UK government tries to talk tough on mobile infrastructure, yet again

A new report commissioned by the UK government ‘slams UK 4G performance’ in an all too familiar display of opportunistic futility.

Scott Bicheno

December 14, 2016

9 Min Read
UK government tries to talk tough on mobile infrastructure, yet again

A new report commissioned by the UK government ‘slams UK 4G performance’ in an all too familiar display of opportunistic futility.

In what has been an exceptional year for posturing, whinging and point-scoring over the UK telecoms landscape this report and subsequent press tour represent the icing on the cake. It was commissioned back in March from a government agency called the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which seems to have been created specifically to draft the report.

A nine-month gestation resulted in a 98-page progeny entitled Connected Future, replete with platitudinous musings about how important it is that everyone is connected to the internet, and delusions of grandeur about the role government has to play in making sure that happens. “Greater connectivity is inevitable and essential,” pontificates the report. “The UK cannot be left behind.”

The rest of the tome, itself a meagre return from the work of an entire agency for almost a year, expands generously on the core theme. 5G will be a big deal, we’re told, but if we don’t pull our socks up we risk being confined to the geopolitical basement alongside loony dictatorships and banana republics.

To illustrate this point the main theme of the subsequent press release draws shamelessly on a recent piece of research that has nothing to do with the report. Last month OpenSignal published its State of LTE report which, as its key metric ranks pretty much all the countries in the world according to 4G availability and 4G speed. The UK is in the bottom half of the coverage list and it’s this fact that NIC has chosen to exploit.

“Our 4G network is worse than Romania and Albania, Panama and Peru,” sneered NIC Chairman Lord Adonis. “Our roads and railways can feel like digital deserts and even our city centres are plagued by not-spots where connectivity is impossible. That isn’t just frustrating, it is increasingly holding British business back as more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce.”

Warming to this apocalyptic theme Adonis’s follow up statement was a masterly exercise in self-contradiction. “5G offers us a chance to start again and get ahead,” he said. “If government acts now, we can ensure our major transport networks and urban centres are 5G ready in time to give British industry every chance to lead the world in exploiting its applications. But none of this will matter unless we bring our mobile network up to speed. The existing system does not provide the level of coverage we will need in our connected future.”

So we’ve got the change to start afresh, but only if we improve what we’ve already got. Thanks for that your Lordship. Conveniently overlooked is the following stipulation attached by OpenSignal to its own data: “Even countries in the earlier stages of their LTE deployments can sometimes have higher 4G availability scores as the numbers of 4G subscribers are typically small and confined to large urban areas where new LTE networks are typically located.”

The announcement also loops in another very similar drain on the public purse in the form of BIG – a grandstanding exercise by MP Grant Schapps. “Over the years, ministers have been too easily taken in by glib promises provided by the telecoms providers and the ineffective and weak response of the regulator Ofcom,” nagged Schapps. “Britain cannot afford repeat of that outcome with 5G and today we call on the prime minister to personally ensure that the infrastructure report recommendations are enacted in detail.”

It’s probably too much to hope for that the two groups consolidate into just one organisation called BIG NIC. Regardless reports such as these are opportunist at best as they only consider a tiny fraction of the factors that contribute to the quality of the UK’s mobile networks. For example a source within EE recently confided to that land-owners such as Network Rail and TfL are especially difficult to work with, which in turn encumbers the process of upgrading the network.

The telecoms industry seems to have become a political football to rival education and health in the UK, so expect to see plenty more of these pointless exercises as the 5G countdown continues. As ever loads of people have an opinion on the report, here’s a selection.


Three spokesperson

“One of the main causes of the UK’s poor 4G coverage has been the historic imbalance in mobile airwaves. Ofcom’s proposed spectrum auction rules will only make the situation worse by allowing that imbalance to continue beyond the next auction. We’ll face the same issues with the rollout of 5G with consumers and businesses suffering as a result.”


EE spokesperson

“The report confirms everything we’ve been saying: it’s vital that people are connected to 4G right across the UK, that coverage reporting is clear and consistent, and that a solid foundation is created for future 5G leadership. That’s why we’ve committed to take 4G coverage to 92% of the UK by later next year. Increased government focus on mobile infrastructure is vital to removing the many barriers we face, together with a more constructive relationship between mobile operators, landowners and those responsible for our railways.

