Get Us Connected campaign special report: Mobile service better in Shropshire and Mid Wales - but work still to do
The poor mobile phone signals across Shropshire and Mid Wales are hitting companies in the region and holding back economic growth, a business leader has said.
Richard Sheehan, chief executive of Shropshire Chamber of Commerce, said poor mobile phone reception, even in major towns such as Shrewsbury, was extremely damaging to the county's economy.
He said: "
When I get my bills, the number of repeat calls, redialled within a few seconds of each other, is huge. Business is something done between people and people need to be able to connect to each other."
An investigation by the Shropshire Star also found that in Ludlow, market traders feared they were losing trade because the poor phone signal meant they were unable to accept bank or credit card payments.
Former chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont famously branded them as "one of the great scourges of modern society".
And a quarter of a century on, it seems that many people in the county are still cursing their mobile phones, but for very different reasons.
Love them or loathe them, mobile phones are a vital tool for most people today.
For businesses, they have become an essential way for companies to stay in contact with their employees, while for the elderly and vulnerable they can be a lifeline that enables them to keep in touch with their loved ones. And in the event of a serious accident or sudden illness, a strong mobile signal can literally be a matter of life and death.
Yet in parts of Shropshire, particularly in the more rural areas, it is still something of a lottery whether they will actually work.
Last year, this newspaper put the area's phone signals to the test by travelling the length and breadth of Shropshire and Mid Wales, and we found the service to be variable, to say the least.
A year on, we repeat the exercise – and find very few signs that the situation has improved. Spending a day driving around the four corners of the region, it is disappointing to find that there are still many places where a mobile phone is as good as useless, unable to make or receive calls.
Even in Telford, one of the fastest-growing populations in Britain, there can still be problems.
While pulling up in the centre of Dawley as part of this survey, a text message comes through from a photographer I had arranged to meet. He had tried to call me, but had not been able to get through.
This week, North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson announced he would be holding talks with the main mobile phone operators, warning that the signal in the county was getting worse.
He urged his constituents to contact him so he can find out which are the worst areas in the region affected by poor signal.
He said: "I have got a meeting in January. I am waiting on Vodafone and BT to get their act together before they come back and I meet with them."
In Ludlow market traders told how the lack of a phone signal was harming their business. Traders were unable to process card payments or take payment via PayPal.
Susan Berwick, who runs a candle stall on Ludlow market, said: "People ask if they can pay by card, and I have to tell them that we can't do that. They say they will go away to the cash point, but it is always a question of whether they will come back."
A year ago, we reported how in the village of Clungunford, near Craven Arms, the signal was so poor Hilary Marks, a volunteer with West Midlands Ambulance Service, had been forced to give up her role as a first responder because she could not receive calls.
A year on, the service still seems to be poor. It was not possible to access the internet on Vodafone in the village and a builder working on the local social club said the poor signal made it difficult for him to access building materials while at work.
In the centre of Welshpool takeaway boss Simon Chu said he was unable to use his phone indoors, and said the coverage fared very badly compared to his home in Telford.
In Newtown, the situation seems to be even worse. "I don't think the masts can cope with the demands they are under now," says 25-year-old Wynn Phillips, who says calls breaking up are just part of everyday life.
In the north of the county reception seems to be reasonable in the main towns such as Oswestry and Whitchurch, although even there internet access can vary between the slow and non-existent. But venture off the beaten track into the smaller towns and villages, and it becomes much more difficult.
Trying to call a contact from the village of Clive proved a fruitless exercise on Vodafone, but was a little better with EE.
Chief executive of Shropshire Chamber of Commerce Richard Sheehan lives in Shrewsbury, and says that even in the heart of the county it continues to be a problem.
Oswestry coverage better, but still patchy
There do appear to have been some improvements in Oswestry since last year, when town's former mayor Chris Schofield told how he had received numerous complaints.
He raised his concerns with the now former leader of Shropshire Council, Keith Barrow.
Mr Schofield took up the case after receiving complaints during his term as mayor, with EE being identified as one of the biggest culprits.
While some people seem to have experienced improvements, Mr Schofield says the signal still continues to be intermittent.
"I know the MPs are working very hard on this, and the council is now on board as well, but I wouldn't say there have been any great strides over the past 12 months," he said.
"My wife says she is on Vodafone and it has got a little better, but I'm on TalkTalk and I can be sitting here in my living room, my house is right in the middle of Oswestry, and sometimes the signal can fizzle out."
However, EE customers seem to be far happier now. Dave Jones, owner of T Jones leather goods in Oswestry town centre, says he does not use his mobile phone very often, but usually finds the system reliable.
"I don't use it when I'm here, I tend to use it when I am out, but I don't have any problems," he said.
"I'm on EE, I use it when I'm at home in Morda. I use it mainly for texts, and they always seem to go."
