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Right to Roam (Mobile Phones)

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about roaming by mobile phone users between telephone networks within the United Kingdom; to make provision about the sharing of transmission masts; and for connected purposes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, think back to the last time you went overseas. The chances are that you took your mobile phone. Think of the number of times you lost coverage as you went from one spot to another. That happens infrequently on the continent of Europe because one is transferred seamlessly from one network to another whenever the signal from the home network seems to falter. However, if you think of the last time you made a significant journey in the United Kingdom, whether by rail or road, how many times was a conversation cut off outside London?

In this country, mobile phone companies restrict people to their networks without transferring them to where signals are strongest and best. It is not as if we have blanket mobile phone coverage in this country—only 65 per cent. of the population is currently covered by all four 2G mobile phone companies. That figure drops to 28 per cent. in Wales, an area that several of my hon. Friends represent. Given that we do not have blanket coverage, it is worrying that we do not allow people to access the optimal coverage to which they should be entitled.

The Bill is simple and would achieve two things. First, it would allow mobile phone subscribers in this country the right to roam. If their home network did not offer a strong signal, they would be flipped automatically to the next strongest available signal. Secondly, it would encourage mobile phone operators to share masts throughout the country so that they had the same equipment.

The Bill’s benefits are firmly and unashamedly in the interests of consumers, and would transform mobile phone reception overnight. Gone would be the interrupted conversations, such as those that I experienced when travelling the 15 miles between Tunbridge Wells and the county town of Maidstone last Friday. Both towns are less than 40 miles from London and only 15 miles apart, yet I was cut off five times. There is no reason for the existence of five black spots. The Bill would correct that and we would move overnight from having 65 per cent. to 98 per cent. coverage of the population because 98 per cent. of the United Kingdom has at least one mobile phone company serving it.

The figures would be even more dramatic in rural areas. In Wales, the coverage would increase from 28 per cent. to 90 per cent. I daresay that coverage in Scotland, too, would increase. That would mean a transformation in the services enjoyed by rural communities throughout Britain.

The Bill would benefit people throughout the United Kingdom, especially those in rural areas, not only because of immediate uptake but because it would provide a strong return on the investment in new masts in areas of sparse population. If a mobile phone mast has to be erected to serve the subscribers of only one network, it may not be worth it. However, if all four network subscribers can benefit, the economics are transformed.

The Bill also has advantages for urban and suburban areas because, rather than having four separate masts, often side by side, thus blighting the landscape of our towns, cities and suburbs, mast sharing and roaming would allow mobile phone operators to share a single mast and reduce the environmental impact.

Last but not least is the important effect on safety. It is important, in the event of an accident or if people feel vulnerable, especially if they are in remote areas, that they can make a call home or to a loved one if a signal is available. Scandalously, save for 999 calls—this shows that it is technologically possible—it is not possible for subscribers to one mobile phone company to use the signal of another, even when incidents occur that create insecurity. That is especially threatening to women, and we should give greater protection to women travelling in remote areas.

In the past 24 hours, I discovered that the problem can be even more significant. I have been contacted by someone with responsibility for disaster and emergency control who pointed out that, when incidents such as catastrophic storms occur, engineers and rescue teams can be reliant on a mobile phone network that has been put out of action. I have been told of a rescue team having to buy SIM cards from an overseas phone operator in order to get the roaming in this country that it would expect in order to have that degree of resilience. Indeed, the minutes of a West Sussex county council safety committee record that a

“key lesson…from the train derailment at Grayrigg in February 2007”

was that the

“train company’s communication system was dependent upon the Orange network, but this network was disrupted because its cables ran alongside the railway line where the accident had occurred. This highlighted the need to have broader mobile phone coverage”.

It is time to act before further tragedies are made worse by poor communications.

What are the arguments against my proposal? They cannot be technical arguments, because the fact that we can roam whenever we take our phones to the continent or make 999 calls shows that my suggestion is perfectly possible. It could be argued that companies want to compete on the basis of their extensive network coverage. However, 3G companies are obliged to offer at least 80 per cent. network coverage, so we have already made a public policy decision that broad coverage is in the interests of consumers. Why should rural communities be the only ones to lose out?

It could be argued that it is important that phone companies should make a return on their investment in masts. However, roaming and the use of masts would not be free of charge; rather, a fee would be paid for the use of competitors’ masts. Those companies that had invested most extensively in masts throughout the country would therefore enjoy the greatest returns.

The argument against my proposal is nothing to do with constraints in competition law, either. In fact, T-Mobile and O2 proposed precisely such a roaming agreement in 2003, to cover those parts of Wales that suffered reduced coverage. That was cleared as being pro-competitive by the European Commission. The arguments against my proposal therefore fall away.

There is nothing to stop my proposal being taken up. In fact, there is already a precedent, in ATMs. It is no longer the case that someone who wants to use a Barclays ATM in a village needs to be a Barclays customer. NatWest customers can use it, too. We have interoperability of ATMs; we should have exactly the same for mobile phones.

My Bill would not compel mobile phone companies to operate in that way; it would encourage them to do so. Sometimes we need to stop immediately short of legislative solutions that rely on compulsion. However, if the Bill enjoys the support of the House today, I hope that it will send a signal to the mobile phone operators, the regulators and the Government that the House favours that direction.

A former Chancellor of the Exchequer once told the House that mobile phones were a scourge of modern life. I am not sure about that, but we can at least accept that they are a fact of modern life. Customers should not be prevented from having the best possible network coverage, and they should be allowed to move into the modern world.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Greg Clark, Mr. Stephen Crabb, Mrs. Maria Miller, Nick Herbert, Mark Pritchard, Gregory Barker, Mr. Robert Goodwill, Mr. Tobias Ellwood, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, Mr. David Ruffley and Dr. Andrew Murrison.

Right to Roam (Mobile Phones)

Greg Clark accordingly presented a Bill to make provision about roaming by mobile phone users between telephone networks within the United Kingdom; to make provision about the sharing of transmission masts; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June, and to be printed [Bill 101].

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, during Defence questions, Ministers were asked directly whether we would be deploying extra troops to Kosovo, and no clear answer was given to the House. Today, it has been announced through a written statement that 600 troops will be sent. It is inconceivable that Ministers did not know that when they came to the House yesterday, and it was a disgrace that they were not frank with the House, and with our armed forces and their families. We have questions to ask about how much this will cost, who will pay, and how we will find the strategic airlift capability to make the deployment possible without undermining our air bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan. While we do not oppose the deployment, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that our part-time Defence Secretary did not come to House to make the announcement, and that while Ministers deploy our brave servicemen and women abroad, they do not have the courage to tell us to our faces.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that despite his exasperation over this apparent sequence of events, it is up to Ministers to decide the method by which they inform the House of matters. I note that the Minister of State referred to the imminent conveyance of information. The Chair cannot be expected to comment on the adequacy of a response in a particular case. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that he has put his strength of feeling on record and that there will, of course, be other opportunities for him to pursue the matter.