Skip to main content

Electronic Communications Code

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2015

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered mobile phone coverage and the Electronic Communications Code.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies.

Before I start on the main content of my speech, I shall quote some of my constituents; apparently, that is a part of the kinder politics we now find ourselves in—as if no one had ever quoted a constituent before. I called for this debate because of the ongoing issues with mobile phone coverage in my constituency. Andrew from Rawcliffe said:

“I live in Rawcliffe and can use my phone only from upstairs, hanging out of the bathroom window.”

Gary from Goole said:

“As an employee of the Carphone Warehouse in Goole I’m on the front of finding many customers who struggle to get a decent signal in areas where I would expect to receive a strong signal.”

Mike from the Isle of Axholme said:

“O2 coverage in Epworth has been terrible lately, with no signal for hours on end.”

Sue, also from the Isle of Axholme, said:

“I would just like reception in Fockerby and Garthorpe without a walk in the garden!”

Another of my constituents, Jim from Wrawby, pointed out that in the absence of the roll-out of superfast broadband in his area—it has been generally very good in north Lincolnshire—he has to rely on mobile wireless broadband.

Significant issues remain. At the back end of last year, I secured a debate on this subject following a survey I conducted among 6,500 of my constituents, many of whom responded. Seventy per cent of respondents reported significant issues with access to mobile phone services. That is an ongoing problem throughout east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire.

I do not want to be wholly negative, because some positive things have happened. We have seen big improvements in mobile phone coverage in parts of my constituency, but there is no doubt that there is a lot more to be done. I have met the providers on numerous occasions and they have all promised me that they are going to make improvements, but progress seems to be very slow indeed.

Consistent mobile phone coverage is essential in the modern world. For small businesses to succeed and for families and friends to stay connected, they must be able to rely on the mobile phone coverage to which they subscribe. The issue is very much one of people getting what they are paying for.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, and I agree entirely on that last point. It appears that individual companies do not give sufficient information about what people will receive in their area. For example, people in Wrexham are not given specific enough information about the quality of service they will receive.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, although in fairness the mobile coverage checker that has recently been introduced should help people to zone in on where they are and check their coverage. Nevertheless, a lot of constituents in my patch tell me that according to the coverage maps their coverage should be good, but they are literally having to hang out of the bathroom window with a finger in one ear trying to get a signal. That is not acceptable.

The issue is not only about the signal at home. People travel and move around, as we would all expect them to. My constituents are sick and tired of losing their signal. Instead of going to the party conference—in my view, no one should ever attend a party conference—I went to Canada. Over the November recess, I drove from Regina in Saskatchewan to Calvary in Alberta, crossing the badlands of southern Alberta, and there is nothing in between. I lost my 4G signal for all of five or 10 minutes of a six and a half to seven-hour journey. I cannot get on to the M18-M62 interchange in Goole without losing my signal, or use the east coast main line every week without the signal dropping in and out. It is unbelievable that in a country as vast as Canada I was able to get 4G access the whole length of that journey; I have little chance of that at home.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is great to hear about his trip to Canada, but in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire we unfortunately do not have those vast expanses between places—we have vast mountains instead. That means we have terrible problems with our mobile phone signals. I have a couple of ideas that I would like to put to the Minister in my next intervention, if I may.

I think that was an intervention to ask permission for another intervention, which I am sure the Minister will be happy to accept. In our area we have the opposite: most of my constituency is a fair few feet below sea level. We are as flat as a pancake—a bit lumpy in some places, but generally quite flat—yet the signal is ridiculous. The Isle of Axholme is a prime example. It is largely as flat as a pancake, but the signal in places such as Fockerby and Epworth is absolutely terrible.

In the year or so since I last secured a debate on this subject, there has been some progress, which I want to acknowledge. The £5 billion investment deal that the Government signed with the mobile operators has made some improvements. It will guarantee voice and text coverage from each operator across 90% of the geographic area of the UK by 2017, although we still need more action on notspots, of which there are two in my constituency. Full coverage from all four mobile operators should increase from about 69% to 85% by 2017.

There have, therefore, been some improvements, but although 99% of premises can receive a 2G signal, Ofcom has found that the proportion of the entire UK landmass that is able to receive a signal from all four operators has remained at 55% since last year. Nevertheless, I welcome the Government’s announcement in the comprehensive spending review of £550 million to make the 700 MHz spectrum available over the next five years.

The most recent update on coverage was in Ofcom’s “Connected Nations 2015” report, which found that almost 46% of the country now has 4G coverage from all major operators. It would be unfair of me to say that some of the improvements have not affected my constituency, because they have, but we still have significant issues with progress on this matter. I welcome some of the other moves. Voice over wi-fi is a really important way of helping people at home, although in many parts of the country the roll-out of superfast broadband has been disappointing. I exempt from that the north Lincolnshire part of my constituency, where the roll-out has been incredible, but the roll-out in the East Riding of Yorkshire part can best be described as hopeless—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) will agree. It is all right having voice over wi-fi, but people often do not have access to that at home.

