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Mobile Phone Coverage (East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire)

Volume 591: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to have my hon. Friend the Minister here to respond to the debate. The fundamental reason for the debate is to ensure that the good people of the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire do, in simple terms, get what they are paying for from their mobile network operators. I have brought this debate to the House following a large number of complaints from my constituents about coverage across the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. I myself suffer from this problem, not only in my own home in the constituency but while travelling around the 250 square miles of my constituency. They are 250 square miles of the finest parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, as is broadly agreed. I struggle with my signal at home and with dropped calls and dropped signals when moving from one community to another in the constituency, as do many of my constituents.

I have taken the issues up with mobile network operators. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a number of times, and the responses have been very welcome and very helpful. I have also met Ofcom. However, because of the large number of complaints that I received from constituents, I decided to ask residents across the constituency what their views were, so last month I began surveying thousands of residents. We have surveyed about 6,500 residents to get a better picture of what the problems are locally, because some of the information that Ofcom has provided does not necessarily match what my constituents are telling me. I will return to the survey results.

I am pleased that the Government have agreed a legally binding deal with the networks to improve call and text coverage to 90% of the United Kingdom’s landmass. I think that that represents about £5 billion-worth of investment. It is a more ambitious target than many countries in Europe have agreed and it is at least 5% more than I think the Secretary of State originally planned. The Government were right to use the stick of forcing roaming in order to get the networks to act. It is also good news that the new 4G licence auction commits the network—I think that in this case, it is O2—to 98% coverage for residents.

Is not the problem in the East Riding that only about 45% of households have access to 3G coverage at home and, on top of that, those are the very households that do not get superfast broadband, so we are dealing with people who are geographically isolated and also, currently, digitally isolated? Does not that need to be addressed urgently?

I could not agree more, and I thank my right hon. Friend for attending the debate. The problem in our area is compounded by the lack of good superfast broadband. The Government are dealing with that. Millions of pounds of investment are going into east Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, and broadband is being rolled out as we speak. Last week, I had some nice e-mails from constituents in Burton who have finally been able to sign up. However, people have the problem that they cannot get a phone signal and cannot get on broadband. I argue that that is basic infrastructure that people can expect to have. They expect electricity and gas—unfortunately, it is not always possible to get gas in my constituency—and power to be provided to their homes.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. His constituency is some distance from the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, but we are delighted to have him in the debate.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As a member of the Scottish National party, I am concerned about the mobile phone signal that my good friends to the south are receiving. Does he agree that given the data speeds of 4G—this relates to what the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) said—those who are not getting broadband by line might get the connections and the access to the outside world if they had proper 4G? There are places that have lost 2G and 3G, but with 4G coming in, they could leapfrog over that. They could get on to the internet on the wireless signal.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. 4G is a potential solution. The figure of 98% of residents having to be covered will be matched, I suspect, by other networks. It is a potential solution, but I still think that we should be able to deliver a good mobile phone signal and also broadband to people.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In my home in the centre of Beverley, I lose signal with EE; and I am told by constituents that in the Vodafone shop in the middle of Beverley, there is no signal. It is a woeful level of service, and this infrastructure is critical to business in the area. It sends a message to those outside that we are not open for business. We are open for business. We need the Government to go further and faster to ensure that areas such as the East Riding are well served, not only in towns such as Beverley, where the service is woeful, but in the hamlets, where it is even worse.

My hon. Friend demonstrates an important point. Often when people think about poor coverage, they think about the very small communities that we have in our area—people who are 2 or 3 miles at the end of a farm track. Although it is true that they are affected, our market towns also have terrible signal problems. In my constituency, Broughton suffers particularly badly. Epworth also does; and in Beverley, the biggest market town in the region, the signal can be pretty woeful. That is not acceptable.

Let me move on to the survey of my constituents. My team has spent an awful lot of time inputting the data, for which I am very grateful. The results of the survey are as follows. About 15% of residents tell me that they cannot send a text or make a call from their own home, and 51% report some form of issue. Often, the signal comes and goes. They get one bar, suddenly no service, then they might be up to two or three bars. When residents are asked whether they can make calls outside or near their home, about half say that they still experience issues. The number of people who report that they have no signal at all is quite significant.

When residents are asked about using internet services on their phone—3G services—34% report no coverage inside their home, 40% report some coverage but experience issues, and just 17% have no issue with their indoor 3G coverage. That is a service they are paying for. The remaining 9% left the option blank, which I assume is because they do not use data services. Outdoors, 3G data coverage improves only a little, with 19% saying that they have no issues. Well over half of respondents report issues or no coverage at all for 2G calls and texts in some areas, and more than 70% report issues with 3G.

