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Mobile Phone Coverage (Rural Areas)

Volume 586: debated on Thursday 16 October 2014

I am pleased to say that mobile coverage is going extremely well. We have the fastest roll-out of superfast broadband in the world and the fastest take-up—6 million customers are already using 4G and 73% of the country is covered.

The Henley constituency still has big areas of no coverage. Would a system of national roaming be a simple way of improving coverage in rural areas?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are looking at a system of national roaming. Ofcom has made it clear that it is technically possible, and we have every intention of proceeding with national roaming, unless and until the mobile operators can come up with proposals that will improve rural mobile coverage.

I am sure the Minister is aware that we are rapidly approaching the point when every farmer in the country will have to complete all their forms online. He will doubtless have had many discussions with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that. What, precisely, is the number of farmers who will not be able to access online services because they have neither mobile nor broadband coverage?

I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that our rural superfast broadband project is going extremely well, and we should have reached 90% of the country by the beginning of 2016, but broadband is already, in effect, universally available to 99% of the population.

The Minister received East Anglia’s digital divide proposal on rural mobile and broadband, including a request for Norwich to be made a super-connected city. Will he update East Anglia on his consideration of that?

We had an extremely good meeting with my hon. Friend and her East Anglian colleagues, and we are looking carefully at the proposals they made. Norfolk, Suffolk and many other counties in East Anglia are great examples of counties that do not just sit back but take the lead and come up with interesting initiatives and proposals.

The Minister will know that it is not just rural areas that suffer from poor mobile phone coverage. For example, mobile phone coverage is not available in many areas in the town of Wishaw. What assessment has been made of towns such as Wishaw?

As I say, we continue to work with Ofcom to identify not-spots, but at the moment the mobile phone companies are undertaking a rapid roll-out of 4G technology. Originally the licences would have required only one operator to provide full 4G to 98% of premises by the end of 2017. We expect EE to have achieved that by the end of 2014 and the rest of the mobile operators to have achieved it by the end of 2015.

I know that the Isle of Wight is benefiting from £6 million of funding and it should have reached 95% connectivity by next summer. We are undertaking pilots in 10 different areas to assess the costs of getting superfast broadband to the last 5% of the country.

Areas such as St. James South Elmham in my constituency face a triple whammy of very poor mobile coverage, an appalling landline service that is always being dug up and geographical challenges that mean we are towards the back of the queue for superfast broadband. Will the Minister provide initial encouragement, inducement and, if necessary, compulsion to network providers to ensure that communities such as St James South Elmham no longer have to put up with this intolerable service?

The phrase “With friends like this” is beginning to enter my head. At the risk of sounding like a scratched record, may I say that we have a fantastic rural broadband roll-out programme? About £1.7 billion is being put in to ensure that, by the end of 2017, 95% of premises in the UK—the whole of the UK—will have superfast broadband speeds of 24 megabits. That is a fantastic achievement and I look forward to subsequent contributions from my hon. Friends to highlight the amazing success of this programme.