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Monday, 11 February 2019

UK's Copper Cage is a national disgrace

The maps below, of southern England and of Austria, show population density (see Dan Cookson's stunning map site). You will see that apart from the Vienna-Munich corridor, Austria is very sparsely populated. It is a country covered in steep mountains, deep valleys and thick forests. This makes for two wonderful characteristics; empty roads that delight any English driver, and total, universal, 4G mobile coverage from the Grossglockner to the Neusiedler See. You are reading this thanks to a little plastic cube on my desk that streams Netflix and concurrently provides high speed broadband and Comms connections throughout the house (with a couple of range extenders as needed - it is after all solid stone) all via the mobile network for €1 a day. It does, rarely, once or twice a year, when Thor is engaged with Odin and the valleys shake and the tiles rattle with the thunder of their battle and scorching actinic thunderbolts explode Larch and Spruce in flame and splinters, drop out. But has always come back before it became critical. 

My brother lives in a busy little town in Suffolk, much visited and photographed by tourists in the Summer months. The land is soft and undulating with the homely comfort captured by John Constable. The highest part of Suffolk is a town called Sudbury, perched on a mountain some 20m high. But neither my brother nor any of his neighbours can use a mobile phone in their own homes. They have to walk or drive a couple of hundred metres to get a signal - a situation to which Anglians are so used for it to be quite unremarkable.

He is amongst the one-third of rural households in England (not even the UK) who do not have access to the mobile network. The Telegraph reports
Brian Wilson, author of the report and chairman of Rural England, said: "Nearly a fifth of people in England live in rural areas, yet the evidence shows that many of them face inadequate services, such as being unable to make mobile phone calls or being without transport options.“Two years after we released the first State of Rural Services report it seems clear that rural residents frequently still lose out in terms of funding and access to services.

“The challenges facing rural communities are likely to grow in the coming years and this will be reflected in their service needs. If policies and service delivery were properly rural-proofed it seems evident that those needs would be much better met."

The report found a basic mobile phone call cannot be made inside 33 per cent of rural buildings - an issue which affects just three per cent of urban premises.
Here in my bit of Austria one can no longer order a land-line for domestic use - the phone networks have abandoned these copper cages in other than the well-populated towns and valleys. The 'handy' is ubiquitous, and officialdom here has even stopped asking for both 'home phone' and 'mobile phone' numbers - almost everyone, including the elderly, just has the one.

I can think of a number of reasons, none of them good or adequate, for the UK's abysmal performance. But then again there may be something I don't know, some compelling and over-riding reason why mobile 4G networks can power one of Europe's most sparsely populated regions but cannot allow a bloke in the leafy shires to receive  a mobile call in his own living room.

One of our local phone masts


Dadad said...

I'm like your brother; here on the Norfolk/Suffolk border the download speed is 1.2 mbps. If you're lucky.

Stephen J said...

Not one reason, one word Raedwald...


Our government is so paranoid that it cannot accept that people should be able to talk to or look after each other, whether that be in a smoke filled pub, or across the ether.

Taking back control as offered by the brexiteering Cummings is just the beginning. The reason that I joined and now lament what has happened to UKIP was the other part of independence... Democratic independence, an end to the two party system of representative democracy to be replaced by citizen invoked binding direct democracy.

Achieve that, and we might be able to achieve what Austria has, only without the intervening wars and occupations that separated the empire from the neutral state that it is now.

The difference as you explain frequently, is local civics, somehow we have to train local people to care about their locale.

The sorry mess we are in at the moment in Britain is due entirely to our shrugged shoulder dismissal of local civics. We created a vacuum and a bunch of odious creeps filled the void.

John Brown said...

BT have “wifi calling” (free) which enables mobile ‘phones to make and receive calls and texts via the home wifi and BT internet connection for when the mobile signal is weak or non-existent.

When the Government last gave money to BT to improve internet availability I thought that it would have been better spent giving this money to wireless internet providers not only because they can reach rural areas that BT does not want to serve but would also act as a rival to BT.

I see there is such a provider for parts of Suffolk :

With this internet connection it may also be possible that it can be used for receiving/sending mobile ‘phone calls and texts akin to BT's "wifi calling".

