Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)
Today is the first day of the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. Fifteen years ago, at the 2000 show, Bill Gates presented an early version of the tablet computer and Nokia presented a device that had an electronic diary and could make phone calls. Today, many colleagues find their tablet an indispensable tool in their parliamentary and constituency work, and we take it for granted that our mobile phones have in-built diary and note functions. We are living in a fast-paced world where technology is constantly developing and making great leaps forward.
I want my constituents in North Herefordshire to be able to benefit from the latest in innovative technology. However, as those in London start looking at 4G and possibly even faster mobile phone connections, my constituents are being left behind. Too many parts of North Herefordshire and other rural areas suffer from patchy or non-existent mobile phone reception. It is indeed telling that while I am holding this Adjournment debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) held an earlier debate in Westminster Hall on mobile phone signal and internet connections in Herefordshire. He and I think that more needs to be done to address the problem, particularly in rural areas such as the beautiful county of Herefordshire, which we are both proud to represent.
The Government are now keen to improve the situation and launched the mobile infrastructure project to help tackle not spots. Many will remember that the Prime Minister told a newspaper in an interview last summer that he had to return from his holiday in Cornwall in 2011 and 2013 because of poor signal; he was twice forced to return to London so that he could remain updated on the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and on the Syrian conflict respectively. The Prime Minister at that point restated his desire to tackle not spots across the country. However, although the Prime Minister can return to London to keep updated, my constituents need a better signal where they are. The solution for the residents of North Herefordshire cannot and should not be to go to London.
It was also in the summer of 2014 that I learned that Fownhope, a village in North Herefordshire, had suffered a blow in its quest for improved mobile signal. Fownhope had been selected to have a new mobile phone mast as part of the mobile infrastructure project. Instead of that being good news for the village, it became clear over the summer that the proposed mast for Fownhope was not going to proceed. The mast had already been through pre-planning and the proposal was in the public domain. Not only was that a terrible blow to the prospects of improvements to mobile phone reception in the village, but thanks to prior publicity of the mast there was notable public disappointment for Fownhope residents, whose hopes had been dashed. In July I visited Fownhope and accepted a petition, signed by over 300 villagers, about the decision.
I was initially informed that Arqiva, the company running the project on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, had found that some not spot areas that were originally targeted for the project had existing mobile coverage. I later discovered what had happened in the case of Fownhope after asking the Minister a number of written questions. It appears that not spot data are compiled and held by Ofcom, with information provided by the mobile network operators. The planning for the mobile infrastructure project was based on data originally provided in 2010. Since 2010 the operators have made changes to their networks, including consolidating and sharing sites, which had an impact on the locations of not spots. In March 2014 the mobile network operators submitted updated information on where they thought they had coverage, as predicted by desktop planning tools. The information was compiled by Ofcom and fed into Arqiva, which subsequently altered its plans accordingly. The updated information showed that coverage had improved in Fownhope since the inception of the mobile infrastructure project in 2010. That meant that Fownhope was no longer eligible for the project and the proposed phone mast was withdrawn.
In some areas where coverage was thought to be marginal or there was uncertainty about coverage, Department for Culture, Media and Sport officials commissioned on the ground drive testing to assess the level of coverage. On the ground drive testing did not happen at Fownhope. Instead, Ofcom chose to rely on the mobile phone operators’ maps to assess coverage and did not carry out the tests for all 34,000 not spots across the UK containing premises. Before removing Fownhope from the mobile infrastructure project, Arqiva did not assess the reception in Fownhope or visit the village. Instead, it relied on the data provided by the mobile operators to Ofcom.
In early September I met Arqiva representatives, who confirmed the process whereby the mobile network operators send Ofcom their maps, which are overlaid on top of one another to give an exact area where there is no signal. They said that if there is even a hint of a signal from one operator, even a poor signal, in an area previously deemed to be a not spot, that is sufficient under state aid rules for the phone mast to be withdrawn. I do not believe that this process is ideal because people pay the same amount for 2G as a person receiving 3G or even 4G, so there is an inbuilt incentive for phone operators to claim that their coverage is better than it really is. That should change, as my constituents in Fownhope and other areas are being grossly overcharged for a service that is unsatisfactory.
