Shared Rural Network Implementation

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 24 January 2024.

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Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government) 4:30, 24 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the implementation of the Shared Rural Network.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Maria. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I support the shared rural network, which aims to increase 4G coverage from 91% now to 95% of the UK landmass by 2025, and to ensure that there is coverage by all providers of 84% of the area by the same date. The Government are investing £0.5 billion in new masts in total notspot areas, which is very welcome, and the industry is spending about the same on ensuring that rural areas now covered only by one provider—partial notspots—get a signal from all providers by that date. None the less, there are concerns that roll-out is not progressing as quickly as we would like. The purpose of today’s debate is to ask the Minister to consider further steps to ensure that the objectives are achieved and that our constituents get the mobile signal they need and deserve.

Improved rural coverage for everyone is important for all sorts of reasons. First, it enables people to work from home in the modern economy, increasing job opportunities and business productivity. The rural region, accounting for about 20% of Britain, is one of the least productive economic areas of the whole country. One fifth of our people live in rural areas, and we want to give them every opportunity they can to be productive and to access the job opportunities they need. Where I live, lots of young people move away to access better job opportunities in cities. Our countryside is becoming populated primarily by retired people, and while we love them, we could do with some younger people as well to keep our schools open and communities thriving.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

Does the hon. Lady recognise that in some rural areas—I am thinking particularly of Mordon and Killerby in my Sedgefield constituency—people move away from villages not only because they cannot get broadband, but because transport is a problem? With no transport options, they desperately need broadband to be there.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. We have spoken about public transport a lot, which is related to this problem. In rural areas like ours, when people are working they are often not stationary in an office, but moving around the area. A plumber or an agricultural worker relies on the mobile signal to operate their business on a daily basis. They need the mobile signal to work wherever they are, not just in their home. That is a key point that I will return to.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward this important debate. I apologise to you, Dame Maria, and to the hon. Lady, as I cannot be here that long—I have to chair a committee meeting at 5 o’clock. We have seen massive progress in rural broadband across the whole of the United Kingdom. Through the confidence and supply agreement, the Democratic Unionist party secured a deal with the Conservative party for £200 million for this very purpose in Northern Ireland. Moving forward, while 4G might be the commitment of the shared rural network, what we need now is 5G. Does the hon. Lady agree that progress has to match technological advances?

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that progress in rural areas is so slow that we end up with yesterday’s technology. I will come on to that towards the end of my speech. The roll-out of broadband and Project Gigabit in North Shropshire is very welcome, but the mobile signal is extremely important.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

The hon. Lady is making a good start on her speech, but there are examples of positive development across the country. In Devon, for instance, we have reconstituted Connecting Devon and Somerset. It has worked extremely well: in the last four years, we have gone from about 84% connectivity up into the high nineties percentile. That modern technology is also following suit. There are pretty good examples of where the private sector and public sector—Devon County Council—have done extraordinary work to make sure we are reaching the hard-to-reach areas, eliminating the notspots and ensuring connectivity for all. It is not a complete tale of woe.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

I am pleased to hear that it is going well. Ensuring that we get to that stage across the country is what I hope this debate will achieve.

A survey for the Country Land and Business Association found that 80% of rural business owners said that improved connectivity would be the single largest improvement to their business. Mobile phones have been cited as the default back-up option for people when the copper landline network is switched off in a power cut. We are probably ultra-sensitive to that after the last couple of weeks, when people have been without power for extended periods. It is entirely right that electricity companies get power back on in urban areas sooner, because that is where the greatest number of people need to be connected, but we also need to ensure that the back-up option for rural people works, and that is the mobile phone signal.

It is important that people have a choice of provider to ensure that they have mobile connection when they need it. Interestingly, respondents to a survey conducted by Building Digital UK cited poor mobile coverage as a major factor exacerbating poor outcomes from agricultural injuries. That is vital in a very rural constituency where there is a large number of agricultural workers and where a couple of years ago there were several combine harvester fires. It is really important that people can call 999 when they need to, or call an ambulance if they have suffered an accident anywhere in a rural area.

Mobile coverage is also one of the top issues faced by constituents. I ran a series of open meetings over the summer, and constituents were genuinely angry that they could not use the same mobile signal at home as at work. It caused them huge problems—for example, they could not do simple things like phoning home to get someone to pick up their kids from school if they were running late. There was a real impact on people’s daily life from not being able to access the same mobile phone signal wherever they went in their local area.