Darren Roberts, a 35-year-old insurance broker, also praised the coverage on EE.
"I don't have any problems at all, it's very good, you can get 4G with EE, it's brilliant," he said. "With the 4G, it's often quicker than the wi-fi at work."
His friend Andrew Williams, a 37-year-old tyre fitter, agreed.
"I'm with EE, it's very good," he said.
Over at the Radio Cafe, Joe Lloyd who works front of house says the coverage is generally acceptable, although there are places where it is less than satisfactory.
"It's all right on the whole, I live in Weston Rhyn, and it's always a bit of a patchy area," he says.
"There's a few spots where I can't use it, but that is what you expect with an old building."
Whitchurch ok in town, poor in countryside
Cleaner Wendy Parratt uses the Tesco O2 service, and says coverage is not too bad in the centre of Whitchurch.
But she says at her home in nearby Tilstock it is practically non-existent.
"Tilstock is like the black hole," she says. "My partner is on EE, and it's the same for him, it's always been dreadful. If you are standing in the right position you can make a call, but then if you move you lose the signal."
Jemma Jackson, who also uses O2, says it is possible to make and receive telephone calls, but for internet access, it is a different story entirely.
"I live opposite the telephone exchange, and I can't access 3G," she says. "I'm not very happy, I pay for the service so I should be able to receive it."
Over at the town's Cancer Research UK shop, volunteer Marie Welch, 37, is on EE through Virgin. "It is all right, I have no problem at all."
Peter Clarke, who works at the town's Timpson's branch, also uses EE, and says there are no problems.
However, up the road in Clive, it is a very different story. During our visit, there was no reception whatsoever on Vodafone, although EE was a little better.
Resident Margaret Hillman, 78, says the EE signal is very hit and miss, which can be a problem for the carers of her elderly neighbours.
Mrs Hillman said she would be getting in touch with her MP Owen Paterson, after he asked for constituents to contact him with their problems. "
There is a chap next door to me, he is 101 years old, and his carer sometimes has to go up to the main road to make a call."
Shrewsbury poor in the town suburbs
As the county town of Shropshire, with a population of 72,000, one would expect Shrewsbury to be one of the best places in the county for mobile phone coverage.
And indeed, most people seem to find coverage in the centre of town to be reasonable.
However, venture only a short distance out of town and it becomes a very different story.
Even the residential area around the periphery of the town centre has been known to suffer from problems.
Retail manager James Kynaston, 35, says: "I live in Foregate and the reception is pretty poor.
"I wouldn't say it has got any better over the past year.
"The 3G and 4G is a problem, I don't think the signal is strong enough."
James Murray, 40, who is on EE, says: "It's all right in the town centre, but I live in Sundorne and it is hopeless.
"I keep sending texts that keep coming back to me as soon as they are sent.
"It's not so bad in the town centre, apart from when you go downstairs in the big buildings, and you would expect that."
Chief executive of Shropshire Chamber of Commerce Richard Sheehan lives in Shrewsbury, he says: "I live just half a mile from the town centre, and my mobile signal is appalling.
"I regularly travel from Shrewsbury to Telford, and I have got a legal hands-free system in my car, and there are three points along that short stretch of road where the signal cuts out."
Carina Williams, 50, from Springfield Farm, said: "Sometimes it's a bit hit and miss, it depends on where you are, if you go into the centre or go into the shops you sometimes can't get a signal.
However Maureen Lloyd, 73, whose phone is with the Sainsbury's Vodafone service, said she had no problems.
The Shropshire Star test phones found the signal to be good on both EE and Vodafone in the Bellstone car park.
Telford best in the county in most areas
As the largest and most built-up town in the county, one would expect Telford to have comprehensive phone coverage, and so it proves.
The town, it seems is the one part of Shropshire where there seems to be a consistently good standard of phone coverage, with some people saying the service has got better over the past year.
There are still one or two areas that would benefit from improvement, though.
Lee Hesbrook, 33, uses the Tesco O2 service, and says there has been a notable improvement this year.
"I did have problems, but it has got a lot better, I think they have put a new mast up around June or July, and it has got a lot better since then," says Mr Hesbrook who lives in Dawley.
Graeme Edwards, 51, of Chiltern Gardens, also Dawley, says he too is satisfied with the service he receives from Three.
"It works fine, I've never had any problems with it," says the painter and decorator. However, work colleague Dave Millward, 48, of Matlock Avenue, says he has problems when he is at home.
"Sometimes there are problems with the phone, particularly indoors," he says.
"In certain places of the house I have problems."
He added: "Upstairs in the house it usually works all right, but downstairs you can't get a signal."
Lisa Hall, 37, said she had problems in the past, but found it much better now.
She says: "I did have problems when I was with Orange, now I am with Tesco (which uses the O2 network) it is much better."
Sarah Johnson, 30, says she has a friend who sometimes has problems getting a signal.