Bloke in North Dorset said...

I was the technical adviser to the Government's Mobile Infrastructure Project that was designed to "fix" rural coverage. This by way of explanation, not excuse, of why rural coverage can be so poor. Its a long time since I worked in Austria so I can't compare the two countries approach. The project was by and large a failure for more reasons than I give here.

The first challenge was to define market failure to make the project EU State aid compliant. This meant that (i) it could only apply to areas where there was no 2G coverage so that a "market failure" could be used as the reason and (2) if there was coverage from just one operator then nothing could be done. State aid rules also meant we were only supposed to pay for 2G coverage, but I found an elegant technical solution that meant we could also roll out 4G.

Having defined the areas that could be treated we then had to find locations that would provide coverage in to the areas to be treated. This seriously limited site location choices as did the need to find landlords who would accept the equipment at rents which made the project possible. The project itself could only pay for capital equipment and the operators had to pay the rent and make a long term commitment. Whist the operators were prepared to accept the sites would be run at a loss, they did have a limit on how high that loss would be and some landlords could be quite greedy.

We also faced two major technical challenges to connect the sites back to the operator's networks. Firstly, timing. We needed to wait for BT to roll out its IP networks and upgrade its exchanges, but the project had a limited time because of the vagaries of government funding. Some of the more rural areas weren't getting their exchanges upgraded until 2017 and beyond, a long tie after the official cut off of 2015. The need to upgrade BT exchanges didn't just affect our sites but also existing sites in the area which had to be upgraded to 4G as well.

The second technical challenge was a requirement for Line of Sight for microwave links to existing sites or BT exchanges, not usually a problem in Suffolk, but buildings sometimes get in the way. Fibre connections were far too expensive in most cases. I should say there is way more to this problem than a simple connection, but I won't go in to that, suffice to say it was very challenging and took up lots of time and funds.

Once those challenges were overcome planning permission was required and in most cases this meant full planning consent. This is both expensive and time consuming. In many lareas objections were made by councils and individuals, in some cases splitting communities and families over the issue and we heard stories of threats of divorce. CPRE, English Heritage and their counterparts in Wales, Scotland and NI had to be consulted as did various bodies concerned with wildlife habitat. Many of these had objections or requirements that pushed sites over budget.

In practice we ran planning applications in parallel with trying to solve the technical problems, which meant we could have high abortive costs, putting more financial pressure on the project.

Given all the constraints it was small wonder that any sites got built at all.

I hope that gives an insight in to the problem. If the project was to be run again a number of the technical challenges will have gone away, but the challenges of finding suitable sites and getting planning consent hasn't, unless the government wants to take some quite extraordinary legal steps for compulsory purchase and overriding planning law.

Finally, I am sympathetic because I live in a very rural area with sporadic coverage.

Bloke in North Dorset said...

Reference wireless Internet providers such as my own local one Wessex. They face similar problems of needing BT's exchanges upgrading, the cost of connecting to tem, finding suitable sites* and also requiring Line of Sight to their customers.

*Landlords and communities seem to be more sympathetic than they do tworads big bad mobile phone operators.

Stephen J said...

From what "Bloke in North Dorset" was saying, it would seem that I am correct in regard to my initial comment.

We can't have people talking to each other, that would never do.

We can of course give landlords anything they want when it comes to hosting arrays of bird chomping windmills or fields of solar powered frying pans..

If it is on our agenda, we can do anything.

formertory said...

Raedwald, is / are the 4G network / s in Austria owned by the operating companies, or is it a sort of nationalised setup on which the operators rent bandwidth?

I'm not punting for nationalisation - I'm old enough to remember the horrors of British Steel, Post Office Telephones, British Rail and half the UK car industry - but BiND makes in teresting points about CPRE, English Heritage, local authorities, planners and a horde of other hangers-on all having to have their involvement. Is the situation similar in Austria or does local decision-making trump the bureaucracy?

Raedwald said...

Uhm, I've added a pic of our mobile phone mast. Every home has one nearby. Most of the forests are owned by the State, so no consent problems. Siting of masts and equpment just isn't a problem here - our 3 providers are A1, T-Mobile and Drei-AT ('3' in the UK)

But now I can start to see the problems in the UK.

jack ketch said...