It is important to note that partial notspots, which are the main issue where I live, effectively mean that people have only one choice of provider, so we are not seeing the competitive market that our urban counterparts have when they are choosing who to buy their phone or SIM from.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk

My rural constituency of North Norfolk has exactly the same problems with notspots. One of the fundamental problems seems to be the planning process, in which planners or the mobile phone companies and their agents put together applications for completely inappropriate locations. They get turned down by the local community and the local planning authority, not because local people do not want a mobile phone signal but because they do not want a lattice structure of 50 metres in an area of outstanding natural beauty. How can we get to a situation in which planning applications can be made and approved, and not opposed all the time?

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Obviously we want to improve the signal, but not blight the countryside with big, ugly lattice masts. A key ask of the debate is that we look at the way in which the companies share equipment to reduce the amount of additional infrastructure that has to be built across the countryside.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

My hon. Friend Duncan Baker makes a very good point: we have to take into consideration the concerns of communities when we build infrastructure. However, a notification of a planning application has come across my desk today that is not about building a new structure but is about upgrading the transmission equipment at the top of a structure. Very often, it is a case not of putting up anything new but upgrading what is already there. That should not be a problem.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and I will come on to it. The importance of mast and equipment sharing is that hopefully we can streamline the process to upgrade the sites where the equipment is now, and limit the number of additional sites that are applied for.

Some 15.1% by area of North Shropshire is a partial notspot for data, and one in five premises can use only one operator for a phone call. There is a problem of competition, or the lack of it, in rural areas. We all understand that there are logistical challenges with putting masts in wild areas: a power supply is needed, and it might be an area of outstanding beauty, for example. There are all sorts of reasons why it might be difficult. We see the effect of that every day.

In North Shropshire less than 60% of premises have indoor coverage from all operators, compared with the UK average of 86%. The situation is worse in our villages than towns. Less than a third of people who live outside the towns have a choice of more than one mobile operator. That is all based on the existing data maps of coverage, but we know, because the Minister acknowledged it in oral questions recently, that these data maps are extremely optimistic and do not always reflect the lived experience of people on the ground. I mentioned that I had some open meetings with constituents in the summer, and that was one of their key gripes. The map said that they had a signal, but the reality was nothing like that. Accurate data is really important to ensure that when the providers “meet their obligations”, that is actually what is happening on the ground and not just a theoretical outcome.

The shared rural network involves the four mobile network operators spending £500 million of their own money to end partial notspots. Those areas are deemed to be commercially viable because one operator has already decided to put a mast there and provide a service to the people living there. EE announced that it has already met its obligations under the shared rural network to reduce its partial notspots by June 2024. It did that a couple of weeks ago, so it is running six months ahead of schedule, but as reported in The Daily Telegraph, the other three providers have requested a delay and say that they will not hit the 2024 target. This is where the concern arises.

Some of that is down to planning resource. As discussed, planning resource is very difficult. Lots of councils have high levels of vacancy and their planning departments have logistical challenges. There is also resistance to new infrastructure. That all causes a problem.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

As the hon. Lady may be aware from her constituency—it is the case in my constituency and rural parts of Suffolk—church towers are often used to support broadband masts. To speed up the roll-out of this programme, I wonder whether something could be done with planning policy nationally to give a presumption in support of broadband masts being put into church towers where there is a desire to do so.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

Suffolk is famous for its spectacular medieval church towers. We are perhaps not so well blessed with those structures in North Shropshire, but I think it is a fair point. Easing the planning process is something that definitely should be considered.

Apart from all the logistical issues, the mobile network operators failed to reach an agreement with EE to share their existing equipment. The reason that EE has achieved its objectives so far in advance is because it has an extensive network of existing equipment. This is a commercial issue, because this was a commercial investment. I guess it depends on one’s point of view whether EE was asking for too much money or whether the other operators were not offering a sensible amount, but the reality is that they have failed to reach an agreement. That means that the roll-out by the other three mobile network operators is delayed, and they are potentially building masts where they do not need to.

It is also worth noting that the difficulty of the planning process means that not a single mast has yet been built for the total notspots. The Minister will correct me if my data is out of date and I am wrong about that, but according to the briefing I have seen, that is the case. Masts are going up in the wilder areas using public money.

There are lots of issues. We have a commercial failure to share equipment. We have a planning problem. We know everybody would benefit, so let us have a look at what the potential solution could be. Infrastructure sharing is absolutely key. We should be looking at how we can ensure that the commercial operators do better on that front.

I also want to speak about the potential solution of rural roaming. Rural roaming is what happens when we travel to the continent, or indeed anywhere in the world. Our phone links up to the signal that it can find, and we go about our daily business without noticing what we are connected to.

