Vodafone has urged the UK government to act to ensure access for mobile companies to a new publicly funded wireless network being built by its rival EE.
Vodafone has been frustrated that EE, which won the £1.2bn contract to transfer police, fire and ambulance communications to its 4G network in 2015, has not provided detailed information on where the majority of its new masts in rural areas will be located.
It has written to the Home Office to call for a fully transparent process to be established to monitor the project. It has suggested a similar process to that used for BDUK, the programme for delivering subsidised funds to roll out fibre networks in rural areas.
The “blue lights” network, which replaces the dedicated Airwave network, has to be opened up to EE’s rivals to increase mobile coverage in rural areas. The government received European Commission approval for the publicly funded network to avoid state aid restrictions.
Yet EE has been slow to provide its rivals with the information. That detail is critical for Vodafone, O2 and Three to decide whether they want to install their own equipment on new masts better to cover rural areas. BT, which owns EE, said last month that it had received planning permission for “99 per cent” of the sites needed to fulfil the emergency services network.
Vodafone said that until last month, it had received information on only two sites from EE, despite the Welsh and Scottish governments handing over an entire list of mast locations for the towers that they will install. One of the EE sites was a “pole on an end of a barn in Cumbria” which would be unsuitable to support equipment from other networks. Details of a further 27 sites were submitted at the start of February, but that represents only around 10 per cent of the total mast estate being built by EE.
A Vodafone spokesman said: “EE has offered up just 29 from a possible 200 to 300 sites it could build with taxpayers’ money. We can only assume that this apparent indifference to parliamentary advice and the use of public money is deliberate.”
A spokesman for EE dismissed Vodafone’s concerns and said that consulting over every site would slow down the rollout of the emergency services network (ESN). “We are not being obstructive [but] they [Vodafone] are not our priority,” he said.
EE said its priority was hitting the emergency services’ contract deadline. It added it expected to hand over information on more than a hundred rural masts “within months”.
The Airwave contract comes to a hard stop in 2020 and any delays to the EE network being launched could cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds to maintain the old network, which uses Vodafone’s access network.
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