Particular problem spots that I have identified in my constituency are Broughton, Burton, Winteringham, Epworth and Haxey, in North Lincolnshire and, over in the East Riding, parts of Snaith and of Rawcliffe. Coverage in the marshland villages can be particularly poor. One constituent, Liz Sargeantson, a parish councillor in Reedness, explained to me that she has to hang out of the window with one arm pointing in a particular direction to get a signal. It is almost a case of one finger in the ear and it might be a bit better. It is a ridiculous situation.

In Burton, 55% of residents said that they had some issues with 2G indoors, and that is not a small village; it is a reasonably sized village and not that far from Scunthorpe, so we are not talking about the back of beyond. It was the case that 13% had no coverage at all and just 31% reported no issues; 46% of residents reported no 3G signal—

I may do later; I would like to continue with my survey results. In Broughton, 11% of people had no 2G coverage indoors, only 22% reported that they had a good signal and 67% reported issues with 2G services. When it came to 3G, just 5% of people in Broughton—the second biggest town in my constituency—said that they had good coverage and 40% said that they had no connection. There are similar issues on the Isle of Axholme, in Haxey. Over in the East Riding part of my constituency, where I live, we have similar problems. In Rawcliffe, 75% of respondents said that they had issues with 2G or 3G coverage. More worryingly, many have reported that the situation seems to have become worse in recent weeks and months. There is a suspicion that masts have been moved, although the networks say that that is not the case.

I am sick of hearing stories about people having to go to the bottom of their back garden to get a signal, because that is not acceptable. Those people are paying a monthly bill as part of a contract for a service that they are simply not getting. The data I receive from constituents conflict with statements by Ofcom, which suggests that 95% of premises in north Lincolnshire are covered by 2G, and 92% in the East Riding. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) has said, for 3G the figure drops to 45% in the East Riding and 69% in north Lincolnshire. I am concerned about the fact the coverage appears to be patchier than coverage maps would have us believe. I know that the Minister has secured agreements to improve the signal, but will he look at whether coverage is being correctly measured and provided to consumers? As good Conservatives—I do not include the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) in that; I speak of those of us who are more sensible of mind—we expect consumers to be provided with the right information so that they can make an informed choice.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) has said, connectivity is incredibly important for the rural economy and small businesses. Sadly, several small rural business people have told me that because of the problems with getting a signal at home or in the local area, they miss out on business when they are away from their landline. When we are encouraging people, particularly those in rural areas, to start their own businesses, that is a big concern.

The good people of Brigg and Goole are well served by the excellent survey that their MP has carried out for them. I have done similar work in the past. Is it not a failure of the UK mobile model that the hon. Gentleman and I face such a situation? Should there not be roaming, so that when networks are falling in and out, people can use one that is working? I know some people who have to carry two mobile phones. Do we need digital SIM cards so that we can easily switch on one handset? Should the model of 90% to 95% coverage apply to each rural local authority area? In the Faroe Islands, where the topography is worse than it is in my constituency or that of the hon. Gentleman, there are 50 3G masts for 50,000 people as a result of the mobile telephone model that they have adopted, which we have not adopted in the UK.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the Scottish National party’s endorsement for May, which may resonate with some of my constituents. The examples that he uses are problems that we need to look at. I am a little concerned about the impact of forced roaming, and about whether it might lead to disinvestment in some areas. There are arguments in both directions, but I think that the Government have been right to look at the matter. The hon. Gentleman has reminded me of an e-mail I received this morning from a constituent in Epworth, who said that they had just returned from a cruise—how nice for them—around Spain and Portugal, and they had had better signal at sea on their cruise ship than they did when they returned to their home in Epworth.

What can be done? Improving coverage without masts is important. Some networks provide people with equipment that allows them to use an existing broadband connection in their home to make mobile calls. Some networks offer the necessary boxes for free in areas where coverage is particularly poor, but others charge a significant amount. If people are not receiving in their homes the service that they have been promised, perhaps the Government might push the networks to offer such equipment for free to allow people to get mobile access at home. We all know about the smartphone apps that allow calls and texts to be made over a wi-fi network. EE tells me that it is fully integrating those into the phone’s dialler, in the hope that it will be easy to switch between the mobile network and home internet. That is something on which residents can take action when they select a network or handset.

I would like to ask the Minister about masts. We know about the new technology, but much of the improved coverage will come from the traditional mast infrastructure. There is an issue, however, which is worthy of some consideration. Mobile networks have pushed for a change in the policy surrounding masts, because they believe that the regulation is out of date. The electronic communications code, which was last updated in 1984, is the main piece of relevant legislation—the Minister may be able to say something about that when he responds—and the networks believe that it is no longer fit for purpose.

