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Mobile Network Roaming Capabilities

Volume 499: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a duty on mobile network operators to introduce automatic roaming capabilities between mobile telephone networks in the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes.

Just about every Member of the House has a mobile phone, some more than one. Imagine, Mr. Speaker, if yours stopped working, and if the lights and buttons still functioned but you could not access the internet, send an SMS or make a phone call. Now imagine that the person sitting next to you could use all the functions of their mobile phone to the fullest. How frustrating would it be to know that your phone had ceased to function while others were working perfectly? That is the problem facing many people in this country daily, particularly in my constituency.

Mobile phones are as common today as landline phones, and in some cases they may be the only form of communication that a person has. The good people at Ofcom have data that show that more than 80 per cent. of people in the United Kingdom use mobile phones in conjunction with their landline phone, and 12 per cent. only have a mobile phone. It is therefore expected that our mobile phones can send and receive signals with little or no interruption.

In London, quality mobile phone coverage is expected. To lose coverage for any length of time is deemed unacceptable. In fact, just a one-hour loss of 3G voice coverage on the O2 network in London last month warranted media attention. Now there are plans to extend mobile coverage to the underground, as it has been in cities such as Stockholm.

Surely, with the growth of mobile phone networks, we should also have an expectation of an expansion of the mobile network over the entire United Kingdom. The Bill would bring about a duty on mobile phone providers to allow roaming between networks within the UK, which is a variation of a system that is currently practised in the United States and does not need the building of any more costly physical infrastructure. It just needs better use of what is already there.

The Bill would benefit the entire UK mobile network. Although mobile coverage lost for an hour in London is a serious enough problem for the media, rural constituencies often rely totally on the strength of a mobile signal. People in my constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar are exposed to failures of the network more than most, because of the remoteness of the isles. Gale-force winds may damage a transmitter or mast, and when that goes down one mobile network signal may deactivate while another is still working. My constituents therefore ask why they cannot use the strongest working signal.

Recently in Carloway, on the Isle of Lewis in my constituency, there was a period of more than five weeks without mobile coverage. That means that people who depend predominantly on mobile networks, such as volunteer first responders, could not make calls or help to co-ordinate emergency services. Those people provide first aid when needed and direct ambulance services to an incident site. In my constituency, it could take an hour or more to get an ambulance to a house, but a first responder could be there within minutes provided that they could receive emergency calls. The problem was exacerbated beyond the original delay when a dispute arose between Orange and the landowners of the mast. Most of the people affected in Carloway have landline coverage, but as well as the inconvenience of losing their mobile coverage, they still had to pay their monthly tariff for a service that they did not receive. Businesses that relied on mobile services were unable to operate at full efficiency.

That is not the only case of extreme coverage loss in my area. In the past two years, my constituents went without mobile coverage in September 2008 when Vodafone coverage was lost for two weeks; in June 2009 for two weeks; in July 2009 for one week; and, most recently, for more than five weeks when Orange coverage was lost between September and November. That is just on the island of Lewis, and other islanders and people in other areas of the constituency have similar stories to tell.

The problem could be alleviated in many instances if people could roam to a functioning network. That would also help the coverage and the amount of calls made, which would surely increase, and the companies’ revenue would also increase if they co-operated and improved their geographical patchwork rather than having people inconvenienced and out of contact.

Indeed, perhaps mobile phones have been an unheralded facilitator of modern economic growth. An oft-quoted 2005 study from the London Business School found that when 10 or more out of 100 people in developing countries start using cell phones, gross domestic product rises by 0.59 per cent. per capita. Some studies have found even higher rises in GDP. Thus, as well as convenience, we should appreciate the economic benefits to areas that probably need them most, not only overseas but in this country.

Many people all over the UK will have experienced being cut off during calls as they enter blackspots. The Bill would reduce that phenomenon markedly by allowing people to piggyback on to another network. Of course, networks deserve praise because they have delivered great benefits and convenience to people’s lives. They, too, in credit crunch times have cost restrictions. They are innovative in bringing 3G to people’s homes through broadband connections of more than 1 megabit, although at a cost. Happily, T-Mobile tells me that it has great coverage up the entire A9—the spine of Scotland. Good stuff indeed.

Public policy through Ofcom wants five competing networks. There is some work on network consolidation, but clearly not enough, or I would not be standing here. I know people who have two mobile phones because their mobility is such that no one mobile network can serve their needs. Surely that contradicts the idea of mobile telephony. Contacting and texting those people is difficult because one has to send two messages and, invariably when one phones, they are in the area served by their second mobile phone. I think that that is known as sod’s law.

I am not sure where that leaves aims for a Digital Britain. The Home Office paper, “Protecting the public in a changing communications environment”, would better serve the public by enabling roaming than by some of the other activities planned for e-mails and such like.

Now, a burden is placed on the consumer to find the ability to access more than one network. Consumers sometimes have to purchase more than one SIM card—or, indeed, more than one phone. Surely that is a highly inefficient way of delivering a service to the public. Why should consumers have to buy more than one SIM card or phone to get the maximum coverage for a mobile service that already exists?

It is not the first time that such a Bill has been introduced. Last year, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) presented a similar measure. If the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells—a south-eastern English constituency with far better 2G and 3G coverage than mine—has similar concerns to those of my rural island constituency, it shows the vastness of the problem.

The measure is surely in the best interests of the consumer and the industry. Allowing consumers to roam automatically is tantamount to free advertising. If one discovers that one’s contracted network is constantly down and one finds oneself on the strongest network, it would be prudent to move contracts. The best providers would thereby receive the most customers, and customers would have access to the best service. Surely that is an incentive to industry not to take its customers for granted. I wonder whether the status quo is too cosy for the mobile companies.

The market often needs a legislative push to work for rural customers and improve the service for urban customers. As has been said previously, we can get money free of charge from cash points operated by different banks because they benefit the customer and the industry. Surely we should expect the same from our mobile network. We hear much these days about fiscal stimulus, but it is phone stimulus that Parliament must give the country and the people.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr. Angus MacNeil, Angus Robertson, Mr. Alistair Carmichael, Mark Durkan, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, Pete Wishart, Mr. Mike Weir, Andrew George, Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Stephen Hepburn, David Davis, Greg Clark and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.

Mr. Angus MacNeil accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 166).

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning bill (Programme) (no.2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 23 February 2009 (Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill (Programme)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Kevin Brennan.)