In October I formally met the Secretary of State about the mobile phone signal and the removal of the proposed mast for Fownhope. During the meeting I handed over to my right hon. Friend the petition that I had received about the mast, with more than 300 signatures. As a result of our meeting, he asked Ofcom specifically to go to Fownhope to check the strength of the mobile signal, rather than relying on data maps provided by the phone operators. Although this offer to test the signal did not necessarily mean that Fownhope would get its mast, it reassured me that the decision on whether or not to proceed would be based on accurate data—or at least, I hoped it would—instead of predictions made by the mobile network operators.
A recent report published earlier this year jointly by Which? and OpenSignal based on over 67 million data readings taken from over 39,000 users of the OpenSignal app showed that the coverage for users significantly differs from the coverage maps provided by the mobile companies.
Ofcom did visit Fownhope and came back to me with its results—extraordinarily—yesterday. What a lucky thing we had the debate timetabled for today, or we may never have known what the results were. It is far from clear from the results what Ofcom will decide. It has produced a picture of Herefordshire covered with little red dots and little green dots. The red dots indicate no signal; the green dots show an adequate signal. There is a little patch around Fownhope covered in orange dots. There are large numbers of red dots, the odd green one and huge numbers of orange dots. The report says, I believe, that Ofcom has not decided yet what an orange dot means. It is going away to think about it. But what it means is that people cannot make a mobile phone call from Fownhope, even if they are lucky. However, we will see what Ofcom tells the Minister in due course.
During our meeting with the Secretary of State, he mentioned his plans to introduce national roaming. At present someone from abroad holidaying in Herefordshire whose phone is set to roam will get a better mobile signal than a Herefordian. I agreed with the Secretary of State that this was not fair or satisfactory.
On 5 November the Government launched a consultation on improving mobile phone reception. I urged my constituents to respond to it. Many of them took part in it and many more told me about the problems they were having with mobile phone reception. One constituent told me that they have to go upstairs in their house and lean out of the window to get a decent signal, and another said that he can make mobile phone calls within his home only from one small corner of his kitchen.
I place on the record my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a director and shareholder of two telecoms companies. I, too, have to lean out of my window to get a mobile signal at home. Does my hon. Friend agree that the roll-out of certain technologies with wi-fi calling means that the rolling out of the mobile phone signal in bad areas goes hand in hand with the roll-out of broadband signal across the country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He cannot begin to imagine my delight when our new coalition Government chose Herefordshire to be one of the four pilot schemes for the roll-out of superfast broadband. The whole point of a pilot scheme is that one learns from one’s experiment—but oh no, so pleased were the Government with the pilot scheme that they decided roll it out everywhere, irrespective of how well it was working. At this point, people who had fallen into the pilot scheme areas for superfast broadband found that they were not at an advantage any more and very quickly became at a disadvantage. Instead of receiving superfast broadband by 2015, perfectly timed, with all the political intuition required of a Government, to coincide with the general election, we will not get our superfast broadband in Herefordshire until 2016.
That is of course a bitter disappointment to me, but more so to the people who live in places such as Fownhope who could have seen a better use of technology to piggy-back a better mobile phone signal from a superfast broadband link. This is particularly bizarre given the fantastic military infrastructure we have in Herefordshire, and the broadband delivery to all our schools. The superfast highway does exist. It is not a magic thing that needs to be created; it is there and we have not managed to exploit it in the way that we should have done. I extend my total sympathy to my hon. Friend for having to lean out of the window for a signal. In my house, an orange signal means that one has to lean out of the bathroom window, but luckily O2 is more effective.
I apologise for missing the first few moments of my hon. Friend’s remarks. I can bear testimony to the fact that in Fownhope in his constituency, which I visited very recently, one could not only not lean out of a window for a signal but not lean anywhere because there was no signal at all. I very much welcome this debate and value his contribution.
I could not be more grateful to my hon. Friend, not only for visiting my constituency but for staying at the Greenman pub, a wonderful place in Fownhope, when he came to see me. He is absolutely right. Despite what everybody who has a vested interest says, the people who go to Fownhope or live there will find that they cannot use their mobile phones.
My constituents have told me that there are more problems in North Herefordshire with all four mobile operators. Although EE and Vodafone top the list of operators I have been contacted about, my constituents have problems with phone signals in Stretton Grandison, Much Cowarne, Lugwardine, Wellington, Kington, Kingsland, Lingen, Burghill, Much Marcle, Linton, Bromyard and Wigmore—from Withington to Bodenham, Almeley, Stretton Sugwas, Bartestree, Leintwardine, Orleton, Eardisley, Winforton, Ledbury and Colwall.
