a sheep explained the case for rural broadband in this 2012 Reg comment piece). Another widespread concern is being ambushed by local protesters. Operators are exasperated that rural residents complain about poor coverage – then object to attempts to improve it.

"It doesn't work by magic," Vodafone's policy chief, Helen Lamphill, said yesterday at a media briefing for journalists.

And it's not just rural residents who object to the demonic radio signal. Last month, the good citizens of Barnes, one of the most affluent areas of London, succeeded in scuppering an erection by O2, which was trying to replace a 12m mast with one that was 15m tall.

"The mast is higher than the permitted height of 15 metres, we measured the new mast on the truck and it is 15.5 metres, it is bright silver. The original application was for a wood coloured mast to blend in with the surrounding trees and it is effectively doubling the capacity," one concerned resident told the Sutton and Croydon Guardian.

Half a metre of the pole goes underground, something the objectors had failed to notice. But no matter: the lorry and its load were sent packing. Barnes could breath again.

While 50m masts are widespread across Europe, campaigners here have successfully limited them to 25m. With industrial wind turbines dominating the skylines, the height restriction on mobile masts doesn't seem to make sense.

"For each 10m you double coverage," explained Vodafone's chief technology officer Scott Petty. He isn't happy that the UK limits mast to 25m, but most European countries don't have such restrictions. This is not an issue in urban areas where few masts rise as high as 25m.

"I'm sympathetic in the sense that these things are not attractive; 15m is a good three-storey house," EE's head of network comms, Howard Jones, told us. It's in the obligation to cover rural areas that the political imperative runs into reality.

Ofcom hounds the operators to reach certain coverage levels – as it should. But there's little advantage to being first in a really remote area.

"They want coverage where nobody lives, while people want coverage where people go," EE's Jones told us. "If you take the limit of 95 per cent geographical coverage you're going to find yourself where nobody has been for years, if ever." But that isn't necessarily daft. Few people walk along roadside verges, Jones explained, but there's a case for having good data coverage there.

"I'd advocate for getting good coverage, and 3G isn't enough, in areas which are true not-spots." However, as Voda's Scott Petty explained, no operator has an incentive to spend a penny in areas where nobody goes.

Vodafone says 65 per cent of UK residents have a choice of four operators and some 20 per cent can pick between two.

Being more relaxed about rural masts is just one factor – there's more to decent coverage in sparsely populated areas than the signal. Backhaul is expensive, too. Petty shrugged when he observed that extending fixed line fibre-to-the-home coverage gets lots of love and subsidies from the government, but the mobile operators don not. Which is why those human-free not spots remain.

On the agenda is more mast-sharing, which could break the impasse in rural areas – Vodafone didn't rule it out when quizzed. One operator said "the bad old days" of fighting to install infrastructure have returned. Just in time for 5G. ®

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