Rolling out high speed mobile phone coverage and internet to the forgotten corners of rural Britain will require at least 400,000 extra masts, many of which will need to be 80ft high, experts have predicted.
In this month’s budget Phillip Hammond, the Chancellor, pledged to invest £1.1 billion the development of a 5g network which will bring faster and more reliable mobile broadband and phone coverage to the UK by the early 2020s.
But a recent report by consumer watchdog Which? found that mobile users in half of England cannot even access 4g, while in Wales the fast signal is available for just one third of the time.
Expert from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), King’s College London, and the universities of Surrey and Sussex, warned that people living the countryside may have to accept 80 foot (25 metre) masts if they want to catch up and enjoy the faster service.
More than 10 times the number of masts and base stations, will be needed for full coverage across the country, but super-fast 1-2 gigabits per second speeds will always be confined to cities, they warned.
Professor Will Stewart, of the IET said: “There is nowhere near enough capacity to deliver what we think the system needs, there never has been.
“The crucial thing is you need to be shorter range to deliver the extra capacity, that means more base stations, at least ten times more, maybe 100 times. There are between 30,000 and 40,000 masts now.
“The coverage is enormously important. It’s not just ex-Prime Minister’s who are concerned that they can’t get coverage in Cornwall. We need services to always work, we see them now as a utility.
“One of the things you are going to see in five years is the masts getting taller, to get more coverage. 25 metres is what the mobile operators are asking for. The UK has got the shortest masts in Europe. We’ve done something really stupid, we’ve kept the masts below the treeline, but the trees grow taller every year.”
According to an HM Treasury report released this week, 5G will open the doors “to potentially revolutionary technologies such as automated cars and advanced manufacturing, as well as enabling the many thousands of connected devices, such as smart energy meters, that are predicted to enter our everyday world as part of the Internet of Things (IoT).”
However the current signal in some rural areas is currently so bad that EE is preparing to launch a mobile mast suspended from a helium blimp as part of its effort to improve coverage.
4G replaced 3G internet as a mobile communications standard several years ago and was designed to provide wireless internet access at a much higher speed, allowing customers to watch videos and use social media on the move.
But even in London most people can only access a 4G signal 69.7pc of the time and the capital has one of the worst downloads speeds in the country. And fewer than half of mobile connections were made on a 4G service at the end of last year according to Ofcom.
Mischa Dohler, Professor of Wireless Communication at King’s College said: “The rural coverage problem is a big headache. If coverage wasn’t there in 4g it won’t be in 5g.
“The real problem is the cost to put up the base station in rural areas. So one recommendation is to deregulate street furniture. That’s what we really need. Then you can roll our the base stations you need.”
Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said networks should consider siting base stations on churches or farm buildings to avoid the need for intrusive masts.
“Super slow speeds continue to frustrate communities in more remote areas. Yet we need to ask whether we can deliver the type of coverage being suggested here without markedly harming the character of our precious landscapes.
“Rather than building thousands of ever higher masts at the behest of industry, we need to maintain strong planning protections and help local communities add new infrastructure to existing buildings. Churches or farm buildings can provide the right structure, if damage to their heritage value is prevented.
“Creative efforts that engage local communities will make sure rural areas are not left behind and protect the countryside."
Some communities are even being forced to pay for their own masts, or run fibres to nearby villages which do have coverage to pick up a signal.
Prof Stewart, who clubbed together with locals in his village to pay £25,000 for internet link up to his village said: “We did it, and several villages around me have done so as well.
“Since we did it BT has decided to come in to the billage, but it works our cheaper to do it through the community. BT charges £30 a month, but our community network is only £10 a month. So why would anyone ask for BT?”
Prof Stephen Temple, of the Institute of Communication Systems at the University of Surrey, added: “The biggest headache for policymakers is going to be coverage over the next 20 years.”