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No 3G, no 4G: How lack of signal is hitting Norfolk and Suffolk businesses

PUBLISHED: 08:14 05 October 2016 | UPDATED: 08:14 05 October 2016

Reedham on the River Yare. The Broads rated as one of the worst places for phone coverage in our survey. 


Picture: James Bass

Reedham on the River Yare. The Broads rated as one of the worst places for phone coverage in our survey. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2014

In the northern Netherlands they are testing 5G, but in north Norfolk 3G would be gratefully received.

A survey completed by 1,300 readers on our website shows just how badly served our region is for 3G and 4G with almost three quarters of 1,300 respondents rating their 4G connection - a high-speed internet connection which has been rolled out to most of the UK - as 1 out of 10.

And 68pc of respondents rated their 3G connection, on which data downloads and uploads, with the lowest scores of 1, 2 or 3.

Just 4.5pc, 59 people, gave it the highest rating of 10.

In response, mobile phone providers say they are currently rolling out more 4G across Norfolk and Suffolk. O2 has just launched 4G in Dereham, while it should arrive in Thetford in November.

In April, the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom found Norwich’s upload speeds - used, for example, to upload a picture to Facebook - were rated as the slowest for a city when compared to Cardiff, Edinburgh, Liverpool and London.

Peter Howe of Broadland Cycle Hire says a lack of 3G and 4G is affecting Broads firms. 

Photo by Mark BullimorePeter Howe of Broadland Cycle Hire says a lack of 3G and 4G is affecting Broads firms. Photo by Mark Bullimore

Yesterday, we revealed how almost 40pc of the 1,300 people we surveyed rated their mobile phone signal as just one of out 10.

Hundreds of you have been in touch with your tales of being let down by signal - with some missing out on job opportunities and others not receiving important calls about family members.

But a lack of 3G and 4G can be as much as a problem.

Mike Seago, who runs a flatpack furniture business, said the lack of 3G and 4G in Norfolk meant he had turned up to jobs which had been cancelled.

His company, Flatpack-Wizards, install kitchens, bathrooms and furniture in Norfolk and Suffolk. But he is sent details of jobs through a central database which doesn’t get updated if he doesn’t have an internet connection.

Mike Seago says a lack of 3G and 4G in Norfolk affects his flatpack furniture business. Photo: SubmittedMike Seago says a lack of 3G and 4G in Norfolk affects his flatpack furniture business. Photo: Submitted

“One of the worst places with find for signal is Taverham. I can go out on jobs which have been updated and cancelled,” he said. “I’ve been no more than 300 to 400 metres from St Stephens roundabout, in Norwich City Centre and I have no signal. It astounds me.”

The company has phones with three different networks – Vodafone, O2 and Three to increase their chances of getting 3G and 4G coverage.

“You can understand it sometimes if you’re in the middle of nowhere but not when in heavily built up areas,” he said.

Last year, an online petition campaigning for better signal on the north Norfolk coast was set up, with businesses fearful they were being left behind.

At the time the Burlington Hotel, in Sheringham, said it was missing out - with customers becoming frustrated at the connection and one even leaving a bad review because of it.

Richard Bacon, South Norfolk MP, is holding a conference in October looking at issues affecting Norfolk, including a lack of phone coverage.Richard Bacon, South Norfolk MP, is holding a conference in October looking at issues affecting Norfolk, including a lack of phone coverage.

One year on, manager Daniel McDermott said things had hardly improved.

“EE has been slightly better, you can now get 4G and 3G at some points,” he said, “but it’s still the same with Vodafone.”

“We do still have guests asking about it and it is frustrating to be promised these improvements and not really see them.

“To be honest I think it’s more the locals that are annoyed about it - we are paying the same as people living in, say, London and the difference between the services we see is huge.”

Readers shared their experiences of not having 3G and 4G in our survey.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA WireNorth Norfolk MP Norman Lamb. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

One said: “What I have never understood is how the signal can go from 4G to nothing in the blink of an eye even if you don’t move an inch.”

Another said: “I live on Northfields off Colman Road (Norwich) and there is such poor 4G here it is ridiculous.”

While one reader has to drive to a pig field to get online.

“To use the internet I had to drive out of Banham to a pig field about half a mile from Eccles, where there was a perfect 3/4G signal,” they said.

Although many of the better results in our survey for 3G and 4G coverage were concentrated around the Norwich area, there were low scores spread across every part of the region.

But some areas attracted particularly low scores - including towns and villages around the Broads and on the north Norfolk coast.

It is a result which doesn’t come as much of a surprise to Norman Lamb, MP for north Norfolk.

“The findings are very much in line with what I would expect,” he said.

“I get frequent complaints in north Norfolk about both mobile phone signal and broadband and it’s not actually only just in the rural areas - Brick Kiln Road in North Walsham, for example, is a total black spot.

“There is a divide that’s developing across our country between urban and rural Britain, which is unsatisfactory.”

