Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Wales Sets Out Action Plan to Improve Mobile Network Coverage

Tax breaks for new masts, changes to permitted development rights for telecommunications equipment and support for 5G are just some of the changes being proposed by the Welsh Government today as part of their new 'Action Plan' to improve mobile network connectivity (3G, 4G) across Wales.

Wales has long had a problem with weak mobile coverage and a big part of the reason for that stems from the country's difficult rural terrain. For example, data published by Ofcom on television masts show that because of the country's topography Wales needs 67 masts to reach one million people, while in England to reach the same amount of people 12 masts are required, in Northern Ireland it is 25 and Scotland 45.

Similarly last December's 2016 Connected Nations report showed that only 53% of outdoor premises in Wales could access a 4G network and this dropped to 34% for indoor premises and just 13% for outdoor geographic area coverage, which puts the country well behind nearly all other parts of the United Kingdom.

Recently there has been a lot of debate about how to solve this (example), particularly since telecommunications policy is not devolved to Wales (i.e. it's still the responsibility of the central UK Government). Nevertheless the Welsh Government has identified a number of levers that could be used to help improve matters, depending upon the outcome of further consultations.

Julie James, Welsh Minister for Skills and Science, said:

"Mobile phone connectivity is becoming increasingly important for both residents and businesses. We know there are challenges in Wales and that the service needs to be better.

This plan outlines what we as a Welsh Government can do to help create the right environment to further improve connectivity in Wales. I have to be clear that we do not have the main levers as these rest with the UK Government and Ofcom, and it is important to emphasise there is not one single solution to boosting mobile connectivity.

Wales' topography presents many challenges and we need to ensure we strike the right balance between the local economic benefits of improved mobile coverage with the need to safeguard our sensitive landscape.

We are already improving connectivity across Wales with the rollout of Superfast Cymru which has to date provided over 653,000 premises across the country with access to superfast broadband. While we do not have all the powers to improve mobile connectivity it is only right that we look at what we as a Welsh Government can do.

I look forward to reporting back on the progress made on this plan. I intend the first review to take place at the turn of the year."

The proposals, which were put together following a "Mobile Roundtable" event held by Julie James earlier this year (including feedback from mobile operators, Ofcom, farming unions, landowners and businesses), have been summarised below.

Planning

The planning system has a key part to play in maximising mobile phone coverage across Wales. It is important that the planning regime is fit for Wales and reflects its topography and population distribution. It needs to balance the local economic and societal benefits of having broad mobile signal coverage (and capacity) with the need to safeguard our sensitive landscape areas and protect residential amenity.

Action:
Welsh Government has commissioned research to inform changes to permitted development rights for telecommunications equipment to improve mobile connectivity. This research is due to be completed by Autumn 2017.

Action:
Welsh Government will refresh Planning Policy Wales (PPW) to ensure that it highlights the positive relationship between telcommunications and the economy. A revised PPW will be published for consultation by Spring 2018.

Action:
Mobile network operators will work with the Welsh Government to revise and, if appropriate, consolidate the code of best practice and Technical Advice Note (TAN19) on mobile network infrastructure development.

Public assets

The public sector in Wales has thousands of assets that could be used to site mobile telecommunications infrastructure on public land, public highway and buildings. With future deployment of 5G and the potential for this to be delivered by a large deployment of small equipment predominantly across urban environments other smaller assets are likely to be of interest, for example lamp and sign posts, bridges, floodlights etc.

Action:
Welsh Government will facilitate relationships between mobile network operators and mobile network infrastructure providers, and estates managers and other interested parties in Welsh public sector bodies.

Action:
Welsh Government, in partnership with other public sector bodies, to undertake an audit of the existing asset registers, including the proposed publicly available national public asset register, and assess their suitability for use by mobile infrastructure providers.

Non-domestic rates

Research carried out on behalf of the Welsh Government indicates that non-domestic rates account for around 22 per cent of the current total revenue costs of a mobile mast site. A reduction in non-domestic rates could be used to encourage investment in mobile infrastructure for example, by reducing the overall site operating costs. This could be particularly relevant in areas where the investment case is marginal.

Action:
Welsh Government will assess the impact of a reduction in non-domestic rates for new mobile infrastructure (masts, small cells etc.) on investment decisions by the mobile operators.

Action:
Where evidence suggests that a reduction in non-domestic rates would encourage investment the Welsh Government will consider providing non-domestic rates relief on appropriate mobile mast sites.

Regulation

The regulation of mobile phone services and of the telecommunications infrastructure that supports them is an important lever in delivering better mobile phone coverage and capacity.

Action:
Welsh Government will work to understand the opportunities and challenges of geographically differentiated regulation, engaging with Ofcom as appropriate.

Innovation and emerging technologies

The topography and population density in Wales throws up specific challenges for mobile coverage. Extending coverage as far as possible is likely to require innovative solutions particularly in rural areas. Technologies devised and tested in a Welsh landscape will be fit for Wales. The Welsh Government is keen to facilitate innovative solutions and for Wales to be regarded as a testbed for new technologies, such as 5G, and other new ways of working.

Action:
Welsh Government to continue to support emerging technology initiatives throughout the country including solutions to support rural businesses.

Action:
Welsh Government and mobile network operators to work together to identify opportunities to develop and test innovate technologies in Wales.

Infill solutions

The investment being made by the mobile industry towards regulatory targets will significantly improve mobile connectivity in Wales both in terms of voice and data. However, it is likely that there will still be areas of Wales without a usable and reliable mobile signal.

The Welsh Government is keen to explore with the mobile industry how these gaps can be addressed either through further investment by the mobile industry or some form of publicly funded intervention.

Action:
Welsh Government will scope the extent of any public intervention and mobile operators, through Ofcom, will share appropriate network information to inform its development.

Transport

A key focus of the emergency services mobile communications programme is to ensure much greater mobile connectivity along the road network and represents an opportunity to also improve consumer services. The use of public land adjacent to highways also represents a further opportunity to improve coverage on transport routes.

Action:
Welsh Government to explore opportunities for improving connectivity on transport networks.

ESMCP

The emergency services mobile communications programme (ESMCP) will provide the next generation communication system for the three emergency services (police, fire and rescue, and ambulance) and other identified public safety users. The contract to deliver the infrastructure supporting the Emergency Services Network was awarded to EE. However, in some areas, including some very rural areas in Wales, the Home Office is providing funding to construct masts where it is not viable for EE to do so.

Action:
Welsh Government to work with the Home Office to future proof masts where appropriate.

Action:
Welsh Government to explore how mast sites could be further enhanced.

Major events and special projects

Wales is host to a number of large and high profile annual and one off events for example the Royal Welsh Show, National Eisteddfod and International Eisteddfod as well as various sporting events. Some of the events take place in the same location every year and some move around the country.

Action:
Welsh Government will where necessary facilitate relationships between mobile network operators and major event organisers.

Action:
Welsh Government to produce a list of high attendance events.

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