One constituent highlighted the problem that when they buy a phone there is no way of knowing whether it is going to work when they get it home, and said that they would like a trial period to be introduced for those living in rural areas. To be fair to my constituents, I tested this. If someone has seven days to test their phone before returning it, they will usually find that their SIM card arrives on the eighth day so they cannot possibly do so. They should be able to take their device home and ensure that they will have reception before they are committed to a purchase. That is a very helpful suggestion which I hope will be taken up commercially.
It may also be worth considering introducing reduced rate tariffs for those living in rural areas where it is known that there is a poor signal from the operator that the contract is held with. There is nothing like the power of the market to motivate these companies. Knowing that they will get a lower rate if they do not provide a decent signal to people’s addresses might be just the little whip that they need to spur them into action. It is clear to me that all four mobile network operators desperately need to invest and improve their infrastructure in North Herefordshire so that my constituents can make and receive calls and texts.
As I said, I am not satisfied by the process by which mobile reception is predicted across the country. Ofcom relies too much on the data maps that are provided by the phone operators, the accuracy of which is often questioned. Ofcom accepts that there will always be cases where there is no coverage where predicted and some coverage where none is predicted. Ofcom’s “Infrastructure Report 2014” states:
“The maps of mobile coverage produced by operators are based on theoretical models…that are broadly accurate overall but can never be absolutely accurate in predicting coverage at a specific location.”
Indeed, Ofcom is currently looking into new methods by which it can predict mobile phone reception. It is planning to continue to refine and develop coverage and other performance statistics, with the aim of reflecting as closely as possible what consumers are actually experiencing.
Ofcom’s 2014 report suggests that partial not spots are of greater concern than full not spots, with 16% of UK premises being partial not spots for indoor coverage. Indeed, while 2G networks operated by EE, O2 and Vodafone provide similar total levels of coverage of the UK, the three networks do not perfectly overlap, which leads to partial not spots. Ofcom’s data suggest that, although all three networks cover 90% of UK premises indoors, the imperfect overlap means that 16% of UK premises indoors are covered by only one operator.
I am pleased that a number of operators are now trying to utilise various technologies to bring a signal to rural communities. However, I do not want that to deter them from investing in and upgrading their networks in rural areas. In Cumbria, EE has connected all 129 house- holds in Sebergham by trialling a new micro-network technology. The new micro-network wirelessly connects small mobile antennas to a suitable nearby site, without the need for cabling, dramatically improving the economics of connecting hard-to-reach areas. I understand that micro-networks can connect communities of about 100 to 150 homes and businesses across an area of about 0.5 square miles with just three or four small antennas, which EE claims can be installed on any building in just a few hours without a requirement for planning applications. EE announced in December that by the end of 2017 it wants to connect more than 1,500 rural communities using that micro network technology.
Fownhope now looks set to benefit from similar work being done by a different mobile network operator. Following my meeting with the Secretary of State in October, I wrote to the residents of Fownhope to encourage them to consider applying for Vodafone’s rural open sure signal programme. Rural open sure signal works with a local broadband connection to create a 3G signal which a mobile phone can pick up as long as it is within range. Each open sure signal unit provides up to 500 metres of 3G coverage, with Vodafone usually installing four in each community.
Following my recommendation that residents apply to Vodafone, I am very pleased that Fownhope is now one of 100 communities that has been selected for the project. However, for rural open sure signal to work there needs to be a minimum internet connection of at least 4 megabits per second.
The broadband connection in Herefordshire is currently being improved by the Fastershire project, run by BT with Herefordshire and Gloucestershire county councils. Area 11 of the Fastershire plan, which includes Fownhope, has been surveyed and planned and the roll-out started ahead of the expected date of 30 June 2014. Fastershire expects the majority of work to finish by 30 June 2015, with further work expected to be completed by December 2016. Once the Fastershire work is complete, Fownhope should be able to access faster broadband with a minimum speed of 2 megabits per second.
EE checked its network in Fownhope and believes it provides good 2G and 3G signal outdoors. It will shortly launch wi-fi calling, which will enable any wi-fi to carry voice calls seamlessly from cellular coverage should the latter drop out. That will markedly improve any areas where there is poor indoor coverage.
