Countryside cut off as rural 3G shut down

Rural mast
Rural mast

The countryside is being cut off by the mobile phone networks’ switch-off of 3G signal, leading rural organisations have warned.

The UK’s mobile networks have begun shutting down their 3G services – which allow people to use the internet – in preparation for the rollout of 5G.

But Ofcom data show that 7 per cent of Britain, virtually all of which is in the countryside, has no access to the 4G and 5G networks replacing 3G.

Countryside groups say people who live in rural areas are being left isolated and the switch-off will risk lives, as farmers are left without location services in an accident.

The networks and the regulator are facing calls to halt the switch off until 4G coverage is improved to avoid rural blackspots increasing.

“It’s important action is taken to avoid a situation where rural businesses are cut off from 3G without reliable 4G coverage being in place,” said Rachel Hallos, the NFU vice president.

“In many parts of the countryside, unreliable mobile signal is preventing farmers from running efficient and productive farming businesses.

“It can also leave farmers with no way of communicating in a time of crisis.”

Telegraph analysis of Ofcom data, provided by the mobile networks, shows that the switch-off will see access to data services decline by up to 11 per cent.

The worst affected area is Copeland, in Cumbria, followed by Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Montgomeryshire.

But mobile networks have also admitted that official data likely underestimate the lack of connectivity, which they say can be affected by rain, leaves growing on trees or home extensions.

Official data show an extra 2 per cent of the country will be thrown into a data blackspot by the 3G switch off, under current 4G coverage levels.

The heads of two prominent rural groups who use Vodafone told The Telegraph that their access to mobile internet had reduced significantly since their 3G was switched off.

This is despite Ofcom’s coverage checker suggesting they have good coverage.

Vodafone and EE are the first networks to have completed the full 3G switch-off across its network, with Three due to start this month and O2 to complete next year.

The four main providers also share 3G services with the smaller networks, including GiffGaff and Tesco Mobile.

‘4G not available in some rural areas’

The timeline for the switch-off has been set by the networks, after the Government set an original deadline of 2033.

Networks say calls should still be possible over the 2G network, but newer handsets may not be able to access it.

George Eustice, the former rural affairs secretary, said Ofcom should “consider requiring providers to maintain 3G in some rural areas until 4G becomes available”.

“Everyone agrees that moving to 4G and 5G would be better for consumers but we cannot ignore the fact that 4G is just not available in some rural areas,” he said.

An initiative funded by the Government and industry to boost 4G capacity in the countryside, called the Shared Rural Network, has stalled, with Vodafone, O2 and Three all seeking a two-year extension to the first stage.

Victoria Vyvyan, the president of the Country and Land Business Association, said network operators have a responsibility to provide access to ensure communities stay connected.

“Where 4G isn’t available, 3G must remain or rural communities will be victims of the worst kind of digital exclusion,” she said.

“Entrepreneurs will find it harder to grow their businesses, people will feel more marginalised, and it would even put lives at risk, giving the public nowhere to turn if they are injured in remote areas without emergency service coverage.”

Martin Lines, the head of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said much of the coverage on his farm in St Neots had disappeared since 3G was switched off, despite being just 15 miles from the centre of Cambridge.

“We could get 3G almost everywhere and it just disappeared one day,” he said.

‘When my data disappears, I disappear’

Mr Lines uses the internet as a safety tool, to ensure he can inform his family or emergency services of his exact location if he is in an accident on his 400-acre farm.

“When my data disappears, I disappear,” he said. “This has left us in a really vulnerable position.”

He said it affected his ability to conduct business as he is unable to access crop reports, weather forecasts, or use hi-tech farming equipment on swathes of his farm.

Julia Aglionby, a chartered surveyor in Cumbria, said she had noticed “a big difference” since her Vodafone 3G service was switched off.

“There just isn’t the coverage,” said Dr Aglionby, who has stepped back from her role as the head of the Foundation for Common Land while she runs for office as a prospective Lib Dem candidate.

“This is something I hear from people on a daily basis,” she said.

Lack of internet impacted people receiving flood warnings, accessing chat helplines, or conducting day-to-day business.

“There are real financial costs as well as safety concerns,” she said. “You just haven’t got the functionality to do business.”

The Local Government Association has previously accused mobile networks of “marking their own homework” and relying on optimistic modelling to give 4G coverage figures.

A spokesman for the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology said: “Everyone should have access to fast and reliable mobile connection, no matter where they live – and we continue to engage with industry as they gradually move away from 3G to ensure customers don’t lose access to a suitable network.

“4G coverage is already available across 93 per cent of the country, and we’re spending £1 billion to put an end to patchy connection in rural areas.

“By 2025, we expect coverage to increase to 95 per cent of the UK landmass and we are on track to meet this target.”

A spokesman for the mobile networks said: “Mobile phone coverage is impacted by a number of variables, such as the weather, seasonal leaf growth, how buildings are constructed, and the local topography.

“The coverage reports provided by Ofcom act as a guide to coverage.”

They added: “The phased shutdown, with 3G being shut off first, followed by 2G will ensure that the transition will be as seamless as possible.

“2G networks will continue to provide access to calls and texts, while the repurposing of the spectrum used by 3G for 4G and 5G services will provide a much-enhanced service, adding capacity, the full mobile internet and additional service capabilities.”

A spokesman for Vodafone said: “Making this change allows us to move the 3G radio spectrum over to improve our 4G and 5G services across the UK.

“If any of our customers still have concerns, we ask them to contact us.”

‘We’ll monitor process closely’

An Ofcom spokesman said: “Mobile operators have decided to switch off 3G to make room for faster 4G and 5G services, and two of them have already completed this.

“We’ve set clear expectations on providers to minimise the impact on customers, and we’ll continue to monitor the process closely.

“The coverage data given to us by mobile operators gives a good picture overall, but it’s not a guarantee. We carry out regular testing to make sure operators’ predictions are as accurate as possible.”