Mobile phone masts have always generated strong emotions from the general public. When they first started to appear, safety fears over the radiation they produced and their unsightly presence in the British countryside caused uproar.
Now it’s the lack of reception in rural areas and the uneven distribution of coverage that gets people irate.
The two problems are interlinked; rules over planning permission and strict regulations on mast size and location came about because of public safety fears. The truth is that it’s harder to improve coverage in the UK compared with other areas. It’s particularly difficult to do so in places where councils have taken a stance against the building of masts and now lag behind in terms of infrastructure.
It’s an issue that has sparked debate between the mobile networks and the very highest levels of government. The story goes that David Cameron was frustrated by some poor phone reception while on a call to Angela Merkel. As a result the Prime Minister instructed secretary of state Sajid Javid to look into ways that rural coverage could be improved.
The proposals Javid came back with received a mixed response and included the much-maligned suggestion that consumers should be able to roam between networks, which was slammed by operators.
After several weeks of debate between the networks and the government an agreement was reached that saw each of the four major networks pledge to provide 90% geographical coverage across the UK.
Although the agreement demonstrates the government and operators’ desire to work together, barriers remain. Masts are still difficult to build and the planning permission process is a sizeable obstacle.
You only have to look at the government’s own plan to improve rural coverage – the ‘Mobile Infrastructure Project’ – which has failed to make any significant headway. Few sites have been completed as regulations and planning permission continue to act as a major barrier.
If they are struggling to do it then the question is, who can succeed?
With no clear solution in sight it seems people will be complaining about mobile phone masts for the considerable future.