The Government recently signed a deal with the four mobile network operators on improving mobile phone coverage and I think we will all be happy to talk through the specifics of that deal over the coming weeks. As part of that, the Government are looking at reforming the electronic communications code, which governs land access rights for building new masts and maintaining existing ones. That is essential to meeting higher coverage ambitions.
Overall, EE has privately invested £17 billion since 2000, building the UK’s biggest and fastest mobile network. EE could almost have written this speech itself! Its 2G voice coverage reaches more than 99% of the population, 3G coverage 98%, and superfast 4G coverage is on course for 98% by the end of this year.
We need the mobile network operators to invest in their networks. That is the only way reception will be improved significantly in rural areas such as my constituency. Vodafone is planning to invest £1 billion in its network this year, as part of a development plan to bring voice and mobile internet coverage to 98% of the UK population. I am very pleased that it plans to increase the number of households and businesses in north Herefordshire that can receive a good-quality outdoor voice and mobile internet signal from about 75% to 95%.
O2 acknowledges that its service in Fownhope is currently not good, with its nearest mast more than 5 km away, but it claims it will invest in the area in 2016. O2 says it is investing £1.5 million a day in its network to upgrade existing 2G and 3G networks, in addition to switching on 4G. In 2016, it intends to make improvements to the service in the Fownhope area so that 2G is available indoors. It also intends to make 3G available indoors and outdoors, and 4G available outdoors.
In its communications with me, Three has been unable to specify when it will improve its coverage in Fownhope. However, it has suggested that my constituents will benefit from its pledge to cover 98% of the UK population by the end of 2015.
After my meeting with the Secretary of State in October, I was hopeful that mobile reception in north Herefordshire would benefit from his plans to implement roaming. With roaming enabled, residents’ mobile phones would automatically switch between networks to find the best reception when they lost signal. That would allow someone with a phone on Three to pick up an O2 or a Vodafone signal.
However, roaming was not to be. On 18 December, the Secretary of State announced that his plans for roaming had been dropped, and that he had instead signed
“a landmark, legally binding, deal with the UK’s mobile operators, securing £5bn of investment into infrastructure and committing each of them to 90 per cent geographic coverage of the UK by 2017.”
I understand the deal means that full mobile coverage—where every operator provides signal—will increase from its current level of 69% to 85% of geographical areas by 2017. As a result, the number of both partial and total not spots will be vastly reduced, improving consumer and business experience all around the country.
I have yet to see detailed plans on how that commitment will benefit my constituents and our great county, which has suffered from unacceptable mobile reception for too long. However, I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the fact that the mobile operators have committed to the agreement voluntarily. I am also pleased that, owing to the legally binding nature of the agreement, sanctions can be imposed if the operators do not undertake the work they have agreed to do.
I understand that the Secretary of State believes this deal will be better for the country than national roaming. The deal locks in guaranteed investment, and ensures that competitive pressure will still exist between operators. The Government believe the deal will ensure that the UK’s mobile coverage is among the best of any European nation, while making it easier for people to communicate and for business to compete and grow.
I look forward to seeing details in the coming weeks and months of how the agreement will improve signal in not just Herefordshire, but in Fownhope specifically. Its residents, who are good people, are paying the same, so they deserve the same. It could well be that 4G is the solution for the last 5% of broadband coverage that we all need. I urge the Minister to take this opportunity to do everything he can to put more pressure not only on mobile phone providers but on BT to provide the one thing we all want—in the 21st century, it is our right—and that is our ability to communicate.
What a welcome addition to this debate you are, Mr Speaker. The seamless transition from Mr Deputy Speaker to Mr Speaker perhaps reflects the growing importance of this debate.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) on securing this debate. If the people who watch our debates in this House are sometimes sceptical about politicians and their commitment to their constituents, in the past half hour they will have seen a masterclass in how a constituency MP goes about pressing a case for his constituents. Concerned as he is about their broadband and mobile phone coverage, he has met the Secretary of State; he has met and communicated with all the mobile operators; he has met the regulator, Ofcom; and he has invited colleagues, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), to visit his constituency to test the mobile signal for themselves. He has covered all the bases and listed for our benefit, and that of Hansard, the number of villages where coverage is poor. He is the definition of a constituency champion, and his constituents will recognise his hard work.
My hon. Friend is knocking at an open door as far as the Government are concerned, and he has already achieved one success—no doubt working with his constituency—because the village of Fownhope will now receive the rural open sure signal project. To be clear that I cannot pull any strings in my area as telecoms Minister, I encouraged villages in my constituency to apply to that project, but as yet I am unaware whether any have achieved success because Vodafone has not chosen to share that data with me.