The industry strongly opposes the idea of rural roaming. It says that it is technically inferior; phones would have a shorter battery life because they are seeking a signal. Obviously, rural roaming does not deal with total notspots where there is no mast to produce a signal for phones to connect to. The industry also says that rural roaming would undermine future investment in the network, which is obviously critical, particularly because the technology moves on all the time, as Jim Shannon said.

Having said all that, there is support for rural roaming. A 2019 report by the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs Committee said that it would be a good solution, because it could be implemented in under 18 months and would give between 90% and 95% landmass coverage, which is comparable to the aim of the shared rural network. The Country Land and Business Association has described rural roaming as a common-sense solution, and I can assure the House that there would be a huge amount of support for it among my constituents in North Shropshire. Since that EFRA Committee report in 2019, the shared rural network has been signed up to, but there are significant concerns about the speed of the roll-out, and there is no plan to go further and provide 5G coverage, including stand-alone 5G coverage, in the countryside.

In conclusion, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of having better data when we assess the success of the roll-out of the shared rural network, because there is a real risk that notional targets will be met without the consumer experience being improved. People in North Shropshire and other constituencies do not care whether a map shows that they have coverage. They will be worried sick if their mum goes into hospital, and no one can get in touch with them because they are in a part of the constituency that the phone signal does not reach.

Will the Government consider not only making sure that the data is improved, but taking further steps to improve areas that have partial notspots by requiring mobile network operators to share their equipment more effectively? They should come to an arrangement whereby that can be done, so that the number of masts and the planning process are not major factors in slowing up the roll-out of the shared rural network. If that cannot be done, will the Minister consider requiring the industry to provide rural roaming? As we often say, if it is not acceptable for people in Birmingham to have only one choice of mobile network provider, it is not acceptable for people in Shropshire.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Order. This is a 60-minute debate. I need to move to the Front-Bench contributions at 5.8 pm, and I have about six Members rising to speak—do the maths. Please bob if you want to speak. If we are to get everyone in, I suggest a limit of three or four minutes for every speech. If Members adhered to that, it would be amazing.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North 4:47, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria, and I thank Helen Morgan for securing this important and necessary debate on the implementation of the shared rural network.

Looking around, I think that we all have particularly rural constituencies—well, nearly all of us—so we know very well the value and importance of having consistent and reliable mobile coverage in our villages and countryside, and of course, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire said, on our farms, for both connectivity and safety.

Through the shared rural network, the Government have an ambitious target of ensuring 95% 4G coverage by 2025, and that target is backed up by around half a billion pounds of Government investment. Clearly, this is a Government who are committed to levelling up and our rural areas, and who aim to ensure that everybody in the UK, no matter where they are, can reap the rewards of that investment.

Ensuring that coverage reaches our rural villages is crucial. I have some beautiful villages in my patch, including Hanslope, Ravenstone, Stoke Goldington and Weston Underwood—crikey, I will have to mention them all now! But you have said that there is a time limit, Dame Maria, so I cannot mention all the beautiful villages. We have thriving local businesses, farms and communities, which all ultimately depend on consistent mobile coverage.

My rural constituents often tell me that they have a restricted choice of networks, compared with people living in the more built-up urban areas that I represent. The shared rural network will address that problem directly by arranging for the UK’s four main mobile operators to upgrade their infrastructure and share access with each other. I know that will be welcome news for rural constituencies and communities across the country, giving businesses and our communities more choice and driving competition, which is crucial. That is the key message that I took from the hon. Member for North Shropshire: it is about competition. The economic angle in this debate comes to prominence here. Consistent and complete mobile coverage across the UK is one of the missing pieces of our ability to unlock and unleash economic growth outside the UK’s big cities and populated areas. Better coverage will help businesses to increase their efficiency, which is obviously useful for consumers and customers.

The other important side to this debate is the issue of inequality. Improving rural connectivity is about tackling regional inequalities and the digital exclusion that we been fighting during this Parliament. It is about levelling up. With the shift towards more working from home since the pandemic, the need for consistent coverage is more important than ever for working families in rural areas. With these types of national projects, it is important that we take a sustainable approach, and that is why the shared rural network is so effective. The masts will be shared by the network providers. When new masts are built, they will have to go through planning, so that communities get their say. I look forward to seeing how this project develops.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice) 4:51, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Maria, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Morgan on securing this debate. It is hardly a new one, sadly, and of course we have been around this issue many times. I was struck by what my hon. Friend said about the attitude of the industry to rural roaming. The exact same arguments were advanced over 10 years ago, when we were trying to persuade the operators to share masts. Frankly, like many present, I would have a lot more sympathy for the companies if, in the intervening years, they had got their act together and made the necessary investment in the rural network; we would then not be where we are today.

