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Mobile Networks: Resilience

Volume 794: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to improve the resilience of United Kingdom mobile networks following the outage of O2’s services.

My Lords, I ought to declare a very small interest as a customer of O2 and, therefore, someone who is in line for a reimbursement of two days-worth of my monthly subscription.

There is a regular dialogue on interests of concern to both industry and Government. DCMS works closely with the telecoms sector on resilience issues via the Electronic Communications Resilience and Response Group, which leads on resilience activity and emergency response. The industry has a good track record of enhancing resilience, and we will be working closely with O2 and the wider sector to understand the causes of this incident and what lessons can be learned.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging Answer. He will be aware that O2 is not the only recent example of lack of systems resilience. Work undertaken by the Government in preparation for a possible hard Brexit has revealed that a very large proportion of British business is driving extremely close to the edge of chaos in terms of how little it would take to seriously disrupt their businesses and our lives. Will he encourage his colleagues to encourage businesses, once Brexit is past us, to maintain the provisions they are now making against possible difficulties, in the cause of our running a more resilient society than we apparently have been doing?

I assure my noble friend that my department, which is responsible for telecoms, will continue to work with the Electronic Communications Resilience and Response Group. By coincidence, there is a meeting of that group next week, from which we will find out exactly what happened with the O2 outage and the emergency response, which worked well. I can assure my noble friend that we will continue with that, whatever happens with Brexit.

My Lords, any measures that improve the resilience of mobile connectivity for those that already have it will be welcome but sadly, many people, particularly in rural areas, have no or poor mobile connectivity. What steps are the Government taking to help those people? In particular, do they intend to place on the winner of the auction of the 700 megahertz spectrum a rural coverage obligation or, better still, a RuralFirst obligation?

As the noble Lord knows, the Government have made huge progress in extending the availability of both broadband and mobile connectivity. The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review showed the way to increasing the amount of fibre optic cable across the country, which is currently behind the European average, and we now plan to do that. One of its features is the “outside in” policy, which will enable rural areas to have priority in the rolling out of fibre-optic cable.

My Lords, if I had come from abroad and was using a foreign mobile phone, the O2 outage would not have affected me because my phone would have switched to a different network. Could we not arrange that, if such a thing happened again, our domestic phones would also switch to a different network?

I am not sure my noble friend is entirely correct. The problem involved Ericsson, a third-party software supplier to O2, and had worldwide effects, so there is no guarantee that his foreign phone would have worked. I hasten to add that that was only for data, not voice.

Does this whole episode not highlight the need to completely reconfigure the universal service obligation, which is failing so badly, to include mobile telephony—it does not at present—and to ensure the whole system focuses more on infrastructure capacity, reliability and service?

As the noble Lord knows perfectly well, the universal service directive, which is the basis for the universal service obligation, only includes fixed-line service. Therefore, it would be impossible under European law to include mobile.

My Lords, digital connectivity, whether through broadband or mobile, is a new utility and those who do not have it are socially and financially excluded. Can my noble friend tell me when 100% of homes in this country will have such connectivity?

As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, alluded to, by 2020 the universal service obligation will give every household in this country a legal right to be connected at a speed of not less than 10 megabits a second.

My Lords, when the Minister and his colleagues consider the resilience of the mobile phone network—I refer to my interests in the register on this matter—could he ensure that resilience for all providers is covered in respect of electricity power outages and their impact on mobile phone aerials? Most of those have a battery life of only two hours if the electric power is off.

Yes, power outages, pandemics and flood are some of the issues that the ECRRG, the group which I mentioned, has considered. It has improved the organisation for that in recent months.

Is the Minister able to provide assurance that first responders and emergency services have a back-up system across all parts of the United Kingdom in the event of any of the systems going through an outage period?

I am not able to give that assurance as I do not know what bases the emergency services use. If, for example, they were entirely dependent on O2 they would not have back-up. I am not aware whether that is the case but I will certainly write to the noble Baroness on that subject.

My Lords, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat used to produce a pamphlet which covered all the resilience issues, including communications, power and pandemics. Now that is included as part of the national risk register, so that when you look it up on the web you can draw down things. Is there any plan to produce that very useful booklet again, which went to every single household and gave advice on how to confront these various resilience issues?

I am not sure of the answer to that. Critical national infrastructure is the responsibility of the Cabinet Office and I will certainly ask those there and write to the noble Lord.