I met Vodafone today and, to add to the range of ideas put forward by my hon. Friend, I stressed that in my experience as telecoms Minister a lot of rural communities are keen to help themselves. Were Vodafone to offer a tariff to rural communities such as parish councils to provide an open sure signal, at a cost, once its effectiveness has been tested—I understand that Vodafone will meet the costs for the 100 villages networking under the pilot programme—I am sure that a lot of parish councils would look keenly at effectively buying an upgrade for their mobile service on behalf of their parishioners. I have stressed that point to other mobile operators as well.
I am also keen to stress that Openreach should have a tariff—I have been pushing this point for many months—so that it can go to a community and say, “You’re not part of the programme. We have been open in saying that the programme does not yet have 100% coverage, but we will work with you and provide you with a tariff. Crucially, we will work with you physically so that you can undertake some of the infrastructure work.” Openreach is represented in rural communities with many keen farmers with their own equipment who could help, and that would make a huge difference.
I should perhaps have mentioned this during my speech, but is the Minister aware that DEFRA has changed the rules for most farmers, so that all their single farm payments will now be made electronically online? Those people cannot always get a signal, so perhaps money could be made available from DEFRA to help with that project, which I welcome.
I agree with my hon. Friend. DEFRA put up £10 million at the beginning of this Parliament, which DCMS matched, to help smaller rural and community broadband providers to provide broadband in areas that were not part of the national programme. DEFRA is and will continue to be an effective partner in our broadband roll-out programme, which is developing all the time. I do not want to give the impression that we are doing that on the back of an envelope, because we have a clear programme. It is right for my hon. Friend to highlight the difficulties faced by him, his constituents, and indeed the Prime Minister, but it is also worth stating —perhaps I can turn to the glass-half-full element of the debate—that we are making significant progress.
As my hon. Friend is aware, phase 1 of our rural broadband programme involved a £500 million fund from the Government matched by local authorities and Openreach, to enable up to 90% of premises nationwide to get superfast broadband speeds of at least 24 megabits a second. That programme has already gone out to more than 1.2 million homes. We expect soon to announce the milestone of 1.5 million homes, and we are on course to reach 4 million homes under that programme in good speed. Indeed, in many areas the project is ahead of schedule. As my hon. Friend is aware, in his area about £35 million went into phase 1 of the Hereford and Gloucestershire Fastershire project, covering some 113,000 premises. Latest figures suggest that the programme has already reached 35,000 homes. That figure will be higher by now. The vast majority of those 110,000 premises will be reached this year, although some will be reached in the year after.
My hon. Friend will also be aware of phase 2. We secured an additional fund of £250 million, which was again matched by Openreach and local authorities. In the Fastershire area of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, that amounts to almost £20 million to target a further 33,000 premises; so, just under 150,000 premises all told in phase 1 and 2, reaching coverage of approximately 93% of all premises in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.
One important point to make is that, when we have these debates, my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will, understandably, point to where things are not going as well as anticipated and where the problems are in order to highlight those problems. As I say to them again and again, however, we are on the same page. These funds have not come from nowhere. They have not been magicked out of the air in the past week. We recognised, in the very first weeks after the election, that rural coverage for broadband was a big problem. We were not prepared to accept the previous Government’s commitment to provide speeds of 2 megabits under a rural broadband programme. We recognised immediately that by the time the programme rolled out people would be demanding faster speeds. We set a target of 24 megabits, which is more than adequate. Most people nowadays would expect, if they think about how they use broadband—accessing iPlayer, or indeed receiving payments from the rural payments agency—speeds of about 7 megabits or 8 megabits to be more than adequate. We have recognised absolutely the need to provide broadband for rural areas. The programme is, despite some of the critiques that have been levelled at it, going extremely well. We will see even more of a step change this year than there was last year.
The other element of the equation is phase 3—I am still dealing here with fibre broadband, but as my hon. Friend pointed out that is very relevant for mobile broadband coverage—where we have set aside £10 million to test out different technologies. Critics of Openreach will be delighted to know that a number of smaller providers have secured those funds to test out new technologies to reach the very hardest-to-reach premises. When we talk about hard-to-reach premises, we are talking about perhaps a house at the end of a long track, where it would cost £20,000 to £25,000 to provide a superfast broadband connection. In terms of value for money, one could argue whether that is an effective use of taxpayers’ money. If we can find new technologies that would bring down that cost substantially, it is incumbent on us to examine them. Those programmes are under way. We will evaluate them and come up with a sum that we think is adequate to get to our often-stated target of reaching 100%. We have not been specific about when or how much money, but that is our ambition.
