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Broadband and Mobile Coverage: Rural Areas

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 24 March 2022

2. What steps her Department is taking to improve broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural areas. (906266)

The Government are working hard to give people great connectivity whether they live in a rural, suburban or urban area. We are doing this by: making it easier for operators to roll out infrastructure; focusing public subsidy on connecting the hardest-to-reach areas through Project Gigabit; connecting schools and public buildings through our GigaHubs programme; and working with commercial partners on the shared rural network to tackle mobile notspots.

I am sure my hon. Friend will be delighted that I am asking not about broadband but about mobile connectivity instead. I live in the beautiful village of Instow in North Devon, but my mobile signal is so poor that if I move my head when making a call I am instantly disconnected. To have 5G is a dream, yet we have more anti-5G campaigners in North Devon than in almost any other part of the country. What is my hon. Friend doing to improve mobile connectivity in villages such as mine, alongside dealing with the false information perpetuated by anti-5G campaigners?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: I am absolutely thrilled and delighted that she is asking me about mobile rather than broadband. She raises a really important point about misinformation and how it can stifle the roll-out of fast, reliable networks, which can substitute for poor broadband in areas like hers. I spoke recently at a conference with local councils on how to support the 5G roll-out. My Department shared with them public health guidance to bust and counter some of the myths about 5G. On mobile connectivity more generally, as I mentioned, we have the shared rural network that will see us jointly invest with industry more than £1 billion to increase 4G coverage in rural areas. In her region, that will see all four operators cover 87% of her constituency by the end of the programme.

I am asking about broadband, once again. My constituents are extremely concerned that the universal service obligation, which aims to provide decent broadband coverage, is inconsistent in rural areas. Constituents in Knighton have expressed their concern about some of the contribution costs, which can be in the tens of thousands of pounds, despite some properties being only a few hundred metres away from the cabinet. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that decent and, above all, affordable broadband is being rolled out to rural areas? Will the Minister meet me to discuss some of the thornier elements of my constituency?

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend. I appreciate her concern about the costs that have been quoted to her constituents, and it is an issue to which the regulator Ofcom is very alive. Ofcom holds responsibility for setting the universal service conditions, and it recently carried out an investigation into BT’s approach to calculating excess cost. BT has since provided assurances on what it will do to mitigate the consumer harm identified in the Ofcom report. Compliance with that report will be monitored, but as I say, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue in greater detail.

There have been giant steps forward, which we welcome, but people in some areas of my rural constituency still have difficulty getting a connection, and they cannot use their mobile phones either. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Assembly on working together to address those small pockets that are easy to overlook but whose residents deserve the same level of service as those in the cities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for championing his constituency, as always. Just this week I spoke to one of his DUP colleagues about some of the great work going on with Fibrus, which is making Northern Ireland one of the best connected areas of our country and with the fastest speeds. Of course there is still more work to do. I was going to meet one of the hon. Gentleman’s counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss the issue, but unfortunately he came down with covid. I shall follow up and arrange that meeting again.