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EE to improve 4G and customer services

BBC News BBC News 25/04/2016 By Zoe Kleinman
woman holding smartphone © Thinkstock woman holding smartphone

Mobile phone operator EE is aiming to bring 4G to 95% of the UK landmass by 2020 as well as relocating its customer services to the UK and Ireland.

sheep running in fields: Currently coverage is worked out as a percentage of the UK population that can access it © Getty Images Currently coverage is worked out as a percentage of the UK population that can access it

In 2015, the firm was fined £1m ($1.4m) by communications watchdog Ofcom over customer service failings.

The network will also switch on high-speed 4G in the Shetland Islands and the Isles of Scilly this week.

Chief Executive Marc Allera told the BBC customers expected to be able to access the internet wherever they were.

Currently, 4G coverage is measured as a percentage of the population rather than geographically.

That means mobile networks typically focus on areas where lots of people live rather than extending geographical reach of their services.

"The Isles of Scilly have 2,000 residents but 200,000 visitors," said Mr Allera.

"Increasingly, the expectations from customers are that they can get access to the internet wherever they go."

BT-owned EE's ambitions for 4G go beyond the government's target for operators, which is to provide voice and text coverage to only 90% of UK landmass by the end of 2017.

"I don't believe as an industry we should say a beach is covered unless it has 4G coverage," said Mr Allera.

'Ransom rates'

This demand for 4G may help mobile networks tackle public opposition to infrastructure such as transmitter masts required to enable it, he added.

"The barriers we need to overcome are around how fast and easy we can get access to these sites [where the masts can be built], and also how we ensure we don't have landlords who can charge ransom rates which make it prohibitive for us to put in a solution," he said.

"We're working on those reforms but we can't do this by ourselves."

EE is working with the government to tackle the issue, Mr Allera said.

Ovum analyst Matthew Howett said reforms were "vital" for the success of the strategy.

"Unless the government takes a lead on ensuring fair and reasonable access and site rentals, EE's hopes for 95% coverage will be fraught with difficulty," he said.

UK call centres

EE said it also aimed to bring all its customer services operations back to the UK and Ireland from overseas by the end of 2016.

"It's a big investment," said Marc Allera.

"People look at off-shoring as reducing costs but when you look at the added cost of unhappy customers... actually this isn't going to be an enormous incremental cost."

He declined to say whether customers would face price rises as a result but said that the competitiveness of the market would "ensure we focus on value for money".

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