We are evaluating them at the moment. I hope, certainly by March, that we shall have an indicative assessment of how effective those programmes have been. My hon. Friend took part in the Westminster Hall debate that we held shortly before this debate and compared the area he represents to Herefordshire in terms of rurality. It is also comparable to Herefordshire in being one of the first counties out of the blocks in relation to rural broadband. I am pleased to say that he is doing extremely well, because, in effect, £28 million has been spent in north Yorkshire to bring broadband to his constituents and others, covering 130,000 premises. That programme has ended, as far as I am aware, and we have in fact covered more premises than we targeted—about 141,000 premises have been covered. Another important point to make is that not only is the programme, when it is on the ground and up and running, often going faster than we expect, we often end up covering more premises than we originally targeted. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire hinted, there is a difference between desktop research and actually having boots on the ground. I am delighted as well that in north Yorkshire more than £8.5 million is going in to cover a further 20,000 premises.
My hon. Friend knows that even when that programme is complete, given the rurality of his area we will have covered about 92% of the county. We therefore need to find a cost-effective way to reach the last 8%. They are not forgotten; and no premise will be left behind.
I have covered the Government’s position on rolling out rural fibre broadband. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire said in his excellent and comprehensive speech, which covered very fairly the Government’s approach to broadband, fibre broadband is essential for mobile coverage, which is why I have spent so much time talking about it. However, we are also focusing on mobile coverage—an issue that has become more and more pressing over the past couple of years.
I can remember getting my first mobile phone. It was actually politics that brought me into the world of mobile phones. When I was selected as the candidate for Bristol, East, I realised I would need a mobile phone to carry out my duties effectively. I do not know whether it was the mobile coverage or my own abilities that saw me turn a 5,000 Labour majority into a 17,000 Labour majority in Bristol, East in the 1997 election, but I remember getting a mobile phone and thinking it was the most extraordinary piece of technology I had ever come across.
The 18 years since have passed in a blur—it is hard to think it is almost two decades since I first dipped my toe in the political waters—and now being without one’s mobile phone is almost like being without one’s left or right arm. Smartphones and tablets—my hon. Friend talked about the tablet Bill Gates introduced 15 years ago—now have the sort of computing power one would have found in a large warehouse computer 40 years ago—somewhere such as the UK Atomic Energy Authority in Harwell in my constituency.
Mobile phones are essential pieces of equipment, and there is no reason why people living in rural areas should not have the same decent service that people get in city areas. However, it is worth inserting a caveat. We must remember that mobile phone companies are private companies. Government Members—and there are only Government Members here today, so we can have a private conversation in which free-market thinking prevails and without anyone taking us on—should applaud this private investment rolling out national networks. It is a highly competitive environment providing low costs for consumers. Indeed, the Government and the taxpayer benefit from the spectrum payments made by mobile phone companies.
A lot of obstacles are put in the way of mobile phone companies rolling out their networks: they have to pay high rents to landlords, they have to get planning permission, and the equipment is expensive. My hon. Friend referred to some of those issues. In particular, he mentioned the electronic communications code, which governs the ability of mobile operators to put up and access masts, and we are keen to press ahead with changes to the code as soon as possible—before the Dissolution of Parliament, I hope.
I would always advise hon. Friends in rural constituencies to work with mobile operators, as my hon. Friend indicated he has done. Sometimes an operator wanting to put up a mast will meet with objection from the local community, and sometimes the landlord will demand a very high rent. I know of one project in the mobile infrastructure project, to which I shall turn in a moment, that was stopped because the community itself objected to a mast, and of another that was stopped because the landlord asked for a sky-high rent. A lot of my hon. Friends can work with their local landowners to ensure, where coverage is bad, that sites could be provided at low cost to the operators, although I am obviously not asking them to give away the value of their land as they are commercial people, just as the operators are.
