asked Her Majesty’s Government:
What social obligations they place on mobile phone networks, when issuing licences, to extend transmission coverage to communities of up to 200 people in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, as the universal service obligation requires that all but the most inaccessible locations are provided with fixed-line telephone services, no social obligations have been placed on mobile phone operators. However, 99.9 per cent of the UK population live in postal districts that have at least one mobile operator with at least 75 per cent area coverage, and 90.5 per cent of postal districts are covered by at least one third-generation mobile operator.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but as mobile phone companies are doing quite nicely out of the licences, should there not be a social obligation on them to extend basic coverage at least to all substantial villages in the country? Is he aware that the Duke of Buccleuch recently pointed out that the Romans, 2,000 years ago, had an effective system of signalling by beacon throughout the Scottish Borders, which is something yet to be achieved by Vodafone?
My Lords, the issue here is whether mobile phones are a basic need. Only where a particular service can be seen to be a basic need is it appropriate to have licences that require universal service obligation.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that we have a transmission mast on Kinnordy. My area, the Glens of Angus, is very similar to that in which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, lives. Will the Minister write to me with the mathematics of the 99.5 per cent and so on because, even with the transmission mast at Kirriemuir, there are areas 10 miles away in the Glens of Angus where it is extremely difficult to find anything like the service that the noble Lord decrees necessary?
My Lords, the same is true of north Henley. If you listen carefully to the statistic that I gave, you will see that it leaves quite a lot of room: 99.9 per cent of the UK population live in postal districts that have at least one mobile operator with at least 75 per cent area coverage.
My Lords, given that Northumberland is one of the largest counties in the country, it seems to take up a large proportion of that 0.1 per cent. Should there be an obligation on mobile companies, if only one operator is operating in that area, to allow other networks to have access to those masts?
My Lords, this question arises with roaming for emergency services, when there is a case for doing that. Otherwise, we are dealing with a normal, competitive situation.
My Lords, the problem is that one tends to find oneself in an area where the single network to which the Minister refers is not the one to which one’s own telephone works. Can he envisagea non-statutory way in which to achieve greater flexibility—for example, by encouraging providers to offer users the option to switch networks if their own network does not have coverage? That option is already available when one is travelling abroad.
My Lords, this is just a straightforward competitive situation, and we will find that over time people will make the best possible use of their services. Operators will get as many customers as they can through having as wide as possible an application.
My Lords, does this not depend almost entirely on the planning system, and is there not a social obligation in that?
My Lords, if it could be shown that there was a serious hindrance to the provision of these services from the planning system, we should look at that in terms of trying to change the criteria of the system, but I do not think that that has yet been shown.