On data, my hon. Friend is right in saying that access to networks is critical. I would even go one step further and say that what we really need is accurate signals inside buildings. So often with partial notspots, a person will get a signal, but they have to be prepared to go to the bottom of their garden at 4 am in a howling gale. To my mind, that is not meaningful access. As Anthony Mangnall said, there have been significant changes, and we should accept that there has been progress, but it has been absolutely glacial. People in cities and towns would not accept it, so I do not understand why people in rural areas should be expected to tolerate it.

There has been significant progress on the emergency services network in recent years, and I should declare an interest, in that I have an EE mast on my land, which was constructed as a consequence of the ESN development. We should now look at the fact that the ESN is limited to land, and up to the 12 nautical mile limit. There are good and valuable reasons for extending the ESN beyond that; emergencies do not just happen on dry land. We could all say a lot more on this issue, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire for securing the time for this debate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham 4:54, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria, and I congratulate Helen Morgan on securing this very important debate. I am lucky enough to represent a constituency that is 335 square miles of pure, beautiful, rural Buckinghamshire. Mobile signal is critical, day to day, in many walks of life. There has been a growth in the number of people working from home, and many try to take Zoom or Teams calls in local cafés. My children endlessly demand that we stream all sorts of dreadful songs to make the journey go a bit quicker, but often, as we go through the villages, Siri delivers that dreaded message: there is a problem because it cannot get a data signal. That comes up time and again when I talk to constituents.

On my summer surgery tour last year, I went to the village of Cuddington, which is not far from my village of Chearsley, in which people also struggle to get mobile signal, particularly inside buildings. Constituents in Cuddington were saying that they literally could not get a signal on any network in that village. That is absolutely devastating for people. They may need to make an emergency call, or they may have an urgent work commitment—they need to get that email out—and they simply cannot do it. It is a huge problem. While the shared rural network is a brilliant idea and a fantastic initiative, we need to put a rocket underneath it to get it working far more quickly.

There really is not a technological excuse for this. Many moons ago, on my honeymoon in the middle of the Masai Mara, I was struck by the fact that there was not a building to be seen, yet there was still a strong 4G signal on my mobile phone. I was part of a delegation to rural Israel just a couple of weeks ago. We went down to the Gaza border. Some of those places had been so brutally attacked that they were literally in ruins, yet there was still a solid 4G—and at times 5G— signal on my mobile phone, but when I am waiting to pick up my son outside the school gates, I cannot even check my WhatsApp messages.

My message to the Minister is that this is a brilliant initiative, but it needs the Government to put a real boost underneath it, and to put pressure on industry. I fully accept and congratulate EE for being ahead of the curve on this, but we need all the networks to be ahead of the curve on this, and we need to get this right for all of our rural constituents.

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome 4:57, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Morgan on securing this important debate. What we are discussing, as we do in many debates on rural areas, is the feeling and the reality of being left behind. Rural areas encounter additional challenges and are so often forgotten. That is felt in my constituency of Somerton and Frome.

The shared rural network pledges to bring 95% 4G coverage by 2025, yet 39 postcode areas in Somerton and Frome do not yet even have the soon-to-be-phased-out 3G coverage. The shared rural network mythology sets the minimum required coverage signal strength at the equivalent of just a single bar on an iPhone 7 Plus, if anyone still has one of those. The Local Government Association states that it has often found a disconnect between the coverage that mobile network operators claim, and the experience of residents. As the world is rapidly moving away from 4G and on to 5G, my constituents could be left with a single bar of 4G after the successful roll-out of the network.

There are reports circulating that three of the mobile network operators in the shared rural network are struggling with the requirement to meet their 4G interim coverage targets by the end of June 2024. As we have already heard, this is leading to reasonable fears that rural residents will have to wait even longer for reliable mobile connectivity. In Somerton and Frome, the lack of mobile coverage means that rural businesses struggle to set up mobile payments and may be more reliant on using cash, which is difficult as some of our market towns, including Castle Cary, do not have any bank branches left. That makes rural areas less attractive for people to move to, or move their businesses to.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire said in her powerful opening speech, the lack of mobile connectivity also compromises the safety of lone workers and of those who work in rural agricultural businesses, who often operate large equipment in notspot areas.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. What she says brings to mind a point that I almost raised when my hon. Friend Greg Smith was speaking. Does the hon. Lady agree that as there is more and more of an assumption that we are all digitally connected—whether it is through online banking or through annoying songs for our children—people who are not connected are made to feel even more remote as the digital world develops without them?

