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Cheers! Vodafone boosts rural phone signal with mobile hubs in country pubs

Network equipment in pubs in Norfolk and Wales will soon be propping up the bar(s).

The Royal Oak in Rhandirmwyn, named Carmarthenshire Pub Of The Year 2015. The Royal Oak

When you want to get more bars, Vodafone wants you to go to the bar. The UK phone network has launched a new pilot scheme in country pubs to improve mobile phone signal as you sup your pint.

Internet connection and phone signal in rural "notspots" is lagging far behind towns and cities. That's despite government plans to tackle the problem, promising 24Mbps broadband to 95 per cent of the population by 2017. Laying fibre cables to areas where few people live isn't a cost-effective way of delivering the Internet, so networks are trying out 3G and speedy 4G LTE mobile data connections as well as, or instead of, fixed-line broadband to cover a wider area.

Rather than erecting new phone masts across the countryside, networks including Vodafone and EE are running various programmes providing local buildings with signal-boosting base stations called femtocells.

This latest scheme, run by Vodafone in partnership with rural pubs organisation Pub is the Hub, involves putting Vodafone's Premium Sure Signal femtocell into selected pubs. The femtocell connects with the hostelries' existing fixed broadband connections to provide 3G voice and data coverage.

The first pubs in the pilot scheme are the Cross Keys in Dilham and The Mermaid Inn in Elsing, both in Norfolk.

"Dilham is an area with very little mobile coverage," says Paul Grothier, landlord at The Cross Keys. "Being on the Norfolk Broads, we get a lot of holiday makers coming into the pub who have previously been disappointed by the lack of coverage."

The next two pubs, both in Wales, will be the Blue Bell in Halkyn and The Royal Oak in Rhandirmwyn, in the next few months.

"Using femtocell technologies in pubs makes sense," said Ernest Doku, mobile industry observer at uSwitch.com. "They are often at the heart of a rural community.

"It's easy to focus on the super-fast arms race, forgetting the hundreds of locations across the country stuck in the dark ages when it comes to coverage," Doku said. Like many rural businesses, rural pubs and their customers often find themselves struggling to get online.

A decent phone and Internet connection isn't just about Instagramming pictures of your rustic roast -- although that is important. It's also about businesses communicating with customers, suppliers and government. The government, for example, recently tried to make farmers apply online for EU farming subsidies. Mobile signal is also useful in rural areas for walkers, climbers and others to call for help in an emergency.

"For too long commercial properties in rural communities have lost out as they lagged behind the rest of the UK in digital connectivity," said The Mermaid's local MP for Mid Norfolk, George Freeman. Last month, a report by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) asserted that a lack of fixed and mobile infrastructure is preventing businesses from accessing the telecoms services they require. The FSB noted that mobile coverage, although improving, remains insufficient for many rural small businesses.