AN INVESTIGATION into the quality of mobile phone coverage in Wales is to be launched by the telecommunications regulator Ofcom.
The move follows concerns about the credibility of industry claims that only 0.2% of the Welsh land mass cannot pick up a signal.
More detailed statistics suggest that mobile phone users in Wales get a poorer deal than those in England, where only last week mobile and broadband coverage was compared unfavourably with that in India and Malawi.
Last night Rhodri Williams, Ofcom’s director for Wales, said, “We have had a number of representations expressing concern about the claim that 99.8% of Wales has mobile phone coverage. The point has been made to us that many people travelling between North Wales and South Wales by car or train experience difficulties with mobile phone reception as they pass through rural areas.
“We are planning to look into these concerns, and are currently considering how to bottom out the figures.”
According to international mobile phone industry trade association Groupe Speciale Mobile, both Wales and the UK as a whole have 99.8% coverage for so-called 2G coverage – the basic phone and text service.
Wales fares worse than the UK – predominantly England, of course – when it comes to districts served by at least four mobile phone operators. For the UK as a whole, 81.6% of districts have that degree of choice. In Wales the figure drops to 57%.
When it comes to so-called 3G coverage, where mobile phone users are able to browse the internet and send “richer” messages from their phones including videos, Wales is at a considerable disadvantage to the UK as a whole.
Across the UK, 91.4% of districts have 3G coverage, while in Wales the figure is 74.1%. The contrast is even starker for those districts having coverage from at least four 3G operators – 67.6% in the UK, and only 32.3% in Wales.
But the true picture appears to be even worse because of a difference in the way districts are counted. For the UK as a whole, districts are said to have coverage when at least 95% of the area has access. The figures relating to Wales alone, however, allow districts to be counted as having coverage when only 50% of the area is within reach of a signal.
Mr Williams said, “My personal view is that including districts as having coverage when only 50% actually have it is a strange way of counting.
“Historically, the deployment of mobile telephones in the UK has been entirely a matter for the private sector. Companies have rolled out their networks on the perceived judgment of the financial return available. The extent of coverage has been a factor in the competition for business. But there is nothing like the concept of universal service obligation that exists so far as conventional land-line telephones are concerned. That principle dates back to the time when BT was a public sector organisation.
“A decision was taken that, unless you lived at the top of a mountain in a very remote area, you would have a right to be connected to the land telephone network for the same price as someone living in Chelsea. That remains the case.
“No such considerations apply so far as mobile phone coverage is concerned. The view taken by Ofcom and our predecessor regulator Oftel has been that the competitive market will maximise coverage.”
Mr Williams said the statistics released by GSM may suggest that the market will not necessarily ensure that everyone has coverage.
Asked what Ofcom could do, he said, “Ultimately this is not a matter for the regulator, but for the Government. In a very competitive market, where operators have an obligation to make a return to their shareholders, it is not feasible to impose an obligation that each of them must provide universal coverage.
“One possible solution is a government subsidy. When BT decided that it was not commercially viable to provide broadband capability to 35 telephone exchanges in Wales, the Assembly Government decided to provide a subsidy. But this is a matter for government.”
In Wales there has been criticism from some businesses in rural areas that the availability of broadband – a much faster internet connection – has been subject to lengthy delays.
In some areas, firms have been told it will cost them many thousands of pounds to be linked to the broadband network, in apparent contradiction of the Assembly Government’s stated aim of having universal broadband capability.
Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Rural Communities Commission and the UK Government’s Rural Advocate, said last week that rural England had worse coverage for mobile phones and broadband than parts of India and Malawi.
He is pressing Gordon Brown for urgent investment in new technologies in the countryside to secure economic viability for remote regions.
A spokesman for the Welsh Assembly Government said, “We fully recognise that widespread access to affordable broadband is important to businesses and individuals across Wales to help build a thriving Welsh economy.
“To this end, we are working with the telecommunications industry and the communications regulator, Ofcom, to share information on communications infrastructure issues.
“While considerable progress has been achieved – with over 99% of premises in Wales now able to access broadband services – the Assembly Government is working to ensure that everyone in Wales has the opportunity to benefit.
“Take-up of broadband in Wales has also increased considerably over the past few years. Up from 15% in 2004 to around 43% by early last year.”
Payphone the only option for winners
One community without mobile phone coverage has a totemic significance for Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones, now Deputy First Minister and Minister for the Economy and Transport.
It was at Pontrhydfendigaid in rural Ceredigion last summer where members of Plaid’s national council met to endorse the One Wales coalition agreement with Labour.
Later this month, the village’s Pavilion – also renowned for its rock concerts – will also see the first democratic election for seats in the House of Lords, when members of Plaid’s national council choose their nominees.
The successful candidates will, however, be unable to use their mobile phones to call their loved ones. Instead, they will have to put coins into a pay phone.