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. A recent report from the National Farmers Union confirmed that by stating that four out of five farmers do not have reliable mobile signal throughout their farms, and one in 20 has no outdoor locations with reliable mobile signal.

My constituents have been in touch with me to relay their fears of being left unconnected to mobile networks. In West Bradley, an elderly couple who suffer from numerous health issues told me that they have no mobile reception in their home. Their telephone provider is looking to switch them to a digital landline, meaning that in the event of a power cut they would be left unable to contact emergency services. That is a very real and scary prospect for many people living in rural areas.

Swathes of Wincanton are 4G partial notspots, meaning that they are not served by any of the mobile operators. Currently, that means that residents who may receive coverage with EE, for example, do not receive any coverage when they cross the town and surrounding areas as they go about their daily lives. That problem could be resolved with the introduction of rural roaming, which would allow residents to connect to any network active in their area even if 4G is not available through their operator. Back in 2018, Ofcom stated that rural roaming could be a solution for the notspot issues that plague our rural communities, yet the Government and the operators have simply refused.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire stated, she has tabled a Bill that would incentivise operators to allow customers to rural roam. I fully support those sensible measures to help my constituents who suffer the plight of unfair mobile connectivity, and I hope to see quick progress with the shared rural network to ensure that rural areas are not left any more behind than they are already.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:02, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Morgan on securing this excellent debate.

There is a common theme here, as we have heard from my hon. Friend Sarah Dyke and Greg Smith. I want to take everyone to a community called Borgie, which is on the north coast of Sutherland facing the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael. In Borgie, an elderly gentleman fell over in his garden. Exactly as we have heard already, he did not have a mobile signal and had to crawl some distance to a landline to call for help.

In the same community, I also have a constituent named Jean, who had a mast installed on her ground in 2019. I give credit where it is due; Openreach and EE, the companies involved, did what they needed to do. You would think that this was a good news story, Dame Maria, but it is not. SSE needs to connect the mast to the electrical grid for it to do its work. It has promised again and again that the work will be done—to absolutely no effect. We are now in 2024, almost five years since the mast was put up, and it is no good to man or beast, as we say in the highlands. On a slightly more humorous note, her neighbours in Borgie call the mast “Jean’s folly”. Alas, it is a folly indeed.

A lot of public money has been spent on the mast, so in this incredibly brief contribution I make an appeal to the Minister. Could she, in the goodness of her heart, representing the United Kingdom Government, have a quiet and meaningful word with the Scottish Government and tell them to get their act together with SSE to get that mast connected? In the meantime, we have no mobile connectivity whatsoever.

Finally, as others have said, we have power cuts all over the UK. My wife was cut off this very morning in the highlands; luckily, we got the electricity back on again. My final plea is therefore that the masts need to have some sort of solar power attached to them. I would be extraordinarily grateful to the Minister if she used her charms to sort out this extremely annoying problem, which is quite dangerous for a remote community in the highlands.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 5:05, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate Helen Morgan on securing this important debate.

There have been a lot of contributions, and I will zoom through most of them. We had contributions from Ben Everitt and Mr Carmichael, who raised concerns about signals within buildings, which is a different technical issue but one that still causes problems.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

There is a problem in this building as well, of course.

Greg Smith told stories about his children; I think many of us can relate to those. Sarah Dyke is unfortunately still struggling with 3G, never mind 4G. Jamie Stone talked about Jean’s folly. Jean is the name of my dog—a different Jean. I gently point out to the hon. Member that this is a reserved issue, so it is incumbent on the UK Government, not the Scottish Government, to sort it out.

It was only last month that a number of us—the same characters—were here in Westminster Hall debating the difficulties arising from the switch from copper wire to internet fibre signals for phone lines. Today’s debate is important because, with the removal of the copper wire network, if an internet signal drops out, as has happened to many households this week with Storms Isha and Jocelyn, people rely on the 4G network, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire said. If the 4G network is not reliable, people are left without the resilience to deal with emergency situations, as we have heard. The hon. Member also raised concerns about the speed of the 4G roll-out. That is rather ironic: at the same time as the roll-out is happening too slowly, the switch from copper wire to fibre is happening too quickly. There seems to be a real—pardon the pun—disconnect between those two issues.

The shared rural network is a joint venture between the UK Government and the big four mobile providers. It should provide 4G coverage to 95% of the UK, and enable rural communities and businesses to gain greater connectivity. In Scotland, the roll-out must be done with an awareness of the importance of the natural environment. Although the issue is reserved, as I said, the Scottish Government have done some work in this area to bring together different groups and ensure that the roll-out is done in a sympathetic way. The Scottish Government have organised and participated in discussions with national parks and NatureScot to ensure that we get mutually acceptable outcomes.

