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Vodafone to trial 3G mobile coverage boost in local areas

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Blackberry

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Vodafone has announced plans to test an "affordable way" to boost 3G mobile internet coverage in rural areas, involving a trial of new technology in 12 local communities.

The mobile operator is calling for local areas to get involved in public trials in early 2012 of innovative new 'open femto' technology. The scheme builds on Vodafone's continuing pilot programme of 3G coverage boosters in the West Berkshire village of East Garston.

Mobile internet is thought to be a potentially low cost way to bring broadband to hard-to-reach rural areas, as part of the government's commitment of having the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015.

However, the cost of getting strong 2G and 3G mobile coverage into rural areas has proved prohibitive in many cases.

Yesterday, Ofcom revealed that 97% of UK premises and 66% of the UK landmass can receive standard 2G signals outdoors from all five mobile networks. This means that 900,000 UK premises cannot access all 2G networks.

For 3G, only two thirds (73%) of the UK landmass can receive a signal outdoors from all the five 3G networks, meaning around 7.7m UK premises do not have the maximum 3G coverage.

Ofcom said that the areas of lowest 3G geographic coverage - often referred to as 'not spot' areas - were in the highlands of Scotland and mid-Wales, largely because they are both "sparsely populated with hilly terrain".

The Communications Consumer Panel - an independent body set up by Ofcom - warned that it was just as important for consumers to get good mobile coverage in their homes as outdoors.

CCP chair Bob Warner said: "What also matters to most mobile users is the coverage that they get when they're at home or at work. Consumers do not want to have to go outside to make and receive calls.

"Although the Ofcom report explains that actual consumer experience will differ from the outdoor figures, in reality consumers indoors will experience much worse coverage."

Vodafone intends to use its new trial in 12 local communities to test 'open femto' technology. The latest version of 'femtocell' technology is able to boost 3G signals in local areas without the need for extra masts or heavy network infrastructure. Femtocell is also used in Vodafone's Sure Signal product, which can be placed in people's homes to boost their available mobile signal.

Welcoming Vodafone's trial, communications Minister Ed Vaizey said: "Bringing mobile coverage to communities can make a huge difference to people's lives. That is why the Government has pledged £150m to extending mobile coverage.

"It is good to see Vodafone looking for innovative ways to bring mobile coverage to rural areas. Anything that increases mobile coverage is to be welcomed. I urge areas without mobile coverage to get involved and see if this trial is suitable for them."

Vodafone has been working closely with BT on ways to boost mobile coverage in the East Garston pilot, including the mounting of femtocells on BT's telephone poles and in payphones.

Both parties will look to extend the lessons learned from East Garston to the 12 participating communities in the mobile coverage trials.

Richard Benyon, the MP for Newbury and under-secretary for the environment, said: "I welcome the news that Vodafone is extending the 'open femto' scheme that I helped start in the East Garston part of my constituency.

"It means that other rural communities will be able to benefit from improved mobile coverage and gain access to the mobile internet. As a minister with responsibility for rural broadband and an MP with a rural constituency, I know that there is as much eagerness in rural Britain for the latest smartphones or tablet computers, as there is in towns and cities."

Vodafone UK chief executive Guy Laurence added: "Hundreds of thousands of people across the country use Vodafone Sure Signal every day to boost their 3G signal at home.

"Now we are extending this groundbreaking femtocell technology to make a real difference to rural communities. Bringing mobile coverage and the benefits of the mobile internet to rural areas involves not just us, but local people, politicians and other infrastructure players all working together.

"We are confident that everyone will step up and help give rural communities a real boost and look forward to extending our trial."

> BT to bring fibre broadband to two thirds of UK by 2014

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