I am aware of the amendment to the Infrastructure Bill, on which I believe there may have been some movement today; perhaps the Minister can tell us about that. I welcome that change on the whole, but I note that some mobile networks are concerned that it might disapply the terms of the code for third-party infrastructure providers such as the Wireless Infrastructure Group and Arqiva. Perhaps the Minister will have something to say on that, given that such providers account for 40% to 50% of mobile masts. The concern is that if the code does not apply to them, operators would not have enough time to seek alternative coverage arrangements on the ending of a lease, which might be detrimental.

Mobile operators have talked about wanting to make their masts taller. The position of the public on the matter has changed significantly. When I was a local councillor 10 or 15 years ago—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. I remember old ladies, who had never engaged in any such activity before, threatening—[Interruption.] I do not know what the Minister thinks that the old ladies were threatening to do. They were simply threatening to lie down in front of diggers; the protests went no further than that. People used to be particularly concerned about masts, but that has changed. In all the survey results that I have received, only two people mentioned that they do not want to see an expansion of masts or improved coverage. We must still leave such decisions to local people, however.

I am not going to give way, because I have quite a lot to get through and the Minister needs to respond. I am told by some of the operators that raising the height of masts from 50 feet to 80 feet might improve coverage by up to 150%. Mast heights can be controversial, however, so I will dip my toe in but say only that that may need to be looked at.

Another area of reform that I would like the Minister to consider is mobile switching. Under the current system, a customer has to contact their existing provider to switch. The consumer group Which? has led a campaign urging Ofcom to introduce “gaining provider led” switching, under which the company to which customers move would deal with the switchover. That would promote competition and allow customers to switch networks more easily.

I have outlined a fairly terrible picture of local mobile coverage, but I commend the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government on achieving agreement with the networks to provide 90% coverage. The 98% requirement for 4G will, I suspect, be matched by other networks. The money that is coming into our broadband infrastructure is important. Although that deal is welcome, we need to know from the network operators what it will mean for local communities. I urge the Minister to put pressure on the networks to share as quickly as possible their improvement plans for each area.

Thinking about the broadband roll-out, some authorities have been pretty poor at giving people information, while others have been excellent. North Lincolnshire council has been excellent at sharing information on what is likely to happen. I envisage something similar where residents find out from operators—I understand that there are commercial issues as well, so it might not be quite this simple—what improvements are likely to happen in the future, which will allow them to make informed choices.

I am happy to have a Government who are finally trying to tackle the problem. Concerns have been raised about some of the potential changes to the code, but the people of Brigg and Goole are basically asking for the Government’s continued support to make sure that we get the service that we, as customers, are all paying for. Contracts are not always cheap, although compared with some countries, we are lucky when it comes to the level of competition in the market. However, we want the service that we are paying for. The deal that has been announced is excellent news, but residents want to know what it will mean over the next year or two.

I am sorry to interrupt a fine peroration to a brilliant and powerful speech, but I want to reinforce the points that my hon. Friend is making. When the Minister is looking at how to ensure that rural areas, which might be seen as marginal, are properly looked after, he would do well to consider Hull and the East Riding as a pilot area. We do not have lots of tunnels or lots of hills, so it is an easy area topographically. It is absolutely absurd that residents do not receive the service that they pay for in an area in which it would, technically, be pretty easy to deliver, but it is simply not happening.

I am aware of that, Mr Robertson. I will end by saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness makes an important point. He is a doughty campaigner for his constituents in the East Riding. He made one slight error when he said that the pilot area should be the East Riding and Hull; he meant the East Riding, Hull and northern Lincolnshire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I know you have a strong interest in the Government’s broadband programme. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for securing this important debate. We have enjoyed some trenchant contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).

Perfect Gaelic there. We were expecting an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), but he is a brooding, silent presence, and one can only speculate as to what is going on in that fine mind.

What unites all those who have contributed to this debate is their incredible work for their constituents, but if I were to pick a winner it would have to be my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who has worked tirelessly with his constituency office over the past few months to engage with his constituents on this important issue, to hear their views—he said that 6,500 constituents have been contacted—and to bring the matter to the House for debate. His constituents will reflect on that hard work as we approach an important date some time in the spring.

One of two things tends to happen in such debates: either we start with the glass half empty perspective from hon. Members who are keen to press for improvements, followed by me putting the case for the glass being half full, or there is a case of violent agreement. My hon. Friends would have a legitimate concern if the case they were continually bringing to the House was that the Government were doing nothing, but my hon. Friends and other hon. Members know that the Government are doing a lot in this area, so my hon. Friends’ case is that the Government are doing a lot but should be doing more or should be doing it better. That is how I intend to respond.