And she says there can be problems when you venture out of central areas.
"I think around Ironbridge it is the worst," she says.
Newport signal can be hit-and-miss
For a town midway between the urban conurbations of Telford and Stafford, you would expect the signal to be much better, but it appears that for some people coverage is not what it might be expected.
Louise Healey, who owns Barker Healey Property in the town centre, raised concerns about the standard of service last year.
And she says the situation has not got any better in recent months, meaning she frequently misses calls from business contacts who have tried to get in touch with her.
Surprisingly, she says the coverage is a lot worse in the town centre than it is in the more rural areas.
"It hasn't got any better in Newport," she says.
"It's a lot better when I am at home in the country, but it still leaves a lot to be desired here in the middle of town.
"I'm with Vodafone and I do quite frequently find myself with no signal at all.
"Obviously, when I'm at work I've got the phone in the office, but I do often find I have got voicemail messages because people haven't been able to get through, which isn't ideal.
"Sometimes if I am in the office I can get a signal when I stand by the window or something."
Jeri Lee, a 24-year-old bakery retail assistant, says her signal is not too bad at the moment.
"I'm on O2 now, I was on Orange, but I changed because I couldn't get a signal," she says.
However, Satnam Singh, who keeps an off-licence in the town, said he was on EE and had not experienced any problems.
Chairman of Newport Chamber of Commerce Patrick Beech said the signal could be better, although it was not a serious problem.
"I don't find it too bad in Newport, it's when you go out into the sticks, to Lilleshall and places like that," he says.
"I'm on EE and it's not too bad at all, but it can be bad for business. I might go on a course in Edgmond or somewhere and I will be cut off then.
"My partner is on O2, and it's not 100 per cent, but I don't think it is too bad."
Craven Arms have to go to end of garden
Last year the village of Clungunford, just outside Craven Arms, was highlighted as one of the worst areas in the county for mobile phone coverage.
We reported how a lack of mobile phone coverage by provider EE had forced Hilary Marks to give up her work as a volunteer first responder with West Midlands Ambulance Service because she was missing calls at attend incidents.
A year on, coverage still seems to be sparse in south-west Shropshire to say the least.
Outside Clungunford Sports and Social Club is builder Mark Disley.
"It's very patchy in this area, I haven't got 3G, which is a real nuisance if I need to order some materials," says the 54-year-old, who is on the EE network.
"It's very slow, I don't think it's a lot better than it was a year ago. I live up the road in Leintwardine, and the reception is a real swine there."
He added: "Sometimes you will need to walk 100 yards up the road to get an internet signal."
A short distance up the road, on the newly-built Roman Downs housing development, EE network coverage appears to be working better.
However, while it is possible to make telephone calls on Vodafone, there is no internet access for customers.
At the Aston-on-Clun community shop, volunteer Lyn Holder says making phone calls can be very difficult.
"I live up at Longmeadow End, and I have to go up to the top of my garden to speak to people," says Mrs Holder, who is on the EE network.
She added: "I don't think it has changed much, it has never been any good."
However, fellow shop volunteer Marion Nicklin, who is also on EE, said her signal was a little better than it used to be.
"Mine's improved, I hadn't used to be able to get a signal, but now I can."
Mid Wales poor service, even in town centre
When you cross the Welsh border, it immediately becomes apparent that getting a phone signal becomes much harder.
Even in the centre of Welshpool, people complain about having to go outdoors simply to make a phone call.
Simon Chu, 35, who keeps the Golden Bamboo takeaway in Welshpool, is on EE.
He says: "It's not very good at all. It's no different from a year ago, it's especially bad here, everywhere has got 4G, and we haven't even got 3G.
"Every time I make a phone call I have to go to the window or outside. There is no signal in here whatsoever.
"It's annoying because I live in Telford and the coverage there is fantastic."
Mat Windsor, a 22-year-old leisure centre manager, said: "I'm with EE and the 3G coverage has not been very good at all over the past few days.
"You hear about these big towns and cities getting 4G, and you think it would be nice to get 3G to work properly.
"I don't know if it is any better for the other networks."
Over in Newtown, the situation is also very bad.
Ffion Evans, 21, and Wynn Phillips, 25, say they find it very difficult to hold a conversation over the phone for any length of time, and Miss Evans says that her provider EE is little help when she reports problems.
She says: "I'm often on the phone and the signal goes. I pay £15 a month for a phone that I can't use.
"When the signal goes, people I know have rung up to speak to people, but they never get an answer.
"My dad rang up, and he was waiting for a reply. Eventually he spoke to somebody who said they had tried to call but couldn't get through."
Mr Phillips, who works in farming, added: "The signal in Newtown is terrible, you have to stand still to phone anyone.
"My parents have got a spare mast on our farm, it's an old radio mast, and my dad has been onto the NFU to see if any of them want to make use of the mast.
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