A full mobile phone signal that serves thousands of people may not return “for months”, Brentwood residents have been warned.
Mobile phone operators had known for almost two years that masts on the roof of Ewing House, on Kings Road, would be taken down in June – and the move has left thousands of Brentwood residents across Warley and Brentwood South with a virtually non-existent phone signal.
But the council has said that to date, no firm information has been received from any of the network groups on the timing of any installation of emergency equipment to restore network capacity.
And Phil Drane, director of planning and economy, said at a meeting on Wednesday, October 14 that he understood the process would take “months rather than days”.
Until recently, the four national mobile network operators, Vodafone, O2, EE and Three, and in turn the smaller providers that also use their networks, all used Ewing House as a base station to provide 2G, 3G and 4G network coverage for a large area around Warley.
As part of the redevelopment of that building, all operators were served a notice to quit by the owner.
That required them to remove all equipment by the end of June 2020, after Brentwood Council’s initial decision to refuse permission to develop the roof was overturned at appeal.
In June, when the masts were removed, an emergency mast was put up near Brentwood Station, but it did not provide sufficient coverage.
People living as far away as Hartswood Road have reported a drop-off in signal.
Brentwood Borough Council accepts that criticism is being levelled at the council for the situation but has said the fault lies entirely with the mobile phone operators.
Applications for replacement masts were all refused by the council after “it was not possible to reach agreement and support the proposals, even considering the benefits such networks bring”.
Discussions are continuing between the council and the operators to find a way forward.
Mr Drane said he understands the legal arrangement to install emergency masts could be a lengthy process.
He said: “Whilst I don’t really know what that means, I suspect it means months rather than days and, clearly, delays beyond days is not acceptable.
“It is an unfortunate situation and clearly we are not very pleased with it, so in that sense we continue to make the offers.
“There is no additional action from my point of view to meet with them at that high level again.
“But the way we left it was that officers would liaise with them to have those discussions and we have been chasing to arrange that.”
Applications were made by Vodafone and O2 in 2019 for a mast in Pastoral Way and another at the corner of Crown Street and Coptfold Road, but both were refused by Brentwood Borough Council in February on the grounds it would be detrimental to the character of the area and the amenity of nearby residents.
This decision has been appealed.
Officers and representatives of Mobile Broadband Network Ltd/MBNL (for EE and Three) have met to discuss the issues around a replacement mast on the roof of Masefield Court, owned by Brentwood Council, which refused the application in July. The council says it hopes a satisfactory alternative proposal can be agreed.
The council has said it is not clear why the mobile network operators did not program the installation of the emergency equipment in good time for the end of the June 2020 switch-off deadline as a safety net to avoid a degraded service.
Provision of the emergency equipment could then have avoided the break in service.
“The outcome of the appeal is unlikely to be known for some time but will either result in the equipment being able to be carried out as applied for or require the companies to develop new proposals to address the lack of network service in the area,” Mr Drane said.
“To date, no firm information has been received from either network group regarding the timing of any installation of emergency equipment to restore network capacity.”
Mr Drane added that the appeal decision is likely to be at least three months away.
Cllr Mark Haigh, who represents Warley, said: “I am concerned that as far as the mobile phone operators are concerned there is an element of inertia on their part and that possibly they are putting most of their eggs in the basket of appeal and if the appeal is rejected, we are back to square one.
“I would welcome any plan B from them which can be initiated immediately.”