I shall deal shortly with Fownhope, but as I said earlier, the issue of coverage for mobile phones has become more and more pressing as mobile phones become more and more essential. There is no secret at all here: the Prime Minister was recently moved to comment on the poverty of his mobile phone connection when he was visiting some of the more rural parts of this great country of ours. Hitherto, mobile phone coverage has always been assessed in relation to its coverage of premises, and I am pleased to say that, following the successful 4G auction, all the operators are effectively committed to providing coverage to premises of 98%. Even better news is that while the licence stipulates that such coverage should be completed by the end of 2017, because of the competitive nature of our mobile phone companies, they will all have covered 98% of premises with 4G by the end of 2015—some two years ahead of schedule. In fact, it is safe to say that we have one of the fastest roll-outs of 4G anywhere in the world, and certainly one of the fastest take-ups of 4G.
Premises, of course, are not the same as geography. When my hon. Friend refers to the green, orange and red dots, he means that people are driving around his constituency or indeed walking around it and seeing dropped calls or no coverage at all. That is why, following his meeting with the Secretary of State, the latter was keen to press the mobile phone companies to improve their coverage. In my humble opinion as his junior Minister, I believe my right hon. Friend has secured a landmark deal, which will secure 90% geographic coverage of the UK by the end of 2017. My understanding is that that will get rid of two thirds of not spots, which are what we are talking about when we discuss mobile phone coverage and no operator signal is present.
The Minister is generous in giving way. This is an incredibly timely debate. Will the Minister remark in his summing up on the fact that 30 years ago last week we had the first ever mobile phone call on a commercial network in the UK? Would it not be nice to think that 30 years on, we would have that 90% or perhaps even more coverage in the UK, given that the technology was rolled out three decades ago?
I hear what my hon. Friend says. It is important to note that when the first mobile phone call was made, it was done with a device that was the size of a small brick. Now we have devices that can slip easily into one’s inside pocket and, as I say, they have astonishing computing power. We should be alive to what my hon. Friend says. For example, some people who might have a faux retro nod to the past are keen to go on eBay and buy some old phones such as Nokia ones. They do so for two reasons: one is battery life, but the other is voice coverage. The more sophisticated some phones get, the worse their aerials become. The iPhone that we all have to look cool with and do our e-mails on has a pretty poor aerial, and sometimes the voice coverage we get from our smartphones is not as good as that from a phone that might have been in our pockets 10 years ago.
I hasten to say that I do not want people to take what I just said and run away with it, as I am not recommending that people walk around with a smartphone and a retro phone to cover all the bases, but it is worth noting that sometimes poor coverage, whether it be in using a smartphone or making a call inside an armour-plated Daimler, can be affected by factors other than the proximity of a mobile phone mast.
Do you still supply them?
Of course we all fondly remember the old P3 Nokia, and there may well be a market for new retro phones that simply provide good voice coverage.
It is interesting to note the way in which the etiquette of using a mobile phone has changed. Not only am I old enough to remember buying my first mobile phone, but I remember when a previous Conservative Chancellor thought that it was a good idea to levy a tax on mobile phones. As a new technology, they were seen as a scourge, particularly when one was trying to have a quiet dinner in a lovely restaurant and someone was talking on a phone. Now, of course, the etiquette problems are different. There may be a lack of communication between a husband and wife when one of them is using a tablet, or people may be reading e-mails during a meeting when others are trying to have a discussion. Personally, I have moved on from making voice calls. I tend only to text or e-mail, and it is very rare for me to make a call. Perhaps there will not be a market for the retro phone after all.
The Minister is lucky to be able to make voice calls, and, indeed, to text. He would not be able to do that if he lived in Fownhope. The biggest robbery of the mobile phone industry resulted from the extortionate 2G and 3G licences that were levied under the last Government, which I believe led to the lack of investment with which we are miserably trying to deal by means of this debate.
I hope that I do not become a hostage to fortune when I say that I concur with my hon. Friend. With hindsight, I think that £22 billion was an astonishing amount of money, and the last Government did not use it to invest in digital infrastructure. A much more realistic price was paid for the 4G spectrum that we auctioned recently.
Let me now deal with some of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. He mentioned, in passing, the mobile infrastructure project. We invested £150 million as a first stab at recognising the problem of poor coverage and not spots. As I have said, both in Westminster Hall and during today’s debate, it has not been smooth running. This is the first time that the Government have been involved in a subsidised project with the mobile phone operators. As 4G was about to be rolled out, we made a 2G project into, effectively, a 4G project. As the case of Fownhope illustrates, another reason for the bumps in the road has been the difficulty of measuring mobile phone coverage objectively.