We have heard about some difficulties regarding planning. Duncan Baker, who is no longer in his place, raised concerns about ugly infrastructure. If we do the roll-out in conjunction with local communities, we can look at creativity of placement and the use of existing structures.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. EE has recently announced that it has met its coverage targets for the first phase of the rural network programme. We need to know whether that statement matches reality. How is EE checking that? Is it actually going round with a mobile phone and ensuring that there is coverage everywhere that there should be coverage, or is it saying that the mast should provide coverage in that area? Those are two very different things. How are the Government checking what the mobile providers are saying? What further incentives are the Government providing to ensure proper coverage?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Order. I am sure that the hon. Lady is coming to a close.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

I am just finishing. It would be useful to hear about specific interventions that the Government are taking in tricky rural areas.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy) 5:10, 24 January 2024

I congratulate Helen Morgan on securing the debate. It is vital not only for those in rural areas, but for constituencies like mine, which has many hard-to-reach villages.

I must take issue with Ben Everitt. We have many rural areas in Islwyn. Indeed, the National Farmers Union hosted a farmers’ breakfast in Crumlin last week. He is always able to visit if he wants to; he has an open invitation.

There was a vital contribution to the debate from Mr Carmichael, who highlighted the contrast between the coverage in urban and rural areas. Those with young children will no doubt sympathise with Greg Smith; there are many times when I have been on long journeys with my children and tried to keep them entertained when we could not get an internet connection. There was also an interesting contribution from Sarah Dyke, who said that rural communities developing 4G will be left behind when there are further developments in 5G.

Jamie Stone told us a harrowing story about a constituent in the village of Borgie who had suffered a fall and could not speak to anybody because he did not have an internet connection. I genuinely hope that as a result of the hon. Member’s campaigning, Jean’s folly will be rectified and the good people of Borgie will finally have full internet connection. I wish him all the best with that campaign.

Many people regularly work in rural areas and remote locations that currently lack a good 4G connection. That work could be in tourism, construction or the provision of any number of at-home services in communities, particularly in health and social care. Having no 4G means that when someone is working on the go, there can be no online payments and no access to real-time data. As an example, builders have to take time out of their working day to drive to somewhere where they can get 4G to work and download the most up-to-date information they need, just to make sure that they can access the documents required for them to work safely and effectively.

According to DEFRA, half of all rural businesses report that notspots have a negative impact on their profits, turnover and productivity. Many attribute hundreds of pounds of losses a month to poor connectivity. The issue is also important for lone workers—for example, in the agricultural sector—who need to know that they can stay in touch with colleagues or at least contact someone if things go wrong, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross described for his constituent.

People’s lives can be transformed by a reliable connection to 4G. It is important to recognise that online spaces can mitigate loneliness, which is crucial for people who do not have regular opportunities for physical interaction. Staying connected with friends and family, regardless of one’s location, is a brilliant benefit from being online and is key to maintaining good mental health. An internet connection can facilitate access and inclusion for disabled people—whether through apps that meet communication needs or through online information about available services. Now that many people do not have a local branch of their chosen bank, particularly outside cities, online banking from home is essential and is often used as an excuse for why a bank has closed. It is often those who live in an area without 4G who are most in need of it, because the bricks-and-mortar versions of services no longer exist.

Time is of the essence in securing access for those who have so far been left behind, so progress is to be welcomed. However, the Government once stated their aim to ensure that 95% of the UK had partial coverage by 2022, meaning 4G from at least one provider. Unfortunately, like a lot of the Government’s goals, this goal was pushed back to 2025. I am afraid that that is not good enough for so many rural communities. The programme has required commitments from the four mobile operators in the UK to invest in areas with partial coverage, in conjunction with public investment that will provide for hard-to-reach areas, like my own. One of the four operators has already succeeded in meeting its interim target for June 2024, but the remaining three reportedly wrote to the Government last October, asking for more time. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on that when she responds, and that it will not result in another postponement.

I do not want anybody thinking that I want the Government to fail. Being connected is extremely important—a lifeline for rural and hard-to-reach communities and people who are alone. It is vital and, as we have heard, often lifesaving.

As we have heard today, internet access is a necessity nowadays for so many people to access services, work, school and leisure. As we have seen during lockdown, it really was a lifeline to keep people connected and to form some sort of online community. I am hopeful that we will continue to see the expansion of 4G coverage and eventually 5G coverage in rural communities so that everyone can reap the benefits of access to the internet.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 5:15, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I thank Helen Morgan for securing this very important debate on the implementation of a shared rural network. I am glad to have her support for the SRN, and I thank her for showcasing the Government’s commitment to this extremely important programme. I am grateful to the hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, which speaks to the importance of connectivity in everybody’s constituencies. I will say a little more about that later.

