Skip to main content

Britain’s mobile networks need urgent attention

phone tower
By Robin Tozer
27 June 2024
mobile network

The space probe Voyager 1 has been diligently sending signals and images back to Earth for nearly 47 years. since September 1977.
But a fault last year, 15 billion miles away from it nearest service station on Earth, meant it stopped sending signals back.
Undeterred, NASA Engineers found a way to digitally transmit a code to fix the probe’s systems, which have the computing power of a pocket calculator – which was a lot back in September 1977 when the first images were transmitted.
The code took 22.5 hours to reach Voyager travelling at the speed of light, with a confirmation of its success arriving another 22.5 hours later back on Earth.
I was thinking about this galactic feat of telecoms engineering when I tried to have a conversation with my partner who is away in Cornwall with friends. We struggled to have a 10-minute conversation without the signal dropping.
In 2024, the UK is still blighted by mobile blackspots, especially in rural areas. Cornwall is far away but you feel if NASA can talk to a probe at the furthest reaches of the galaxy, then a holiday let near Newquay should be a cinch.
Poor mobile signal across the UK has long been a complaint. Since Ernie Wise made the first official mobile phone call in the UK back in 1985, it has seemed Britain’s mobile infrastructure has struggled to keep up with the pace of change. From 2G to 3G to 4G and now to 5G, the network always needs more investment.
The demands on the networks are growing exponentially.  Smartphones, energy meters, satnavs, and a huge growing array of other connected devices are taking up more capacity.  5G is designed to support a 100x increase in traffic capacity and network efficiency.
The Government wants everyone to have access to standalone 5G by 2030, which seems a stretch when parts of the country barely get basic phone signal, yet alone the ability to stream Netflix on a hill walk in rural Scotland.
Almost all 5G used in the UK is built on top of existing 4G infrastructure. To get the full benefits of 5G, “standalone” network architecture is required which operates independently. This can carry more data, at faster speeds and with shorter delays. 
Recently, the CEO of Vodafone, Margherita Della Valle,  warned in The Times that Britain is at the bottom of the G7 when it comes to 5G connectivity, and is “falling behind the rest of the world”.
She believes that this could severely limit the UK’s ambitions to be an AI superpower as 5G is needed to maximise this technology. She said “5G standalone in the UK, which is the capability you need for this type of communication, is simply not available and will not be available even in three, four, five years time…The absence of high-speed, low latency connectivity means that certain use cases are not possible, either across the whole network or simply because you have locations where this high speed, low latency will not be available.” 
Della Valle says the need for capacity on the network would only increase as consumers started to see AI capabilities embedded in their smartphones, and AI finds commercial applications, such as in healthcare.  If the NHS wants to save money by rolling out devices with AI technology that monitor peoples’ health to avoid them having to go to the GP as much, then that is going to add more pressure on the network.
It is not just maximising AI where Britain will suffer. The RAC Foundation has said the current state of the UK’s mobile networks are impacting the electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. Around two-thirds of Britain’s most common type of public charge points for EVs are suffering limited mobile signal connectivity. Most charge points in the UK require drivers to access them via mobile phone apps to make payment. Britian desperately needs more charge points, which means more mobile capacity.
Many of the things that politicians and experts think that Britain needs to do, to become more productive, and inject growth in the economy, will use mobile technology. To get the mobile network the UK needs is going to require huge investment.
The National Infrastructure Commission believes the investment needed can be funded commercially, but Frontier Economics has found an investment gap between what private industry can deliver and what is needed to meet the target.  Vodafone is merging with Three in part so it can afford the £11bn it plans to invest.  Della Valle has said without the scale provided by the tie-up, the size of investment needed in the UK’s infrastructure was uneconomical. “In the current circumstances, companies like ours cannot invest more because there are no returns on investment”.
So, you can add mobile networks to all the things that Britain needs to spend money on. Railways, the armed forces, the water industry, the health service, the list goes on. As the presumptive Government, the Labour Party’s manifesto is full of ideas to fix Britain with little detail on what it plans to do for the mobile network. Its manifesto acknowledges, “In an ever more connected world, Britain’s communication network is also vital. Under the Conservatives, investment in 5G is falling behind other countries and the rollout of gigabit broadband has been slow. Labour will make a renewed push to fulfil the ambition of full gigabit and national 5G coverage by 2030,”
We are also going to need to get the network built. Mobile phone masts and other necessary kit are, like new housing, often tied up in the UK’s planning system. It’s not helped by a healthy band of conspiracy theorists, who blame 5G for cancer and even Covid. One of the more innovative ideas has been put forward by a company called Stratospheric Platforms which wants to use giant drones to deliver 5G.
Whatever the approach, if the new Government does not get to grips with the UK’s mobile network quickly then lots of its other plans, like my call to Cornwall, will struggle to work.
And whilst true the UK’s infrastructure is ageing and unstable, if NASA can re-engineer 1970s tech far out in space, you would hope this country’s leaders can reduce our need to say “I’m just in a tunnel”.