Broadband/mobile coverage and quality of service (including future of voice/10Mbit/s Universal Service Obligation)

Broadband/mobile coverage and quality of service (including inadvertent roaming/future of voice/Broadband Universal Service Commitment)

Consumers, citizens and micro businesses remain ever more reliant on communications services in growing numbers of ways – and particularly via mobile devices. The Panel’s view remains consistent: sub-optimal delivery of communications services as a result of inadequate infrastructure – be it a lack of reliable, fast broadband or the absence of robust mobile voice and/or data coverage - has long since ceased to be a cause of simple irritation for consumers and micro businesses; it is, today, an issue of real and significant detriment.

The Panel considers that 10 Mbit/s is the absolute minimum for an acceptable broadband user experience. But according to Ofcom’s Connected Nations Report 2015, 8% of UK premises are unable to obtain speeds of 10 Mbit/s; and 2% are unable to achieve 2Mbit/s. The problem is worse in rural areas, where 48% of UK premises - approximately, 1.5 million households - are unable to achieve download speeds of 10Mbit/s; and 9% are unable to achieve 2Mbit/s. The Panel welcomed DCMS’ announcement last year regarding a Universal Service Obligation (USO) of 10Mbit/s and is looking forward to seeing an implementation plan as soon as possible.

The Panel believes that there should be much greater (and ideally 100%) mobile coverage for all consumers – including indoor, road and rail coverage. Rural areas also experience disproportionate problems with mobile coverage: only 55% of the UK’s total land area is covered by all four operators to give a basic (2G) voice service. Coverage inside buildings tends to be worse than outside, and indoor coverage in rural areas is particularly poor. So while 72% of rural premises in the UK have voice call coverage from all networks outdoors, only 31% of rural premises have the same level of coverage indoors. And 13% of rural premises have no coverage at all indoors, with 3% having no coverage at all outdoors.

We have welcomed initiatives to improve mobile quality of service such as the 4G coverage obligation of 98% indoor coverage UK wide, and 95% in each Nation by the end of 2017. We hope that the undertakings given by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to Government - guaranteed outdoor voice and text coverage from each operator across 90% of the UK geographic area by 2017 and full coverage from all four mobile operators increasing from 69% to 85% of geographic areas by 2017 - will make a significant impact. However, for now, there is still some way to go.

We are particularly concerned that progress towards the 4G coverage obligation should be closely monitored and that currently there is no agreed definition of what constitutes an acceptable threshold level to determine 2G voice call coverage. Ofcom’s drive testing research conducted for 2014’s Infrastructure Report identified that a signal level of at least -86dBm was needed to provide good 2G voice call coverage. Mobile operators use a lower (-93dBm) signal threshold to determine 2G voice call coverage. While it is possible to make calls at these lower signal levels, it is more likely from the drive test results to lead to consumers experiencing interrupted and/or dropped calls. While Ofcom’s most recent research supports the historic use of -86dBm for traditional phones, a more realistic threshold for modern smartphones is -81dBm. We will be encouraging work to establish an agreed and commonly used definition of what constitutes an acceptable threshold level. It is also vital that people can access clear, accurate and understandable information about coverage, speeds and tariffs

Specific objective

We will help ensure that the needs of consumers, citizens and micro businesses are central to policy making, that delivery of a high quality service experience is consistently achieved and that consumers and citizens are not excluded from participating effectively in the digital world. To do this, we will continue to engage with Governments, Ofcom, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) and industry so that consumer and citizen interests are taken into account in relation to both the provision of infrastructure and quality of experience.