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Don't let mobile operators mark own homework, local authorities say

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The Local Government Association (LGA) has warned the government that allowing mobile network operators to use models to assess their performance could leave millions of Brits with subpar mobile coverage.

Uneven mobile coverage – as well as broadband coverage – became a talking point in the run-up to December’s general election, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledging to make poor mobile signal a thing of the past if returned to Number 10.

The Conservative Party have committed to sealing a £1bn agreement with the major UK mobile operators to share existing mobile masts and work together to build new ones; the ongoing 5G rollout requires operators to deploy many more base stations, on account of its more limited range.

However, the LGA – which is made up of hundreds of English and Welsh local councils – is calling on the government to task  telecoms regulator Ofcom with independently verifying coverage. Under these plans, local areas would receive annual speed and reliably 'health checks' using on-the-ground testing. The LGA argues that allowing mobile operators to test signal using their own computer models rather than ground testing leaves them free to “mark their own homework” and could result in millions of Brits not receiving the quality of service they expect. Customers can use network operators’ coverage checkers to see what signal strength they could expect.

Shropshire Council investigated local mobile signal and found that there are 28 areas where quality of coverage on the ground fails to match up with operators’ outdoor coverage claims.

The association believes that the operators should be held to account in order to address uneven mobile coverage across the UK.

“Before the government signs up to any new deal, we want to work with them to ensure that we can properly measure whether mobile operators are achieving coverage that improves mobile signal in the real world, rather than numbers on a spreadsheet,” said Kevin Bentley, chair of the LGA people and places board.

Hamish MacLeod, director at industry body Mobile UK, commented: “Mobile operators are clear that coverage checkers provide guidance of the coverage that customers can expect, and that real-world coverage can be impacted by several variables. Continuing investment in our networks, planning reform, and finalising the Government's commitment to the Shared Rural Network are all crucial to extending rural coverage, and we are acting towards achieving these goals.”

Ofcom notes that it already maintains an independent coverage checker based on operators’ data and ground tests.

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