Our market town in northest North Norfolk (or 'prop-paaa Naafu'k' if yew prefer) has recently had cause to celebrate, for finally we have been connected to His Britannic Majesty's Optical Telegraph Network so that news from the war in Crimea may be more speedily disseminated.

Sarcasm aside, things will of course be better after brexshite. There will no doubt be FREE wall2wall 5G coverage as we will no longer be subject to the EU's regulation of our providers and their charges. I'm sure Vodacon et al are champing at the byte to offer us all absolutely free access to their networks.

Dave Ward said...

Reference wireless Internet providers, and also requiring Line of Sight to their customers

Norfolk makes use of the multitude of churches dotted about the countryside:

Span Ows said...

I am sure R-W has it right, despite the interesting info from BiND. If they really wanted it done it could be done within a month.

We are and always have been way behind, I think Lithuania and Latvia have the best download speeds in Europe but I recall back in about 2002 when BT was pushing its amazing 2mbps, to the the 25-30% of the country that could get the same time South Korea had 16mpbs to the whole country and 70% of the population were users.

Bloke in North Dorset said...

Churches make good sites for mobile and wireless Internet suppliers and one of our local vicars was instrumental in getting his church used so that Internet could be supplied to the village. However, it is always and everywhere local because some communities object on the basis that porn might be carried.

Don't hold your breath for 5G unless you live in a city, it will be a long time before its rolled out further and that will be most likely as part of an equipment life-cycle upgrade rather than to meet demand.

One of the biggest problem to have slowed Internet roll out is BT protecting their monopoly. They have fought a weak Ofcom and weak politicians tooth and nail against every effort to make them invest earlier. They should have been broken up years ago and made to sell OpenReach.

Anonymous said...

One of the great advantages of living in East Anglia is that cycling is relatively effort free, but that does seem to encourage pratts (like Peter Hitchens). Another is that with those webbed hands and feet, you can swim well if the place is flooded. Are the population of such places the prototypes of the marsh-wiggles of C S Lewis's Narnia?

As for mobile phones, the network is immeasurably better than when they were first introduced. I live in a Londonistan area dormitory town, and for years, the mobile reception was terrible. It's great now, after a mast was installed a 100 yards from my house. Part of the problem is that of trains and buses: no point in providing the service where there aren't any users, and when the service is there and the demand swamps it, you have 2 (of the many) causes for complaint.

I'd be prepared to bet that the service isn't great at the top of most Austrian mountains.

Sobers said...

"Landlords and communities seem to be more sympathetic than they do tworads big bad mobile phone operators."

Speaking as a farmer who did have a mobile mast on his land up to a few years ago, until all the companies amalgamated their equipment onto one single mast somewhere else in the locale, I would say that the general attitude of farmers and landowners to the utilities (which category most would consider telecoms falls into) is that you can't trust them an inch, because they are always trying to shaft you, so no landowner in his right mind would believe them if they said 'We need this mast purely to help the locals, we won't be making anything from it, honest, can you do it for free?'

For example I have no doubt that were a farmer to provide (say) Vodafone with a free mast site,as soon as it had been erected they're be renting out space on it to one of the other companies as well. All the utility companies are ****holes and all landowners despise them, we've all been treated like sh*t by them in the past.

Liberista said...

as far as i know, mountainous areas are more expensive and difficult to cover. and mountains make poor antenna masts. so i doubt very much that that is your local phone mast, is most likely much closer and look like an ordinary mast.
the fact that Austria has such good mobile network coverage has only to do with investment, and regulations.

Jack the dog said...

I would guess the reason for the disparity is much more to do with cock up than conspiracy.

It seems from what Radders says that Austria finds it relatively easy to grant permissions on its own lands compared to the UK's having to sweet talk endless individual landowners.

Plus I suspect Austria is a country with weaker protections for private property and stronger eminent domain rules.

mikebravo said...

When I go skiing in Austria there is superb coverge at the top of the mountains. I wish there weren't so that I didn't have to hear all the Dom Jolly's shouting into their phones!

anon 2 said...

Interesting article, Raedwald. Just wish you had said what distances are involved between places.