I need to set out some of the challenges that we have when it comes to telecoms. There are balances to be made in terms of investment and infrastructure versus competition and low prices for consumers and making sure that MNOs implement their security commitments. Some of these things are difficult for us, but we are making good progress in getting people the connectivity that they need.

The shared rural network is a deal between the UK Government and the four mobile network operators—EE, Three, Virgin Media, O2 and Vodafone—signed in March 2020 to share an investment of £1 billion. It is delivering 4G coverage to about 95% of the UK land mass by the end of 2025. That is a commitment whereby we put up half the money and they put up half the money. We think that this shows great value for the taxpayer in getting the connectivity that we want.

The SRN is there to tackle the digital divide issues that hon. Members have highlighted with respect to connectivity in urban and rural areas. It supports economic growth and contributes substantially to public safety; an element of it involves building on the emergency services network. It means much greater life chances for people in those connected communities. We all understand from the pandemic what having poor connectivity meant for education, healthcare and so much more, so I understand hon. Members’ desire to get connectivity as quickly as possible.

This is just one of the interventions that the Government are making when it comes to connectivity. I am sure that hon. Members will be familiar with Project Gigabit, with which we are trying to drive gigabit connectivity in people’s constituencies. It is incredibly well supported by hon. Members. I am always grateful for that engagement —particularly, if I may say so, from my hon. Friend David Duguid, who is single-handedly driving roll-out in Scotland.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

In Banff and Buchan particularly. I should like to say to my hon. Friend that there has been some progress. I know that he shares my frustration at the slowness of the Scottish roll-out, which is a unique situation whereby the Scottish Government are driving it, as opposed to the rest of the UK, where the UK Government are taking the lead.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

Can the shared rural network programme be used to help to fill the notspots not just for mobile signal but for fixed signal? As the Minister has alluded to, the Scottish Government’s R100 programme has absolutely failed to deliver on their promises for fixed broadband.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My hon. Friend highlights a challenge whereby some communities have not only bad broadband connection, but bad telephone connection. Sometimes one can substitute for the other: people can tether off their phone signal. He has a constituency that has poor coverage for both, and I am very sympathetic. As he is aware, I am trying to do what I can as a UK Government Minister to substitute for some of the challenges that we have had with the Scottish roll-out.

We are looking at pilots on satellite connectivity in the very hardest areas to reach; we are also looking at some of the wireless solutions that my hon. Friend alluded to. Is the technology there? Some of these are probably not technologies that will substitute for gigabit roll-out, but we are seeing where they can. I can only assure him, as I do on a regular basis, that I am pushing and looking at every lever I have to get him the connectivity he desires. I should also say that we have had some progress in our discussions with the Scottish Government recently. We are having a regional procurement, and they are finally getting their act together on some of the more local procurement. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will start to see the benefit.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

Once again, I point out that broadband roll-out, as well as 4G roll-out, remains reserved to Westminster. The Scottish Government are of course helping to support the roll-out, but it is a reserved issue.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

Perhaps at some point the hon. Lady might like to update us on the progress and success of the R100 programme and its impact on constituents.

I thank Jamie Stone for highlighting some of the issues in Borgie in particular. I will happily take up the issue of Jean’s folly and see whether we can make any progress on it. I thank the hon. Member for highlighting cases showing the real-life impact that poor connectivity can have.

Before I respond to points raised by other hon. Members, it might be helpful if I explain how the SRN will be implemented across the UK and what has been achieved for some time when it comes to boosting mobile coverage. To deliver the programme, the operators are investing about half a billion pounds to eliminate the majority of partial notspots, which are the areas that receive coverage from at least one but not all four operators. The Government will then go even further and tackle the total number of notspots with our contribution of half a billion pounds. Those are the hardest-to-reach rural areas that currently have no 4G coverage at all.

By upgrading existing networks and working together on shared infrastructure in new sites, we will transform mobile coverage in rural areas and—this is key—maximising the use of existing infrastructure. I was particularly glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan about how we are seeing that sharing of infrastructure in his constituency. We want to minimise environmental impacts, but also ensure best value for the taxpayer.