In many respects, would it not almost be better in some areas to have no coverage or complete coverage, rather than good coverage in one area and bad coverage in another? It is creating a social and economic divide that seems to be getting wider rather than narrower. The Prime Minister’s welcome comments about universal broadband really ought to have been about universal minimum standards throughout the whole of the UK and for mobile phones as well.

My hon. Friend makes a valid and important point. I completely agree: the arguments that apply to access to superfast broadband also apply to mobile phone coverage. The two are now indistinguishable. People do the same things on their mobile networks as they do over broadband. They use both for the same thing, whether that is work or keeping in contact with friends and family. Of course, many people now do not have a landline; they simply rely on their mobile.

With your permission, Mr Davies, I want to leave a couple of minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness to comment. I have some questions about the electronic communications code, on which the Government consulted earlier in the year. The networks have expressed concerns that the code has not been meaningfully updated since it was introduced in 1984, and the Law Commission called it “complex and confusing”. According to the mobile providers, reforming the code is the single most important step that the Government can take to reduce the costs of network extension and improve mobile coverage. Before this debate, the operators told me that they can build a new site and put in new kit in about three months, but, because of the complexities of the code, it takes a year to 18 months to complete that work.

I hope that there will be a response to the consultation, but I have a couple of questions for the Minister now. On fair site payments, we need to end the practice of landowners being able to demand ransom rents because the lack of alternative sites locally means a lack of competition. That is a particular problem for rural roll-out.

I suspect that the situation changes from site to site. The problem with many of the rural masts is getting access at particular times of the year, perhaps because the harvest is on. With landowners in rural areas, it can be more complicated and difficult to get access. The average punter expects an outage in the network to be fixed within four hours. At the moment, it takes about 48 hours, and sometimes a lot longer, for the companies to negotiate access.

We want the fair site payment, and we want the sharing and upgrading of sites to be reflected in the new code. Under the current code, mobile operators have to renegotiate rental terms when they wish to make a change, such as to deploy new technology or reduce the number of masts. That is patently ridiculous.

We need quicker access to sites. It is nonsense that it takes 48 hours to gain access. There is a problem with the EE signal in Burton-upon-Stather at the moment, and the landowner has held up access for weeks. It is partly due to the harvest, so there may be legitimate reasons, but it is clearly not good enough that the companies are unable to access the sites when there is an outage. In fairness to the operators, it means that they cannot deliver the service they wish to deliver.

We want better dispute resolution in the new code. There is a disconnect between the main networks and the independent mast operators on the issue of whether they should be covered by the code. I do not plan to get involved in that dispute; it is one for the Minister. [Interruption.] He is nodding away—I can see that he already has the solution.

This is an important issue for my constituents. There have been improvements, but we want the roll-out and the improvements that the networks have promised to happen much more quickly. With your permission, Mr Davies, I will hand over to my colleague.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my doughty colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who secured this important debate. He has been relentless, as he often is—not just conversationally, but in championing issues on behalf of his constituents. What may be a fault in one area of life is very much a benefit in another. It is fantastic that he has taken up this issue with such energy.

Over the summer recess, I wrote to the chief executives of all the major mobile operators to press them on what they are doing to ensure that mobile coverage for my constituents improves. The Government’s agreement on the provision of 90% coverage is fantastic, but the feeling is always that if the percentage is less than 100% it is my constituents and those in rural areas who will miss out. In subsequent replies and meetings, I was pleased to hear about the significant progress and the investment that is going in to meet the 2017 target. We want it to go ahead as quickly as possible, as my hon. Friend said, so that people who are trying to live their normal life, call their girlfriend, do a business deal, run a small business or fulfil the normal obligations of life are able to do so as easily in rural areas as elsewhere in the country. At the moment, they cannot, which is what this debate is all about; it has got a very human dimension to it.

My hon. Friend made the key points, but what can be done to ensure we get this done as quickly and cheaply as possible? Every imposition on those companies will feed through into our constituents’ bills. We want to deliver a fantastic and effective mobile phone system as cheaply as possible and without imposing unnecessary burdens and regulations on those businesses, which is why the electronic communications code needs to be reformed. The Minister, who was nodding earlier—not because he was being put to sleep by my hon. Friend, but because he agreed with him—must make sure that happens.

