One call after another they came. Complaints from all over the UK about mobile phone reception so poor that even basic conversation is impossible. Yesterday, (Wednesday 14 December) I spent my morning on regional radio besieged by news of digital deserts from across the country.
No surprise. The UK, whose inventors claim the telephone and the world wide web, is now well behind the curve. 4G is currently available in the UK just half the time we need it. We are 54th in the world, behind Romania and Albania, Panama and Peru.
This cannot go on. If our industrial strategy is to mean anything, it must address our connected future. Mobile connectivity is now a necessity and should be treated as such with a high level of service generally available. And the UK must be a world leader, not follower, in 5G - the ultra-fast, ultra-reliable, ultra-high-capacity mobile communications technology which will succeed 4G in the 2020s.
The market has driven great advances since the advent of the mobile phone. In just 30 years, mobile devices have transformed from an extravagant luxury to an essential part of work and life. There are now more mobile devices than people: 93% of adults in the UK have them, and multi-function smartphones - using 4G connectivity - have overtaken laptops as the device of choice.
But 4G service remains patchy and unreliable because infrastructure investment has been too little and too slow. Many trunk roads and railways remain digital deserts; and not just remote areas, but many city centres, are plagued by ‘not-spots’ and intermittent coverage.
Government and Ofcom, the industry regulator, must ensure that good 4G mobile coverage – for talk, text and data - becomes the norm. It is time for a general service obligation based on a measure of the service consumers really receive where they need it. This should be agreed in 2017 and delivered as quickly as possible thereafter. In very remote locations it may not always be possible to achieve, but reliable coverage should extend across cities, towns and villages across Britain and the mass transport networks.
Poor coverage on the rail network is legendary. We all know what it is like to sit on a train wondering when the next precious minute of connectivity will arrive.
Rail passenger journeys have more than doubled in the last two decades to a 1.7 billion a year. Years worth of productive time is lost to British business whilst their employees stare at empty screens. Passengers on the principal lines - including the tube in London - should have reliable 4G wireless connectivity. The same goes for the motorways where poor connectivity is equally stark, impairing the flow of essential travel and traffic information. Network Rail, Highways England and Transport for London should forge and lead partnerships with private investors to achieve general 4G coverage as soon as possible, backed up by a general service obligation set by the government.
These 4G networks should be capable of conversion to 5G when it becomes available. Local authorities also have a critical role in preparing for 5G. They need to work with local business and mobile network providers to enable rapid installation of infrastructure - small masts and cabinets - to support tens of thousands of new transmitter ‘cells’ required to deliver 5G across urban Britain.
Ensuring this general 4G mobile coverage, and preparing for 5G, should be a core part of the government’s new industrial strategy. Today, the government’s interest in digital infrastructure is fragmented across departments and agencies. This is a clear recipe for inaction and lack of focus. A single cabinet minister should have the authority to lead 5G policy and delivery across government, advised by Ofcom.
No-one could have predicted what Amazon would do to publishing with the internet, nor that Uber would revolutionise private hire transport with 4G. The same will be true of the transformative applications which change our lives based on 5G.
But if the services that future mobile networks will enable cannot be known in advance, the network requirements are clear. More data, greater reliability, wider coverage, and the power, fibre and transmitters necessary to make it happen.
South Korea, Japan, Singapore and the US led the world in 4G connectivity. They did so through ambitious and interventionist national industrial strategies, even if Washington’s highly activist Federal Communications Commission rarely used the term. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, calls 5G a ‘national priority’ and in July published an initial strategy. We are already being left behind.
Andrew Adonis is chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, whose Connected Future report can be found here