The aim of the project is to provide coverage for the small percentage of people—0.3% or 0.4%—who currently have none at all. Let me return to my definition of a complete not spot as a place where it is impossible to obtain a signal from any operator. In a partial not spot, coverage can be obtained from one operator, or perhaps two, but not from all of them. The first mast went up in Weaverthorpe, North Yorkshire, in 2013, and we have recently put one up in north Molton, in Devon. In order to assess the not spot data locations, we had to update our original radio plan so that MIP could target true not spot areas. Negotiations are taking place with landlords on 120 sites, and so planning applications have been submitted.
In Fownhope, however, there has been a problem. Ten sites in Herefordshire, four of them in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are at various stages of delivery, including the carrying out of site searches. The mobile infrastructure project had been intended to include the building of a mast to provide coverage for the area, and the delivery contractor, Arqiva, had begun discussions with the planning authority. As my hon. Friend explained, the revised data showed that coverage in Fownhope had improved, although it is not great. There is a handful of not spots on the outskirts of the area, but owing to the small number of premises in a total not spot, it does not qualify for inclusion in the MIP. I know that is disappointing news, as my hon. Friend has made clear, for residents in Fownhope. As I mentioned earlier, mobile phone coverage is a key issue for us. That is why I was so pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was able to negotiate the deal he negotiated with the operators just before Christmas. That will lead to some £5 billion of investment in mobile infrastructure. Mobile services will come to many areas in the UK for the first time. I also mentioned our planned reforms of the electronic infrastructure code.
Our most recent data estimate that about a quarter of Herefordshire is affected by partial not spots and only a small percentage has no coverage at all. We think that, as a result of that deal, complete not spots in Herefordshire will be eliminated all together, and only 5% will remain in partial not spots. Those improvements should happen over the next three years. Therefore, 95% of Herefordshire should have coverage from all four operators. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that that is a significant improvement.
My hon. Friend mentioned in passing—he did not dwell on the point—that Ministry of Defence infrastructure exists in his constituency. That point was music to my ears. It reminded me of that well worn phrase “Great minds think alike.” For two or three years, I have been mildly obsessed with the fact that in this country a great deal of digital infrastructure is not joined up. I have finally persuaded the Government to put together a digital taskforce, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office. Working with me and some very able officials, he has discovered about 23 different digital projects that the Government are nominally responsible for. We are already making significant savings for the taxpayer, running into hundreds of millions of pounds. More importantly, to address the point that my hon. Friend made, we are joining up those projects—I am not saying we can do this overnight or that the infrastructure in his constituency would be relevant—so that we can use existing infrastructure to upgrade the digital capability of an area. His point is therefore extremely well made and we are looking at the issue.
As for the trial period for mobile phones, it is a good point to make to mobile phone operators—they should give people the chance to try out a phone for a period. There may be commercial reasons why that proves difficult. It may be difficult, if people return a phone, to sell it to another customer. There may be an attrition rate for people who take a phone on a trial period and do not return it. There may be costs associated with trying to track down people who inadvertently do not return the phone.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. Often people underestimate the ingenuity and entrepreneurship that exist in the House. Perhaps we could together propose to mobile phone companies a SIM card that simply expires after seven days so that people could fit it in their phone to check whether it worked. It should be possible to go on a website provided by the relevant operator to at least have some assessment of whether the area receives coverage from that operator.
Speaking off the top of my head, having a lower tariff in areas with poor coverage strikes me as somewhat problematic. I would not want to be too cynical, but people might suddenly arrive as potential lodgers in rural areas to take advantage of the lower tariff and then merrily use their phone in London for extended periods, so that may be difficult. However, my hon. Friend has an answer to that point.
I am not sure that that would be the answer that the mobile phone operators wish to receive, but as a former Whip my hon. Friend is keen on whipping the mobile phone operators into shape. He has already done that most effectively with this timely Adjournment debate.
May I conclude by offering a metaphorical hand across the Chamber? I often find myself, both in this Chamber and Westminster Hall, hearing the concerns of both hon. Friends and other Members. My message to them again and again is that the Government have heard these concerns, and what we are debating is not the principle that rural areas deserve better broadband coverage and better mobile phone coverage, but the detail of the implementation. The spirit is always willing, but it is, I am afraid, sometimes the case that the flesh is weak.
Question put and agreed to.