backbenchers fight and win a battle for the future of rural britain

The House of Commons voted unanimously yesterday  to push the government to provide mobile and broadband coverage for two million more people, particularly in rural areas. The surprise vote, led by
Rory, attracted over a hundred signatures to the motion in four days (more than for any motion, debated on the floor of the House of Commons, in living memory).

The MPs passed the motion in defiance of the regulator, OFCOM, which had proposed not to increase the existing coverage obligation, when they auction the next generation of mobile licences in 2012. Mobile
coverage currently includes only 95 per cent of the population 90 per cent of the time, meaning that up to 7 million people in UK do not receive mobile coverage and many more do not receive fast broadband connections. This significantly disadvantages rural businesses and rural communities – particularly with more and more services moving on-line.

Backbench MPs, particularly from rural areas, turned out in mass to push for much wider coverage. Over 20 MPs spoke.

In his opening speech, hailed by dozens of MPs from all sides of the House, Rory called on the government to increase the scope of its ambition to bring mobile and broadband coverage for everyone in the UK. Mr Stewart argued that in claiming that the final 5% of the population was uneconomic to serve with mobile broadband, the government and Ofcom were being “Penny wise, pound foolish”. “Everyone is looking for growth and a positive future for Britian: good broadband and mobile infrastructure throughout the country is one of smartest, cheapest forms of infrastructure investment that we can make.”

Mr Stewart praised “the extraordinary people” of the Eden District of Cumbria who have been leading community broadband projects in remote areas and praised the moves by Cumbria’s doctors and nurses, policeman and teachers, to make more use of modern technology. But he warned their jobs would be made impossible unless the government ensures that high-speed coverage in rural areas can keep up with the coverage in urban ones:

He said: “The justification for the Cumbria police closing police stations is that they want policemen to be on the streets more, using their tablets to transmit data straight back to the police station. Nurses and doctors visiting people in their homes rely on being able to transmit data in real time back to a hospital from the home. Education is being transformed by online learning.”

Mr Stewart warned the government: “Are we prepared to turn around in 2015 and say to people in this country and people in our constituencies, “No, everybody else in the world can have this thing, but you can’t have it?”

Mr Stewart ended by saying: “Let us not allow the clever arguments of narrow economists who are blind to technology and obsessed with making their auction feature in a particular fashion allow Britain to miss
the chance to get what it needs for its economy, for its society, for its health, for its education and for its communities by signing up to the best superfast mobile and broadband coverage in Europe.”

The vigorous debate, which lasted three hours, with speeches and interventions from more than 30 MPs, finished with a unanimous vote for Mr.Stewart’s motion. Mr.Stewart said: “We now need to see a concrete proposal from OFCOM on how they will extend coverage. They can do it by imposing a coverage obligation or the treasury could commit a small fraction of the money which it will make from the licence auction.  What matters is that the millions of excluded people in Britain are given mobile broadband coverage as soon as possible.”

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