The responses are enlightening, otherwise. I too remember being able, in my youth, to access 'public transport' from and through rural areas in the north of England - But once euros and other aliens took control of our utilities and communications . . .

Bill Quango MP said...

This book, that I must have bought by accident, was very informative, in a layman, scratch the surface way, about how the UK telecoms network came to be at all. And I was fascinated. That chapter and the one on how the video game Elite managed to cam infinity into 48k of memory, were the best.
Well worth a pick up for the engineers here. {Of which there are many.}

As for my rural second home. Tallest house in the village. So can get mobile coverage like it was the 2000's in top floor rooms. None downstairs.
This is typical for all residents. Some 4-5.000 people have very poor mobile.
And internet is poor. I manage 1.2-1.7 most days, but then the exchange is almost outside my door.

Also, Freeview and Dab is basic. None of the 'london' stations. Eventhe nationwide 'london' stations.

and until very very recently, maybe as little as a year, there was a stretch of the A303, a long stretch, around stonehenge where there was no radio. DAB or phone coverage at all. Probably no TV either.Tough its all farmland so of concern to a handful, as has been said.

John Brown said...

Bloke in North Dorset :

“The first challenge was to define market failure to make the project EU State aid compliant.”

I expect no other EU countries will be taking any notice of these rules and will be bending them when they want, especially the Germans.

I can remember when one German company with whom I worked got state subsidies during difficult times by writing “commercial reports” on their industry for the German government and for which they were very well paid.

Simon Cooke said...

It's not all bad. I walked up to Top Withens this morning - for the air not the literature - and there atop the highest point in the South Pennines a wonderful clear mobile signal, 4G and everything.

Anonymous said...

That's privatisation for you Raed.

A service provider ONLY exists to make money. Actually providing the service is an undesirable cost, so kept to the legal minimum.

Do you understand the Laws Of Physics, Simon, btw? Of course you'd get a signal there, even if nowhere else in the country.

Bloke in North Dorset said...

John Brown,

The problem is that if State aid is challenged and you lose its the recipient that has to pay the money back, not the government, as Apple has found out. The MNOs were well aware of the problem and wouldn't agree without approval from the EU.

John Brown said...

Bloke in North Dorset :

I expect the Germans know better than us how to defeat the system and perhaps the EU doesn’t even know about many of them.

It took testing in the US to discover the massive German diesel emissions testing fraud.

Germany is ranked top with Spain as the EU countries with the most infringements of EU directives and laws.

Anonymous said...

Ordinary analogue voice land lines are due to be switched off by BT/Openreach in 2025.

formertory said...

O/T, but nice replacement pic, Raedwald. Remember it well from my motorbiking days. Including dawdling on down the northern side towards Salzburg, minding my own business on a beautiful, beautiful day, doing a gentle 60mph or so - and being overtaken and left for dead by some bloke wearing half an ounce of lycra and polystyrene, on a pedal bike.

Raedwald said...

FT - biker's paradise here, and they're valued and liked by the natives as you probably know, but there's also a lot of lycra about.

The Hochalpenstrasse won't open again until May, but when it's a corker.

Anonymous said...

This is no different to my coverage in W. Virgina. Get used to living in a s**thole country.

Graeme said...

Pictures came out when South Korea was getting wired up with loads of cables going from roof to roof, building to building. UK consumers would not accept this kind of visual overhead, which either means burying cables or setting up line of sight microwave links

When the emergency service network was being built in 2003, just about every mast required a lengthy planning enquiry. We had a panel of experts whose job was to go to local planning meetings and discuss the alleged risks with the community. As with fracking, all sorts of bizarre stories were propagated such as infertility, tumours, birth defects, inability to sleep or concentrate, brain defects all brought about by the "massive" radiation caused by mobile transmission sites.

In retrospect, I am amazed Vodafone and Cellnet ever got their networks built. Orange got round it by using the ITV masts.

It seems we all want mobile phones but not if there is a mast anywhere near human beings.

jack ketch said...

Graeme nails it I think. I can recall the posters put up by 'concerned' citizens ;concerned more about their houseprices than any mythological health risks I suspect because many of the same MS Word '98 Poster templates have been reused for the campaigns against wind & solar farms.