In Brief

UK 'languishing in 4G digital slow lane'

Watchdog finds country's coverage lies behind Albania, Panama, Peru and Romania

iPhone 6

Britain's 4G mobile phone coverage is worse than in Albania, Panama, Peru and Romania, a government watchdog says. 

A report from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) claims there are too many "digital deserts" and "not spots" where users cannot get signal, even within major city centres. 

The UK sits in 54th position in a list of the best places to use the 4G network, with South Korea first, Japan second and Lithuania third.

The report urges the government to step in to ensure that basic talk, text and data services are available to all Britons, wherever they live, work and travel, and to make the country ready for next-generation 5G communications.

In March, the NIC was asked to consider what the UK needs to do to become a world leader in 5G and to make sure the country can take early advantage of its potential.

Today's report says: "5G means seamless connectivity. Ultra-fast, ultra-reliable, ultra-high capacity transmitting at super low latency. It will support the ever larger data requirements of the existing network and new applications from augmented reality to connected vehicles and the Internet of Things, and many more, as unknowable today as the 4G services we take for granted would have been a decade ago."

Andrew Adonis, the cross-bench peer and former Labour minister who chaired the commission, said the UK was "languishing in the digital slow lane".

He added: "Our 4G network is worse than Romania and Albania, Panama and Peru. Our roads and railways can feel like digital deserts and even our city centres are plagued by not spots where connectivity is impossible. That isn’t just frustrating, it is increasingly holding British business back as more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce."

To combat the findings, the commission calls for the creation of a strong "digital champion" in government, backed by a dedicated Cabinet minister, to drive forward change.

It also argues the government and regulator Ofcom should develop a "universal service obligation" requiring providers to ensure consumers can access essential services when needed, regardless of the network they subscribe to.

In addition, it says preparations for 5G had to include a trackside network to deliver enhanced connectivity for rail passengers on all key routes by 2025, as well as mobile networks "fit for the future" on motorways by the same date. There is also a call for "tens of thousands" of small cells to be installed in urban centres to eliminate areas of poor and no reception.

Grant Shapps, the leader of the cross-party British Infrastructure Group of MPs (BIG), said: "This infrastructure report confirms what BIG has been saying for a long time. Over the years, ministers have been too easily taken in by glib promises provided by the telecoms providers and the ineffective and weak response of the regulator Ofcom."

A spokeswoman for the Treasury said the Chancellor had already committed £1bn to support 5G trials as well as fibre broadband.

"We want the UK to become a world leader in 5G, which is why we asked NIC to carry out this study," she said. "We will consider their recommendations carefully and respond at Budget 2017."

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