“It’s unclear why the report only considers areas to be covered by 4G when all four operators provide signal. 4G coverage varies widely by operator, and not all operators have invested so heavily in rapidly rolling out 4G across the UK. Having gone from 50% to 75% 4G coverage this year alone, EE continues to believe that rolling out 4G coverage across the entire UK, while we prepare the future of 5G, is fundamental in today’s digital society.”


Ofcom spokesperson

“We agree that mobile coverage must improve, so we’re pleased the NIC shares our ambition for universal coverage. Our rules mean that virtually all UK premises must receive a 4G signal by the end of next year, and we’re also making more airwaves available to boost mobile broadband. Last month, we challenged mobile operators to explore how to reach all remote areas and transport lines.”


Scott Stonham, General Manager of Europe at RootMetrics

“While we welcome the National Infrastructure Commission’s focus on improving mobile performance for users in the UK, we share Ofcom’s concerns that the data provided is not reliable. This is particularly the case given the crowd-only collected data the report is based upon, which can include uncontrollable biases but, due to this and statistical uncertainty, it should not be used to understand coverage and build a national picture of mobile performance.

“In order to provide an accurate assessment of what performance users can expect, the results must be gathered from rigorous, independent and scientific collection and interpretation of fit for purpose data. Without this, users and operators will not have a true picture of everyday usage conditions around the country.”


Robin Kent, Director of European Operations at Adax

“The European Union has somewhat prematurely promised that by 2020 every European city, town and village will be connected with free wireless internet and will fully deploy 5G mobile networks by 2025. There is a lot of talk about 5G being the next big thing in the telco world due to the conception that it allows a greater volume of connections than current 4G networks. Yet, as this report shows, we are still seeing issues with 4G networks. The industry hasn’t fully utilised it yet, so the move to 5G isn’t necessarily going to be a smooth as some might think.

“As and when 5G makes its arrival, operators will need to ensure they have an effective Stream Control Transmission Protocol (SCTP) solution in place for Diameter signaling. As implementations begin to roll out, the growth of Diameter will continue to accelerate so the need for a good transport layer should be a priority for operators. If operators aren’t prepared they could face not being able to carry the huge levels of traffic required by the host application to any and all of its possible destinations.”


Ian Langley, VP & GM at Cobham Wireless

“Mobile coverage is now considered by many as the fourth utility – people want it and expect it, anytime and everywhere they go. However, the reality is that in the UK, many people cannot get the mobile coverage they need to connect them to the mobile service that they rely on. This does not only just block us from communicating with our friends and family, it also has direct implications for the economy, cutting people off from the business applications that they need to stay productive.

“Many commuters face the daily reality of having to travel in overcrowded train carriages with either very little or no coverage.  With train prices set to go up by an average of 2.7% from 2nd January 2017, it is within the right of commuters to expect unfaltering 4G coverage on their routes, so that they can work and communicate as they would in the office or home.

“With our major cities, roads and large parts of rural Britain void of reliable connectivity, it is clear that something must be done to fix the various ‘not spots’ across the country. Coverage and capacity enhancement solutions designed to solve this issue already exist, but are not deployed as universally as required. To solve this problem requires collaboration between legislators, operators and facilities managers to ensure a coherent strategy is put in place to solve the not spot issue once and for all.”


Phil Sorsky, Head of Service Providers, CommScope international

“The findings of this report appear to be disconnected from the real issue here. Indeed, why are we talking about 5G beyond 2020 when today there is an opportunity to address consumer and economical requirement for 4G coverage? With investments in site densification and deeper fibre deployments, we can support increased bandwidth requirement for backhaul and fronthaul connectivity now.

 “Yes, the 5G roll-out will of course be important and we all understand the need for continued investment. But coverage ‘black spots’ won’t be addressed by 5G for several years after its launch, therefore these needs are likely to be met by LTE-A and LTE-Pro coverage for many years to come.”


Konstantinos Stavropoulos, Technical Marketing Lead at Amdocs

“Although the accuracy of this study and the low UK ranking are open to debate, few would argue against the need to improve 4G availability across the country. This is important for mobile users today and in the near future, but also as 4G is expected to coexist with 5G for many years after 5G is launched.

“5G promises to change the way we live and to impact the economy through transforming a variety of industries: from transport, logistics, manufacturing and automotive to health, energy, media and entertainment. While 5G is not an end in itself and its rollout must be business case driven, the success of 5G will require a different approach compared with previous mobile network deployments. Governments, including the UK government, will play a key role in the 5G success.”


About the Author(s)

Scott Bicheno

As the Editorial Director of, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno

Get the latest news straight to your inbox.
Register for the newsletter here.

You May Also Like