Belfast Telegraph

Poor mobile coverage spurs calls for planning shake-up

By Clare Weir

Ulster's planning regulations are a barrier to better mobile network coverage, an industry leader has said.

John Cooke, executive director of the Mobile Operators Association (MOA), was in Northern Ireland this week to meet MLAs and Offcom to discuss concerns over how we lag behind the rest of the UK in terms of connection.

The meeting came two weeks after it was announced that one provider, T-Mobile, had withdrawn network services without warning its customers in a rural area of Co Antrim.

The MOA represents the four UK mobile network operators - EverythingEverywhere (Orange and T-Mobile), O2, Three and Vodafone - on radio frequency, health and safety, and related town planning issues.

In Northern Ireland, 15% of adults live in a home that has mobile telephony only - the same as the UK average.

2G coverage - voice calls and text - is at 87% but 3G - mobile internet - is at just 54%, significantly lower than the UK average of 95% and the figures for Scotland and Wales at 84% and 82% respectively.

Mr Cooke said more co-operation between mobile users, communities, councils, planners and politicians was needed to improve services here.

The MOA claims that obtaining planning permission in Northern Ireland has been difficult, partly because full planning permission is required for all base stations.

"If there was a system in place similar to the ones present in other areas of the UK, Northern Ireland would not be so far behind other regions," he said. "This would be of benefit to not only individuals but to businesses, particularly SMEs, and tourists.

"A few years ago people thought online trading was only for the likes of Amazon and the big banks, but now it is presenting a huge opportunity for the smallest firms and Northern Ireland needs to capitalise on that and work towards better coverage.

"Particularly with Northern Ireland's tourism and agri-foods sector, which are largely based in rural areas, authorities and communities need to work together to get better provision from the operators."