I represent a rural constituency, so many of my constituents own land. Like my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), some are farmers who want to ensure that they get a fair return for any disruptions. There are reasons why the Government might create frameworks that impinge on the exploitation of land by its owners for the maximum return—such is the importance of this utility to our constituents. There are also regulatory issues that are driven not by the landowners but by the rules.

Will the Minister comment on raising the permitted development height for mobile phone masts? Having taller masts is a cost-effective way for operators to increase their coverage without installing and maintaining new masts. There might be a visual impact, and my constituents would be sensitive to that. Vodafone told me that, because of our planning restrictions, its 3G masts in the UK are about 10 metres shorter than its masts in the rest of the EU. It is asking for the permitted development height to be increased from 15 metres to 25 metres so it does not have to go through expensive and protracted planning procedures to get what it needs. Increasing the mast height would have the big effect of increasing the coverage area of each mast by 90%, so although the masts would be taller we would have fewer of them. There is a balance to be struck, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts about how best to strike it.

Although I fully agree with my hon. Friend about the size of masts, big is not always beautiful—that is the philosophy of my life, and the Minister’s, too, I am sure. Small cell boxes can be used in small, rural areas. I would like the Minister to pay attention to the fact that, whether someone is installing a large mast or a small cell box, they still face the same planning restrictions. Perhaps that could be looked at.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the code, mobile operators have to pay about £8,366 per year to rent a site, whereas a pylon costs £283. As well as dramatically high rents, additional payments are levied by landowners in return for access to make repairs, whether or not it impinges on them. Disputes over those charges leave some consumers experiencing network outages for an overly long time. I will not labour that point, but I am interested to hear from the Minister how to strike that balance.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole said, mobile telephony is a basic utility. We have had frameworks in the past to ensure we keep the cost of delivering that basic utility as low as possible to encourage operators to deliver the service as widely and effectively as possible. That is true for other utilities, and it should be true for mobile telephony. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who will doubtless give a brilliant response to all those points.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I hope that I live up to the billing given to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for securing this important debate, and I welcome the contributions of my many hon. Friends on this important issue. His speech came through loud and clear. It was not dropped at any stage, it was not interrupted and the message reached me without any form of interference, electronic or otherwise.

Earlier this morning, I was reflecting with a colleague about the fact that I seem to spend my life bumping into people who tell me about their holiday experience. They appear to get 1,000 gigabits per second on their mobile phone or computer, wherever they go on holiday. My hon. Friend did not disappoint with his Canadian experience. Far be it for me to compare Canada with the UK, but we are comparing a road trip across a vast expanse of land in a country the size of America that has a population of 30 million—it is one of the least densely populated countries in the world—where land costs are low and planning is easy, with an extremely busy motorway junction in the north of England in one of the most successful economies in the world. I would say that one is perhaps comparing apples with oranges. I also sympathise with my hon. Friend’s experience on a train, but I remind him that a train is a Faraday cage and that it is difficult to get a signal. We are working with the train operating companies—which is not unlike herding cats—to get a solution for mobile on trains, because it is an important part of the mix.

I say to my hon. Friend—and, indeed, to all my hon. Friends who appear regularly in broadband debates—that I have been working on the issue for quite a long time, and I intend to work on it for many more years to come, to deliver for them the kind of connectivity that they would expect. In return, I hope that when they rise to their feet in future debates, they acknowledge some of the progress that we have made. In Brigg and Goole, for example, some 25,500 premises that would not have been able to have a broadband connection can now connect to superfast broadband should they so wish, thanks to this Government’s highly successful broadband roll-out scheme.

We had three masts in South Suffolk under the mobile infrastructure project and the experience was mixed. I am not directly blaming the Minister, and the problem was with local communities in many respects. I am interested in what will be done to encourage investment, given that the publicly subsidised project had mixed results. Does my hon. Friend see changes to the electronic communications code as one way of bringing more investment into rural areas through the private sector?

I will take that as a positive point, because it helps me to make some of the arguments that I want to make. I remind hon. Members that mobile operators are private companies making private investment. Indeed, they contributed some £2 billion to the Treasury’s coffers in the last 4G auction, and we now have the fastest roll-out and take-up of 4G in the world. They are to be applauded for their achievements. It is also true, however, that the Government can help.

A recent report by the International Telecommunication Union saw the UK rise from 10th place in 2010 to fourth place in 2015 in terms of connectivity, much of which was driven by mobile coverage. I should also point out that one thing we never take into account when considering mobile coverage is how cheap mobile contracts are in this country compared with many other places. We also do not take into account that the modern smartphone is actually not that great at receiving telephone calls, due to its short antenna, which contributes to the difficulties that people have with calls.

