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Telecommunications: Mobile Phone Services

Volume 737: debated on Monday 18 June 2012


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of their commitment to ensuring adequate mobile telephony services throughout the United Kingdom, what action they are taking to ensure that mobile phone operators provide and maintain services and coverage to rural populations.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Alderdice and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, in autumn 2011, the Government announced £150 million to improve mobile phone coverage across the UK: the Mobile Infrastructure Project. Analysis has shown that the majority of areas of poor or non-existent mobile coverage are rural. The Government are currently procuring a supplier to build the required infrastructure. Decisions on precisely where to site the infrastructure will be taken once that process has been completed later this year.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. My noble friend Lord Alderdice has pointed out that, in April this year, the residents of Glenariff, a rural area of Northern Ireland, had their mobile mast switched off, which left them without coverage. As a resident of rural Northumberland, I am quite aware that whereas the map—and I have looked at it very carefully—will sometimes indicate that you have good coverage, you have very poor coverage or none at all. Is the Minister sure that, despite the £150 million being spent, Ofcom has the power to force companies to improve that service in areas which have no coverage or very poor coverage?

I thank my noble friend. I am aware of his love of the wide-open spaces, which are quite possibly parts of the country where coverage is poorer. Ofcom will always consult providers to try to ensure that, when the deals are made, the coverage is as substantial as it can be. However, these things will always be subject to commercial and business needs as well.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is another side to this story? While all of us support the need for the best possible mobile communications, including in rural areas, it means that we have to put up with large numbers of hideous masts, sometimes even in urban areas. Will she therefore encourage the mobile telephone companies to develop technology which does not need those masts—for example, using satellites?

Indeed, my Lords, I am aware that there are those who object to some of these great structures; planning permission and planning requirements are always part of the process when the deals are done. There is certainly ongoing work to look at possible satellite links, which, as my noble friend says, would obviate the need for the large structures. At present, that is still a very expensive option which will doubtlessly come down in price as we go on. However, the structures are currently the main way of getting the mobile frequencies.

My Lords, I found the Minister's response very encouraging, and I acknowledge what has been done in extending 2G and 3G roaming. In a place such as Devon, even market towns are pretty well provided for now, but in the most rural areas, not just the most remote ones, coverage is still very patchy indeed. There are large parts of Devon where there are service levels restricted to calls, texts and e-mails with only limited access to mobile internet. That impacts very negatively on both community and commercial life. Would the Government consider amending the reporting requirements to include a percentage of geographical area covered as well as a proportion of the population?

The right reverend Prelate makes a very apt point. I know the parts of the country to which he refers and how difficult it is to stand on the roof trying to get a signal on one’s mobile. Yes, that could certainly be one of the requirements on the operators in a bid. At the moment, we understand that there are more than 80,000 premises in complete not-spots where you simply cannot receive, and the intention is to cover at least 60,000 of those premises, if we can, with new technologies.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the Ofcom consumer panel that a pure market approach to the extension of mobile technology has reached its economic limit? Does she therefore agree that in order to ensure the extensive coverage rurally that we all desire, it should be made an explicit condition of the bids for the forthcoming 4G spectrum auction that the operators comply with that?

The noble Baroness makes a very valid point. As I mentioned earlier, economic requirements will always be part of such bids, but the question of conditions for the forthcoming auction of spectrum to roll out 4G mobile broadband services is a matter for Ofcom, and Ofcom has consulted on options for delivering 4G coverage, including an option that would require either one or all of the 800 megahertz licences to cover 98% of the UK population. The points that she raised will undoubtedly be considered for that auction.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in many rural areas this is not only important for tourism but is often a matter of life and death along our coastlines and in our hills? What obligation is there on Ofcom to consider the question of safety and security in such circumstances?

Indeed, my Lords, we are aware of that. As I said, it is always a question of taking the balance of the commercial factors, the planning factors and the fact that, as the noble Lord said, in some areas having no signal can be extremely hazardous. Probably, the long-term answer will be the point raised by my noble friend of going to satellite communication for such areas, but at the moment, this is one factor. As I understand it, health and safety is not specifically taken into consideration, but in the overall package of service to the community, that would be part of what Ofcom would look at.

My Lords, what is being done to improve broadband for e-mail in rural areas? I declare an interest, as I run a charity that relies solely on e-mail.

The issues around e-mail run into the same sort of practicalities as e-mail for mobile. We hope that, as these technologies advance, so the provision for e-mail will become easier as well. Once again, I fully acknowledge my noble friend’s point.

Are we not going a bit soft on some of these operators? They make vast profits, but there are large parts of the country, including large parts of Cumbria, where there is no signal at all. Companies such as Vodafone have got away with it for decades, and the Government should act.

I do not think the Government are that relaxed. The noble Lord’s point is, of course, absolutely right, but there has to be a balance. Often, putting up the structures to support the sort of reception that he is looking for does not get planning permission in the first place and is commercially expensive when taking into account the handful of people who would benefit. Obviously, all these factors will be taken into consideration when the new generation— 4G—comes on stream, so that communication becomes more possible for more parts of the country.

Has any thought been given to the use of existing tall buildings rather than hideous new masts? I believe there is a right reverend Prelate who is doing rather a brisk business with church towers.

I was not aware of that, but using churches in high and rural areas may be a great solution. I am sure that all these considerations are taken into account when deciding where to place the receivers.