I know this debate is about mobile coverage, but the Government have made great strides on two issues: fibre broadband, which my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole mentioned, and mobile phone coverage. I will be very brief on fibre broadband because it is not the main topic of debate. In the East Riding, £10.5 million has gone to extend superfast broadband coverage to some 42,000 homes. The Government have pledged £5 million for the next phase, phase 2, which will not get the East Riding the extensive coverage that exists elsewhere because of the area’s very rural nature. Some £30 million has gone to Lincolnshire as a whole, which is obviously a bigger area, achieving almost 90% coverage—almost 120,000 homes—and in phase 2 approximately £4.7 million will take Lincolnshire to 90%. There has been extensive progress on fibre broadband, and nationally the programme is fast approaching 2 million premises, which is a real achievement.

The second issue is mobile phone coverage, on which I want to put a couple of points in context. First, the mobile operators are, of course, private companies. They have built their networks without any Government subsidy and, indeed, the Government have benefited from the extraordinary auction of the 3G spectrum, which put £22 billion into the previous Government’s coffers, and the more recent 4G auction that put approximately £2 billion into this Government’s coffers. Those networks have been built with private money, and the operators face a number of obstacles, such as landlords who might be charging significant rent and the securing of planning permission. Indeed, my hon. Friend referred to militant constituents from 15 years ago. They have since calmed down a great deal, but unfortunately we are all old enough to remember a time when the arrival of a mobile phone mast was greeted with horror rather than glee.

As well as landlords, the people who own the rights to the masts can be a choke or a bottleneck on other networks adding their kit to those masts. Anything the Government can do there would be welcomed.

We recognise all the problems, and we have made great strides because we recognise that there are a vast number of not spots. We have the fastest 4G roll-out anywhere in the world, and all the operators are committing themselves to 98% coverage of premises. That roll-out should be complete by the end of 2015, but the concerns really relate to geographic coverage, because when people leave their home with a mobile phone, they naturally expect their phone, by definition, to work outside the home. We are talking about areas where there is no coverage at all from any operator, a not spot, or partial not spots where there is coverage from only one operator.

We have started the mobile infrastructure programme, under which there is £150 million to build masts in not spot areas. That has proved challenging because we are talking about remote areas, and one has to remember that we cannot just stick up a mast and plug it in; we have to take power and fibre to the mast. We cannot just arrive and build it; we still have to negotiate with landlords and local authorities. Appropriately, the first site went live in North Yorkshire, close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, in 2013. We are considering 600 potential sites across the programme, and we are currently negotiating on 120 sites. That was stage 1.

Stage 2 was brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, when he raised the issue of national roaming with mobile operators. National roaming is problematic. To a certain extent, the operators compete on their networks, but there are potential unintended consequences with national roaming, and it will take some time to introduce legislation. We always said that a voluntary agreement would be our preferred solution, which is exactly what he secured at the end of last year. Stage 2 will put a legally binding coverage obligation on mobile network operators to cover 90% of the UK landmass by 2017, which is a massive change in the way that MNOs relate to coverage in this country. It will guarantee £5 billion of investment in mobile infrastructure and get rid of two thirds of partial not spots and half of complete not spots.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole raised a number of other points. One was the measurement of coverage which, again, we addressed through the mobile infrastructure programme, because where Ofcom says there is coverage and where there is coverage in reality can be problematic. As a result of the programme we have massively improved the way that Ofcom measures coverage. We found that around a fifth of East Yorkshire and about 7% of North Lincolnshire have partial not spots, with a small part of both having complete not spots. We expect that, as a result of the agreement negotiated by the Secretary of State, 99% of East Yorkshire and very nearly 100% of North Lincolnshire will have coverage from all four operators by the end of 2017, which is resolutely good news for his constituents.

After this debate, I hope my hon. Friends will troop down to the Terrace Pavilion, where Vodafone is hosting a reception to promote its rural “open sure” signal. I repeatedly say to Vodafone and the other operators that they should offer that signal as a retail offer to parish councils, which might front up some of the money—it could be several thousand pounds—to establish a local mobile network made up of small cells that people can put in their home.

With Ofcom, we are carefully looking at allowing people to switch between mobile operators more easily, and it is still something that we would consider. On the electronic communications code and the issue of tall masts, we are continuing active discussions with the operators to ensure that we get the code absolutely right in order to reduce their switching costs. We have some of the cheapest mobile phone contracts anywhere in the world, but I point out to constituents that a lot of the contract is spent on buying the very expensive smartphones that are now all the rage—the retail price can be £500 or £600, which is spread across the contract. The actual cost of calls and data is relatively cheap and continues to fall, and it compares very well with our competitors in Europe and elsewhere.