The key thing that the Government can do is to work with mobile operators to increase coverage. We are here celebrating the first anniversary of a landmark agreement on mobile operators’ licence obligations brokered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), then Culture Secretary, now Business Secretary. One operator has a licence obligation to achieve 98% indoor coverage by the end of 2017, but that is 98% of premises, which does not equate to 98% of the landmass. We therefore changed the licence conditions so that, by the end of 2017, all four operators will achieve 90% coverage of the landmass.

That will make a massive difference to coverage, particularly in constituencies with a rural expanse, where people drive between villages in a relatively rural area, such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole. This is an important, landmark agreement. About 6% of the East Riding of Yorkshire and 1.2% of Lincolnshire have been affected by notspots. As a result of the agreement, we will eliminate notspots altogether. Just 0.2% of north Lincolnshire and less than 1% of the East Riding of Yorkshire will have partial notspots, which is when just one mobile operator provides coverage. Therefore, 99% of East Yorkshire and almost 100% of north Lincolnshire should have coverage from all four operators. That will make an important difference.

I think this could be positive. I agree with the Minister that massive progress has been made on notspot coverage, but will he confirm how those notspots are being recorded and reported? There is some confusion about accuracy. The Government are making progress, but can he confirm how the reporting is done?

We work with Ofcom to record what we regard as a notspot or partial notspot. We have an agreed signal strength with the operators, and we have had a robust debate about whether it should be -83 dBm or -98 dBm, but Ofcom provides the imprimatur, as it were, of what we regard as a notspot or a partial notspot.

That brings me neatly on to the mobile infrastructure project, with which we have had some difficulties. Not enough Ministers acknowledge when projects have problems and difficulties, but I freely acknowledge such difficulties because the MIP was pioneering and we can learn from some of its failures. One thing we discovered when we announced the project was how difficult it is to measure a notspot, because the efficacy of radio waves can differ depending on climatic conditions or how many people happen to be using their mobile phone at the time. It has been a huge learning experience.

The other learning experience has been working with planning authorities. I am pleased to say that we have erected some 15 masts and hope that, by the programme’s end next March, we may have got as far as 75, but I freely acknowledge that we have not got as far as we wanted. I have also been slightly astonished that organisations such as the National Trust have point blank refused to have masts on their land and planning authorities have turned down applications for masts despite local communities wanting them. Some members of local communities have even put concrete blocks in front of the generators provided for mobile masts. We have had some astonishing examples, where one part of the local community has actively tried to stop a mobile mast when the rest of the community wants it. My message to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole is that we can work together with landowners to provide them with better coverage as long as they are prepared to support mobile masts and not see them as cash cow or simply oppose them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness talked about changing the size of masts. I have been passed a note from my officials that says:

“Details on permitted development. However, you cannot announce them.”

So we are negotiating within Whitehall. We know exactly what we want to do, but we have to have Whitehall clearance and we have to pass secondary legislation. We want to increase the height of masts, to increase the height at which cells can go and to increase the time in which operators are allowed to take emergency measures to repair masts, because my hon. Friend is quite right to point out that the size and length of masts is important. I have a huge mast on the top of the ridge literally half a mile from my home. It is unsightly and ungainly. Would I prefer it not to be there? Of course I would. Does it provide great mobile coverage around the area? Yes, it does. I think that is a compromise worth making.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole quite rightly focused on the important reform of the electronic communications code. It has been like wading through treacle. It is extremely complicated. It has been in place for over 30 years, regulating the relationship between mobile masts and landowners and that between mobile operators and the wholesale operators, such as Arqiva and Wireless Infrastructure Group, which provide something like a third of masts. We want to revise the code and to change it to support the roll-out of broadband while protecting the rights of landowners. We will be bringing forward proposals next year to achieve those reforms.

I say in every debate, whether it is about mobile or fixed broadband, that we are conducting an engineering project. I sometimes compare it to Crossrail. When I am jammed on the tube with my nose against a stranger’s armpit, I do wish that Crossrail would open earlier so that the tube was emptier, but because I can physically see that tunnel, I know that it will not open until 2018. However, I am looking forward to using the new Tottenham Court Road station on Thursday, on my way to say farewell to Neil MacGregor, the brilliant head of the British Museum, who is retiring. This is an engineering project, and we will complete the roll-out of phases 1 and 2 of broadband over the next two years, achieving 95% superfast broadband coverage for the entire United Kingdom, which is an astonishing achievement.

We will also see the fulfilment of our agreement with the operators for 98% indoor premises coverage and 90% geographic coverage, and we will do that by supporting them with the electronic communications code. I also want to revisit the MIP, because we have made such astonishing progress in the past 12 months that we could have a phase 2 in which we take all the learnings from our mixed initial programme and take them forward to make meaningful progress. The electronic communications code, the licence changes, a potential further MIP and taller masts should all make the difference that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole is looking for.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).