One of the ways we are trying to speed up roll-out is by easing the planning process. Several hon. Members raised the need to make more straightforward the erection of new infrastructure, as we did in the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act 2022. It can be a difficult balance, because a number of hon. Members are unhappy about the siting of masts, and we are encouraging operators to put in mast applications in sensible places. To have engagement with local authorities, I wrote to all councils to set out where they have powers in that regard. I also raised the matter with Ofcom, because I know that there are some issues in particular parts of the country. We want to make sure that we can ease people’s concerns about the impact of mast infrastructure on communities, because pausing roll-out on that basis is in nobody’s interest.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

I have multiple examples, particularly of 5G masts. One was quite literally put in somebody’s back garden, right on the fence line; another, in Monks Risborough, was right on the edge of a shopping parade. Are the networks actually being receptive to my hon. Friend’s demands? Are we seeing a real change in where they are putting in applications to put up the new infrastructure?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. One of the challenges is trying to get that transparency and get data and information that goes beyond the anecdotal, to give us a proper picture of what is happening on the ground. It seems to me that this is happening in particular areas with particular companies, so I am trying to get that information. In the meantime, I am talking to Ofcom and local authorities and trying to understand where there are problems. There are also working groups between altnets so that there can be better sharing of mast infrastructure, which I think will ease some of the challenges.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

My own experience, and I have the scars to prove it, goes all the way back to the mobile infrastructure project. My experience has always been that the mobile operators will only come to the table when they are put under serious pressure. My hon. Friend Helen Morgan pointed out that three of the mobile operators will be wanting extensions to the time they have to meet their targets. I encourage the Minister to harden her heart when the pleas come in. If we do not hold the mobile operators’ feet to the fire, we will never get anywhere.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have robust conversations with the mobile network operators. He should also bear in mind that we are asking quite a lot of them, and there are a number of commitments. We want them to speed up roll-out and to make sure that their network infrastructure is secure, so there is a little bit of give and take on some of these issues. I always bear in mind the importance of not soft-soaping these things, and of having honest and robust conversations when they are needed. I am fully aware of the impact on communities that are poorly connected. I can only assure hon. Members of the Government’s desire to make sure that people get connectivity as quickly as possible. However, there are difficult balancing questions with some of these issues.

On the shared rural network, each operator will reach 90% geographic coverage. That will result in 84% of the UK having 4G coverage from all four operators, and 95% from at least one. That will increase choice, boost productivity and provide increased public safety in rural areas. The programme is already well under way, and coverage from all four operators has been increasing in every nation. Coverage from at least one operator has also improved. We are now approaching 93% geographic coverage for overall 4G. That is up from 91%, so we are on track to hit the 95% target. Those improvements have all come since the SRN deal was first agreed.

The first part of the programme, which is funded by industry, is tackling those partial notspots. The four MNOs have deployed over 190 new sites since 2020 to meet their SRN targets, and 35 new sites have been added this year. That is leading to improvements across the country. We are also progressing well in our part of the deal. The majority of our investment, as hon. Members opposite will be aware, is in Scotland, which currently has the lowest 4G coverage of any of the four nations, perhaps for obvious geographical reasons.

Operators and their suppliers have been establishing where masts should go to deliver the best coverage by carrying out a number of site suitability surveys. That has led to a number of letters to me about protecting the beauty of the highlands and so on. I would like to take this opportunity to assure hon. Members that we are trying to make sure we have the right balance, getting the infrastructure in place but not being ridiculous about where that infrastructure is sited. Obviously there are concerns, and some new masts will be needed, but probably not as many as people fear.

The issue of roaming has been raised. My understanding from discussions in the Department is that rural roaming was looked at previously, and it was decided that it could dissuade operators from going into rural areas because they would lose the competitive benefit of getting there first. It is a difficult balance. I appreciate the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for North Shropshire and am interested to test them.

I am aware that I am running out of time—there is so much to cover. Hon. Members raised the issue of the PSTN role. Again, I believe assurances have been offered on that front. There was a summit raised on the copper switch-off, but we are also looking at energy resilience.

We are very alive to the Ofcom data issue. We asked Ofcom to improve its reporting last year, and work is under way. We are alive to the concerns. I thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire and ill happily engage with her on all these issues and more, whenever she wishes.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government) 5:28, 24 January 2024

I thank the shadow Minister, the Minister, the SNP spokesperson and all right hon. and hon. Members for contributing to our debate on this important issue. I also thank the Library for producing an excellent briefing, and all the people in the industry—the mobile network operators, the industry organisations, the Country Land and Business Association and the Rural Services Network—for helping me to pull together the necessary information. I am extremely grateful to them all.

I will pick up with the Minister the issues of data, equipment sharing and rural roaming, because they are extremely important. Indeed, my private Member’s Bill on the subject is due to be debated on Friday, and I am sure we will pick things up again then.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the implementation of the Shared Rural Network.

Sitting adjourned.