Meanwhile, to the south of the county, areas including Mulbarton, Worlingham, Loddon and Attleborough scored particularly low in our survey.

As part of his ‘How Should Norfolk Grow’ project, Richard Bacon, MP for South Norfolk, is hosting a conference in Norwich this month to fight for a “connected, digital” Norfolk.

But he said the answer was not to criticise the mobile phone companies.

“Although they may occasionally deserve it, bashing the mobile companies and BT is unlikely to lead to serious improvements to mobile signals or broadband,” he said. “I met with BT recently along with local residents, and I am hopeful that the constructive approach we employed will yield tangible results.

“Improving digital communication in Norfolk is one of the most serious issues facing us if we want a prosperous future, and it is at the top of my agenda.

“Digital means both a strong, reliable mobile signal and superfast broadband - both are essential for local businesses and residents.”

What our survey found

Broads communities including Brundall, Salhouse and South Walsham were among the areas which attracted the highest number of low scores for coverage in our survey.

While the peaceful waterways are an ideal getaway for holidaymakers hoping to switch off, those living and working in parts of the Broads are often left without a strong connection.

For Peter Howe, securing a reliable signal is vital for his business.

He runs Broadland Cycle Hire, which is based at Bewilderwood in Hoveton, and a self-hire bike scheme which sees people call to register.

“I wouldn’t be able to run my business without a mobile phone,” he said. “The landscape has changed so much over the last 25, 30 years and it is now essential.”

He said visitors to the bike hire centre phoning for directions often had to battle against calls dropping out.

“In terms of the general Broads area, signal is very unreliable. Even places like Wroxham and Hoveton I don’t find to be very good, though you would think with busy centres they would have a stronger signal,” he said.

“Horning used to be extremely bad but it is much better after businesses clubbed together to have repeaters added to buildings, but the signal in Salhouse is abysmal.”

In August, we reported on a drive to attract younger visitors to the Broads, with a new website and better social media presence part of the plans.

In a survey of businesses based around the waterways, many said that overcoming poor broadband and phone signal was key to securing young couples and families as visitors.

No signal? No smart meters

The region’s weak mobile phone coverage is holding back what the Government hails as “the biggest national infrastructure project in our lifetimes”.

The Government hopes to have smart meters fitted in every home in England, Wales and Scotland by the end of 2020 to improve energy efficiency and give people a better idea of how much energy they are using.

But smart meters need good mobile phone coverage to work and our survey showed that some readers, even in urban areas, have been unable to get one because of the weak coverage.

One respondent wrote: “We are not able to have the new energy smart meters because current technology only uses the mobile network.

“We have basically been told ‘tough’ until the technology changes.”

Another said: “Arranged to have EON smart meters installed.

“As part of this, mobile coverage is checked as gives engineers an idea of whether the meters can send data back to EON.

“Mobile coverage was 30pc across all providers (O2 was the best) - insufficient for a smart meter.

“Not a severe problem but a sign of what coverage is like even in Norwich.”

The meter measures how much gas and electricity is being used in a home or business and shares that information with the energy supplier over a network run by the Data Communications Company.

But it needs mobile phone signal to access that network.

At the start of the meter roll-out in 2016, 80pc of households in Britain had enough coverage to connect to the network.

But it is hoped coverage will increase to more than 99pc of the country when the roll-out ends in late 2020.

Action at last?

Three of the four major mobile phone providers said in response to our survey’s findings that upgrades were planned in the region to improve 3G and 4G coverage.

But Vodafone said permission to build masts and a lack of infrastructure was challenging in Norfolk.

Vodafone said it has 10 “Rural Open Sure Signal” communities - a scheme which brings Vodafone 3G to rural “not-spots”.

They are in Blakeney, Croxton, High Kelling, Hillington, Horning, Loddon, Martham, Reepham, Salhouse and Upper Sheringham.

It also said last year it was rolling out 4G in King’s Lynn.

O2 said 4G was being rolled out in Dereham after a mast was upgraded, while it will be launched in Thetford in November.

A spokesperson said: “We have extensive coverage on 2G, 3G and 4G networks in Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Cromer, Lowestoft and King’s Lynn, providing good levels of service.”

Three said they had recently invested in 4G across its network to help combat coverage “not-spots” in rural areas,

EE said they were “the leader in network speeds and coverage” but did not provide further details on any future upgrades for Norfolk and Suffolk.

A coverage map on the website of communications regulator Ofcom shows just how little of Norfolk and Suffolk is covered by 4G and 3G with Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three.

Areas of Norwich, King’s Lynn, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth have 4G according to the Ofcom map, along with Watton, Swaffham, Cromer and Wells.

But the rest of the county is without.

For 3G, Vodafone and EE cover the most areas of the county.

•What are your experiences of bad mobile phone signal? Email lauren.cope@archant.co.uk

•Do you have a story for the investigation unit? Email tom.bristow@archant.co.uk

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