triumph for rural mobile coverage

The long parliamentary campaign to bring mobile coverage to rural areas ended in victory today, as OFCOM finally announced proposals to increase broadband coverage to an estimated 98% of the UK population.

Traditionally, up to 6 million people in Britain have been excluded from good mobile coverage, particularly in rural areas. (Mobile phone companies were only obliged to cover 95% of the population, 90% of the time). Rory  has made the campaign to increase the coverage the heart of his new career in parliament. He has argued that the lack of coverage cripples rural areas, their businesses and services. The campaign first attracted national attention when the MP – a new backbencher – introduced and steered a full debate on the floor of the House of Commons on 19 May 2011. His motion, urging OFCOM to increase the coverage to at least 98 % drew the support of over 120 MPs from all parties, and more than fifty spoke in the debate – see the link here. The motion itself received more MPs’ signatures than any previous motion in living memory and it was carried unanimously at the end of a 3 hour debate.

In October, the Chancellor of the Exchequer responded to the debate by committing an extra 150 million pounds to build thousands of new mobile phone masts to cover rural areas. In November the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee slammed OFCOM’s coverage target of 95% as ‘unambitious’ and backed Rory’s call for a 98%  coverage obligation. In today’s announcement, OFCOM proposes options which should ensure that 98% or more of the population receives 4G mobile broadband coverage. This means that millions who currently do not have a mobile signal will now receive one, and that millions more will have their signal upgraded from a 2G ‘voice’ signal to a 4G signal, capable of carrying broadband data.

This investment will transform the fortunes of thousands of small and medium sized businesses, currently hamstrung by inadequate mobile phone and internet coverage. Hundreds of thousands of homes, schools, farms and businesses will get access to decent mobile and internet coverage for the first time.

Rory said: “It is fantastic that OFCOM has responded to Parliament’s campaign in this way. We need growth in Britain and this investment will transform our businesses and economy. Almost nothing has a more dramatic effect on the growth of small businesses than giving them good broadband and mobile access. It allows them to compete more quickly, more cheaply, and in some cases worldwide. High quality mobile signals will also allow sparsely populated rural areas to finally use the incredible new technological opportunities. We can transform health through telemedicine, and education through distance learning. I want to pay tribute to the hard work of so many backbench MPs, who have joined me in lobbying Ministers for just such a measure on behalf of their rural constituents for so long. We also need to acknowledge the incredible work of the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Broadband Minister, the Head of Ofcom, and all their officials, in making this possible.  Improving mobile coverage and broadband is the single most effective thing this government can do encourage economic growth in rural areas. It will transform rural services and productivity.”

The policy is perhaps the most dramatic example of success from the controversial new system of ‘backbench business committee debates’, whereby backbenchers can propose motions and challenge government policy. In this case, unusually, the backbench motion won government support. Broadband Minister, Ed Vaizey, responded to Rory’s motion in the debate, saying: “for one so young and so new to the House, his ability to gauge the issues which concern the house are second to none.’ DEFRA minister Richard Benyon praised “Rory Stewart’s visionary speech and the leadership he is giving in broadband and on improving mobile coverage.” The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, added: ‘I was particularly impressed by Rory Stewart’s approach and advocacy of broadband and mobile coverage for Cumbria. He and the Cumbrian communities should be very proud of what they have achieved.”

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