Do you want to Improve Mobile Signal Strength in your Council?
Most local authorities in the UK recognise the substantial economic and social benefits that reliable mobile networks provide.
Yet many continue to see their residents suffer from poor cell phone coverage across rural and urban areas in 2022.
Councils have no direct responsibility for dealing with mobile phone signal issues. However, the role local authorities have in improving mobile coverage remains vital.
When residents live in areas deemed economically unattractive by operators to roll out new infrastructure, local government intervention is often the last lifeline for people wishing to connect to the internet, send messages & make voice calls .
This blog explores the various strategies councils have used over the past decade to make signal strength stronger for their residents.
Strategy 1 - Offer Public Assets for Deployment
The Wayleave Problem
One of the enduring issues in improving weak cell phone coverage for operators remains the time & money spent acquiring sites to host mobile infrastructure through wayleave agreements.
The DCMS consultation on changes to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) in 2021 highlighted this. The ECC regulates the rights of carriers to install & maintain their apparatus on private & public land.
The consultation found that 80% of wayleave negotiations with landowners for a site take more than six months, and the average negotiation time takes 11 months.
These long lead times result from 30% of landowners being unresponsive to approaches. Many others haggle over the compensation for hosting apparatus on their land.
The costs associated with negotiating new sites can put a carrier off improving their networks when new deployments become a financial liability. This hesitance is especially common nearest areas of low population density where few 'paying customers' will benefit from coverage improvements.
Even when coverage improvements are in the works, residents often won't see the benefits for over a year.
How Norfolk used its Buildings to Increase Network Coverage
Councils are ideally placed to intervene in resolving this issue, as Norfolk County Council have shown.
In 2017, Norfolk residents complained that large parts of the county had no indoor or outdoor 4G coverage, despite official coverage maps from the mobile companies and Ofcom showing strong signal.
Norfolk commissioned a drive test to survey cell phone coverage along 3,400 miles of roads in their council to begin troubleshooting the issue. After gathering 6 million data points, their survey indicated that the official maps provided were inaccurate.
Now armed with accurate data to understand connectivity 'not spots', Norfolk utilised their influence as a local authority. The council identified 200 of their suitable buildings for hosting cellular base stations.
They now actively make these sites available for carriers to quickly deploy antenna & towers on without the need to receive any compensation payments. This process has drastically cut down on the time and cost of new apparatus deployment.
Resultantly, 'not-spot' areas previously deemed uneconomical to deploy infrastructure have gained coverage across various operators.
How Cities are using Street Furniture to Improve Network Capacity
Utilising public assets can also increase signal strength in urban authorities.
BT (owner of EE) has begun working with local authorities in towns & cities to mount small cell antennas onto their street furniture, including CCTV columns and lampposts.
BT is rolling out over 300 antennae across participating UK cities this year, including Birmingham, London, Cardiff & Glasgow.
Small cells are ideal boosters for raising capacity in densely populated areas to ensure that everyone can get a network connection simultaneously. Deploying new cells also potentially doubles existing 4G speeds to over 300 Mbps.
These units will also be capable of supporting 5G in the future. Access to street furniture will be vital to future 5G rollouts as the technology uses higher frequency spectrum bands, which travel shorter distances than current 4G transmissions. Millions of smaller cells will be needed to ensure ubiquitous 5G across UK towns & cities. You can find an easy guide on how 5G works here.
What is the DCIA?
After recognising the need for network operators to have streamlined access to deploy infrastructure on public assets, DCMS created the Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator (DCIA) in 2021.
The government has awarded £4 million to 8 pilot schemes involving local authorities, carriers & private software firms.
These pilots will test digital asset management platforms that allow councils to offer information about their assets to operators seamlessly. These platforms will hold details including asset locations, load-bearing capabilities & power availability.
If successful, the government hopes to ensure every council in the UK has a digital map of its assets available to carriers.
You can keep up to date with DCIA developments here.
Strategy 2 - Streamline Planning
The Planning Problem
Finding suitable sites to deploy new infrastructure isn't the only delaying factor when expanding cell phone coverage. Obtaining planning permission can also be a drawn-out process.
Operators in the UK have permitted development rights, allowing them to build new infrastructure without seeking separate planning permission from local authorities.
However, in many cases, they still need to seek 'prior approval' from councils regarding the appearance & siting of apparatus. This includes for any tower construction. Full planning permission is also required for any new infrastructure that doesn't meet the permitted development criteria.
How Shropshire & Norfolk Councils Removed Planning Barriers
By 2015, Shropshire Council had identified that its residents were suffering from poorer than average cellular coverage.
Recognising how it could play a role in making Shropshire a more attractive place for mobile broadband service providers to invest in, the council made a concerted effort to support & speed up the necessary processes.
As a result, a significantly higher proportion of Shropshire's planning applications get approved than in other constituencies. This change has highlighted the council as a reliable partner for carriers to engage with.
Likewise, Norfolk cut planning barriers while making its assets available to host equipment.
Norfolk also used the coverage data it had collected by its drive test of the county to manage any resident's resistance to new deployments in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
When residents saw from Norfolk's surveys that they had no coverage options, they became much more receptive to stop blocking new mast deployments in their communities.
Strategy 3 – Lobby for Improvements
The Modelling Problem
Councils face a recurring problem when seeking to gauge signal within their borders as the mobile coverage checkers provided by the operators are not always a reliable measure of network coverage.
Each coverage checker is created by mathematical models that estimate coverage in the places you live and work. Hence, signal strength is never measured on the ground as real-life users would experience it on their phones.
Carriers also each use different models to calculate coverage, making comparisons between the checkers unstandardised.
The limitations of these models also curbs service provider's ability to understand their networks. The average carrier spends £25 million a year on crowdsourced & drive testing data sets to check their network's coverage.
Unfortunately, crowdsourcing & drive testing also have constraints for understanding a network. Crowdsourcing coverage data doesn't always provide regular insights in areas with low population density. Traditional drive testing is also expensive & only done in a select few locations.
These issues result in the operators themselves not always understanding where their problem areas are.
How Cambridgeshire Council Lobbied Successfully
The key to impactful lobbying comes down to having an accurate mobile coverage survey of your local authority. Your council can't boost signal coverage if no one knows where the problem areas are.
Like many other local authorities, Cambridgeshire County Council has completed such a test in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough region.
This data has allowed their Enabling Digital Delivery team to identify problem areas where coverage 'not spots' exist for cellular companies, including at major business parks, residential areas, main roads & train stations.
The authority has subsequently drawn up a list of the 'Top 20' priority areas for improvement & collaboratively shared these with EE, Vodafone, O2 & Three to help them identify solutions.
Collecting independent coverage data allows your council to collaboratively help the operators identify their 'not spots' while also providing evidence behind coverage complaints that make them difficult for the operators to block or ignore.
You can learn more about how these mobile surveys can improve your council's digital strategy here.
How do I Survey Mobile Coverage?
As you have seen for all of these strategies, there is a necessity to map the mobile coverage in your council before you can take decisive action.
At Streetwave, we allow you to understand the mobile coverage of EE, O2, Vodafone & Three on a house-by-house basis in your geography.
If you would like to strengthen your strategies to increase bad mobile signal, you can find out more here.
Operators will tend to follow the path of least resistance when deploying new equipment. Local authorities who can start building this path will inevitably be amongst the first to benefit from coverage improvements.
Ensure that your councils attract fast coverage advancements by:
- Offering public assets for deployments
- Streamlining the planning process for deployments
- Lobbying for coverage improvements