Wednesday, March 22, 2023


THOUSANDS of mobile phone users were left without signal across south Down, causing “severe disruption” to daily life.

O2 removed a mast in Kilkeel, with residents and businesses in the fishing town and neighbouring areas, including Ballymartin and Annalong, significantly impacted. In addition to O2 customers, other network providers, including Vodafone, GiffGaff and Sky, who have all relied on the town centre mast, were also affected, as were those who rely on 3G and 4G signals for mobile data. O2 subsequently apologised for the disruption – which had initially due to be ongoing until the end of the month – and, following numerous complaints, subsequently installed a temporary mast on Monday.

Local MLA Diane Forsythe has obtained information which shows that the original equipment was to remain operational during the construction of the replacement mast, with the then redundant equipment only to be removed once the replacement mast was operational. The impact of the loss of service was wide-ranging, affecting members of the business community, frontline responders, carers, members of the Coastguard and many others.

O2 said it forewarned its customers, however the president of Kilkeel Chamber of Commerce, Alan Knox, said the prior notice was far from suffice. The local businessman said he and fellow traders were left uncontactable on many occasions over a five-day period. He said the outage caused “severe disruption” and maintained that “very little to no prior warning was given by any of the service providers, with any warning detailing that small disruption would take place, not that there would be no signal at all”. Noting that many people have abandoned landlines, whether in their homes or their businesses, Mr Knox said he had heard stories of how some chamber members had lost out on valuable trade or been unable to arrange deliveries as a result. “From missed phone calls and businesses unable to carry out card transactions, to businesses unable to contact clients to either arrange deliveries, gain access to carry out works to properties or follow up and make sales leads, this has been a total shambles. To put it simply, it has been a total disaster and embarrassment on the mobile companies’ part,” he said. Mr Knox added that people, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, who rely on alert pendants which run off mobile networks were left “cut off” and that carers were unable to contact their clients or communicate with the emergency services. “With the rise in people relying on a mobile phone instead of a traditional landline, the outage has completely cut off large sections of our community, stopping family members and friends from checking in on at risk or elderly members of our society. “Prior knowledge should have been given to the local community and alternative services provided either through a mobile phone mast or upgrade works carried out adjacent to the existing mast continuing to operate. “No-one thought about the scale of this disruption or took into consideration the impact it would have on so many people’s lives,” he concluded.

Many mobile phone users were unable to make calls, send text messages or use their mobile data since last Wednesday because of upgrade work being carried out on O2’s network. Ms Forsythe, who has lodged a complaint with the communications regulator Ofcom, said the network outage disrupted many aspects of life across Mourne. While welcoming the installation of a stop-gap mast to restore service, the DUP representative said she had received a works note which stated that the existing mast “was always supposed to remain in place while work on the new one finished” and that “this is why many networks believe it’s minor disruption as planned”. She continued: “This begs the question, who removed the mast outside of clear instruction? This is a shocking letdown to the people in the area left distressed without a communication network. “This needs to be accounted for. My complaint with Ofcom remains and is enhanced by this.” Concluded Ms Forsythe: “It is important for people when claiming to highlight that in error the mast was removed and we have had complete outage for days.” The area’s Alliance MLA, Patrick Brown, also contacted O2 about the issue after he received a number of complaints from his constituents. He said he believed the disruption was more widespread than just Kilkeel, Ballymartin and Annalong, because some of the people who contacted him where living outside those areas. One businessman complained he was having to “drive from Kilkeel to Rostrevor just to make a call” on his mobile phone, Mr Brown said.

When contacted last Friday, O2 told this paper that the firm was boosting its 4G capacity and introducing 5G services in the affected areas. “We are carrying out works to upgrade our network and boost connectivity for customers in Ballymartin, Annalong and Kilkeel,” a spokesman for the company said. “Some customers may experience disruption while we deliver these upgrades and we apologise for the inconvenience this may cause.”

Broadband services were not affected by the upgrade work, according to the company, which also stated that it wrote to affected customers on 27 January and that it also sent out text alerts to people in areas affected. This was followed-up with a further statement on Monday, confirming the temporary mast’s arrival. “Over the last few days, we have been working to install a scaffold to mount a temporary mast in the area. This is a temporary measure to improve services for customers while the upgrade works continue,” the spokesman explained. “Our upgrade works in Ballymartin, Annalong and Kilkeel are continuing as we aim to improve our network and boost connectivity for customers in the area. We’re aware that there has been disruption for some customers while these upgrade works take place, for which we are sorry, and we have now introduced temporary measures to help improve services while works are completed.” However, Mr Brown said the disruption “seems to have come as a shock” to many people in south Down. He has called for customers “at a bare minimum” to receive a refund for the period their service was down and for compensation to be paid out to business customers also.

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