Saturday 24 August 2019

Want better mobile coverage? Then stop rejecting phone masts

'We need to make a connection between our mobile coverage rants and changing mobile coverage laws'
'We need to make a connection between our mobile coverage rants and changing mobile coverage laws'
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

A few months ago, I debated with a TD from rural Cork on a radio programme. The TD was complaining about poor mobile phone coverage around his village.

I pointed out that he had objected to a mobile mast in his area a few months previously. He said that these were two different issues - and then proceeded to talk about rural Ireland being left behind.

This exchange wasn't unusual. All across Ireland, local representatives are now gearing up for a giant grumble about poor mobile phone coverage in their local vicinity. Many don't see any conflict at all with their own roles in preventing masts - or less obtrusive infrastructure - being put in place.

When challenged on this, TDs and councillors frequently blame Comreg, the mobile operators, or "the powers that be". (They themselves are never the powers that be - not even when they're in government or control a local council.)

It's a fair guess that the ranting is just for show. Few, for example, have any serious intention of effecting measures that would actually improve mobile infrastructure. Like new legislation that might raise coverage levels around the country. Or more strategic planning guidelines that take mobile coverage more into account when deciding on applications for new infrastructure.

Those measures would be for "the powers that be".

It is a pity that our lawmakers don't take this issue seriously.

Last week, a bunch of telecoms companies got together with one suggestion to get things moving on better coverage.

"If we are to get serious about providing the necessary connectivity, there needs to be joined-up thinking around the rules governing planning permission," said Anne O'Leary, chief executive of Vodafone Ireland and incoming chairperson of the Telecommunications and Internet Federation, an umbrella group that represents mobile and fixed-line operators in the country.

Such planning permission, she added, "is often refused for arbitrary reasons". Infrastructure beside motorways is "a challenge" and "unduly onerous".

As the head of Vodafone, O'Leary would be expected to bat for her firm's own commercial interests. But some rules adopted around the country for mobile masts sit uneasily with subsequent protests over poor coverage.

Kerry, for example, has had a "one kilometre rule" contained in its country development plan for the last six years. This stated that no telecoms mast can be located within a kilometre of a residence, school or anywhere that people live or occupy.

The problem is that Kerry, like other parts of rural Ireland, has thousands of one-off residences across the county.

And schools tend to be close to local population centres, such as villages and towns. As a result, multiple applications for mobile phone masts have been turned down. And now guess what? There's crappy mobile phone coverage in large parts of the county.

When I pointed out discrepancies such as this to the Fianna Fail TD I debated on air some time ago, he became indignant.

"I have no problem with planning when it is done in the proper way," he said angrily. "But it sounds like you're saying we should all move to Dublin. Well, I reject that. I make no apology for living in rural Ireland. I am proud to live in rural Ireland. And that sort of attitude is typical of the problem we face."

Bluster, evasion, populism.

But it works: the TD is a long-serving representative who survived the Fianna Fail massacre of the last general election. He knows what people want to hear and how to play the local electorate.

For him, that's really all that counts.

There is a greater underlying issue here. Whether we like it or not, mobile coverage has become an essential utility. It is more important now than the landline, which is still protected under Irish law by universal service obligation rules that oblige Eir to connect any home in Ireland. But there are no actual rules stipulating universal coverage for mobile phones. A 70pc population coverage requirement can be achieved by simply covering Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.

We - the people and our TDs - make the laws. We need to make a connection between our mobile coverage rants and changing mobile coverage laws.

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