Bridging the mobile connectivity divide between urban and rural Britain

Hakan Ekmen, Chief Executive, P3 communications 16-9.jpg

All around the world the provision of robust connectivity to rural areas presents a significant challenge, requiring substantial investment in infrastructure and effective planning.

The sheer density of modern cities creates its own very demanding set of requirements, but in rural areas the problems are multiplied by lack of financial incentives and uncertainty of adequate return.

At the end of last year Ofcom, the UK’s telecoms regulator, confirmed that when it revealed that 82% of properties in the rural areas do not receive a 4G signal from all of the major phone networks, compared with 36% in urban areas. 

In June this year, Sharon White, Ofcom’s chief executive said that, while the number of premises without high quality 4G reception had fallen from 11 million to less than one million since 2015, there was still a divide between rural and urban Britain. Announcing a series of measures to tackle the problem she said a quarter of the UK lacks comprehensive mobile coverage, along with most of the major road network. As if to underline the problem, last month Ofcom launched separate investigations into the rural coverage claims of two of the major networks.

The difficulties of connectivity

To be fair, around the world there is a gap in connectivity quality between metropolitan conurbations and the rural hinterland, which no country has successfully closed.

In western Europe, the urban-rural disparity is relatively small when it comes to 2G networks. While universal 2G coverage can be found in urban areas, more than 90 per cent of rural areas are connected, though the exact proportion differs from country to country, depending on size and how difficult it is to implement mobile networks. 

And despite Ofcom’s understandable pressure to improve the extent of high-quality signal coverage, England sits at the higher end of the scale for all types of coverage (2G, 3G and 4G) when compared with the rest of Europe. This puts English businesses at a distinct competitive advantage, though there is still plenty of work to be done before the gap is closed. 

The drag on innovation

The advantages of fast and available mobile connectivity are huge. In the business world, small and medium-sized companies in rural areas suffer from poor telecommunications infrastructure. Low data transfer rates put these businesses at a competitive disadvantage when compared with competitors in urban areas with high-quality coverage. But such companies also find it more difficult to recruit employees who are willing to move to rural areas where the fast, mobile connectivity they are accustomed to is largely unavailable.

Flight from rural areas is proving to be a substantial problem around the globe, as younger people especially move en masse to the cities where there are perceived to be greater opportunities. The availability of more up-to-date telecommunications infrastructure will undoubtedly play a significant role in countering this trend.

It is a quality-of-life question for many potential employees now. If coverage is weak or intermittent, they will not be able to access the full range of modern services, particularly those developed with 4G networks in mind. This includes everything from traffic information to accessing data stored in the cloud and the streaming of music or videos. Simple tasks such as browsing the web on mobile devices are also badly affected by poor connectivity, resulting in unsatisfying latency issues. While the coverage gap does not currently apply to voice services, emerging services such as voice over LTE (VoLTE) often require fast and reliable data channels with low latencies. As these services proliferate, the coverage gap will become clearer even to those only using their mobiles for making and taking calls.

A wide urban-rural coverage divide will also prove to be a barrier to the deployment of exciting and emerging technologies such as augmented reality and immersive virtual reality-based devices. Autonomous vehicles, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and the Internet of Things (IoT) all depend on stable, reliable and fast mobile connections. As things currently stand, these technologies are largely unattainable outside major cities and their absence will continue to be a drag on rural development and prosperity. 

Bridging the divide

In order to begin bridging the divide, we need to have an updated and detailed view of coverage through continuous testing and monitoring of networks. Such an important project must not rest solely in the hands of telcos, who are unlikely to be wholly trusted by consumers and professionals. Transparent testing and objective analysis of results are required to provide a baseline which everyone can rely on.

A neutral and independent body should supply this need, ensuring thoroughly tested results are released year-on-year in order to build a long-term view of progress towards bringing urban and rural coverage into closer alignment. Only when we have data that everyone relies on, will governments and regulators have the full set of tools to push through meaningful developments.

Provision of the highest quality telecoms demands regular, rigorous and objective testing. As the technology and applications employed by businesses and consumers become more complex, the urban-rural divide will never be bridged without upgraded infrastructure. The starting point for this must be objective, fair and technologically advanced testing of networks and their coverage.

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