Rural people are fed up with poor mobile phone coverage. Mobile ‘not-spots’ may not be such a problem in Westminster, but in many parts of the UK it’s a constant handicap for millions of rural families and businesses.
Around one sixth of the UK population live in rural areas. We talk about the digital divide of broadband access, but the same is definitely true in mobile.
According to Ofcom, 28% of rural areas in the UK remain without coverage. In the South West, we have the worst mobile coverage of any region apart from Wales. And in Devon, even by the end of 2017, we will still have over 5,000 4G ‘not-spots’. This includes over 1,000 business premises, at a cost of £2.5 million to Devon businesses every year. This can’t go on.
In 2014, the former Culture Secretary was in favour of a roaming system. Visitors to the UK currently receive a much better and broader mobile phone coverage than we do. However, plans for domestic roaming were scrapped because the Mobile Network Operators didn’t like it. I believe that roaming has to remain an option, especially on a small-scale and in rural areas. If we have the technology, then we can’t afford to just ignore it.
The fact is, we need all networks to work all of the time, not some networks to work some of the time. Instead, the Government reached a deal with the Mobile Operators to provide voice and internet coverage to 90% of the UK’s landmass by the end of 2017. In many ways, this is a positive step - because it actually recognises the importance of geographical area rather than premises or population coverage. However, as a nation - we should be aiming for 100% geographical coverage. We need ambition - and so I want to see 100% geographical coverage as a condition for spectrum licenses in the upcoming 5G rollout.
The Digital Economy Bill, which is currently before Parliament, needs to be effective to improve mobile coverage in the UK. However, I’m concerned the Government has yielded too much power to the telecoms companies. Reform proposals to the Electronic Communications Code remove the rights of landowners to negotiate fair commercial agreements. This benefits mobile operators by up to £1 billion, and without any guarantees of better performance for our constituents.
We must not have a situation where the Mobile Network Operators can purchase sites cheaply, fail to share infrastructure – and then are unaccountable to the consumers who are paying through the nose for a sub-standard service. Through the Digital Economy Bill, Ofcom will be given the powers to financially penalise mobile operators for not meeting their targets. We must protect our consumers and our constituents, first and foremost.
Mobile phone coverage is a modern day necessity – and the Government cannot afford to fail again. For too long, rural people have been left behind in the dark ages with poor broadband and poor mobile coverage. It’s now time for action and to end the digital divide, once and for all.