Consumer and rural groups have teamed up to demand legal obligations from the government on rural 4G after plans to deliver 95 per cent connectivity have been pushed back to 2026.
The CLA, NFU, Countryside Alliance, Rural Services Network and Which? wrote to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), outlining four key checks for mobile operators to ensure coverage improvements were delivered as soon as possible.
The group also asked for robust monitoring arrangements for Ofcom – including enforcement actions if targets are not met – and a requirement for operators to publish a rollout plan, detailing when and where coverage will be improved, every 12 months.
CLA president Tim Breitmeyer said: “I am pleased to see mobile companies engaging with the issue, but any suggestion that rural users can wait seven years for 4G coverage is totally inadequate.
“It leaves too much riding on the goodwill of operators when previous voluntary targets have been missed.”
Current proposals for a ‘single rural network’ would see mobile operators sharing masts on a reciprocal basis and forming a new company to build joint masts in rural areas.
Operators have said however that obligations associated with upcoming spectrum auctions would need to be ditched, as well as a reduction in the annual licence fees paid by networks for the funding of new masts.
While they would deliver coverage improvements, plans are not legally binding and would only deliver 88 per cent coverage by 2024.
Graham Biggs MBE, Rural Services Network chief executive, said: “It is disgraceful and counter-productive to the nations’ well-being that rural communities have been treated as an afterthought when it comes to mobile and broadband connectivity.
“This issue needs to be urgently addressed if the economic and social benefits of greater connectivity are to be realised, not just for rural communities but to the nation as a whole.”
Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner said the proposals did ‘not go far enough’, while NFU vice president Stuart Roberts said patchy digital cover remained a major barrier in improving on-farm productivity.
Caroline Normand, Which? director of advocacy, added: “While welcome mobile operators looking to take a lead on this vital issue, these proposals must be legally binding to guarantee 4G is finally delivered in a fair and affordable way to those who need it the most.”