Cumbrian MPs’ speeches on the mobile broadband coverage obligation

10:35 in Announcement by Duncan Brown

In the House of Commons yesterday, Rory Stewart MP won support from all parties to press for increasing the 4G mobile coverage obligation to 98%. Cumbrian MPs Tim Farron and John Woodcock also spoke in the debate.

The text of all three speeches is below. You can read the full debate in Hansard.

Or there is a video via the Parliamentary archive here (Internet Explorer only).

Click on an MP’s name to read their speech

Rory Stewart MP
John Woodcock MP
Tim Farron MP

Rory Stewart MP (Penrith and the Border)
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When I last saw Ed Richards, the head of Ofcom, he said that the most powerful argument he required was a political argument. He wanted to hear that Members of Parliament cared about broadband and mobile coverage. If that is all he requires, I might as well resume my seat now. I am not an expert on the constitutional history of this House, but as far as I know there have not been so many names on a motion on the Order Paper for debate on the Floor of the House in recent memory.

What, though, is the motion facing us today? It has three parts. The first focuses on rural need, which I hope Members will address in their speeches. The second focuses on mobile coverage, and the third focuses on the Government’s commitment to super-fast broadband. All three are connected. In a sense, it is already outdated to separate them. It is increasingly clear that a separation between voice coverage and data coverage is a thing of the past; that an attempt to separate the rural areas from the urban areas is a thing of the past. The central fact about broadband and mobile coverage is that it is—not to be too pretentious—a single global universe. Nevertheless, I will hand over to other Members, who will talk about the first and third elements of the motion. I will focus exclusively on the second part—the mobile coverage obligation.

Enormous thanks are due not just to the many Members whom I have mentioned, but to the civil servants who have worked unbelievably hard in Broadband UK to make this happen. It is unfair to pick out names, but I would like, in particular, to thank Mike Kooley, Rob Sullivan and Jim Savage. I would also like to thank Ministers, including the Minister here today, the Secretary of State and all the communities that have been working so hard. I hope that others will develop that point, but again, although it is unfair to pick out names, I want to mention those extraordinary people in Eden—Libby Bateman, Miles Mandelson and others in the Leith-Lyvennet broadband group—who have been pushing ahead with their programme. However, that is not the subject of my speech today.

I am here to speak about mobile broadband coverage. I will take 30 seconds to explain the issue. This is the last chance for a generation to provide good mobile broadband coverage for 6 million people who will not otherwise get it. It is the last chance because, at the end of the month, the Ofcom consultation closes. That consultation will determine the coverage obligation imposed on mobile telephone companies for the 800 megahertz spectrum. This is a spectrum on which we all depend for our smartphones, our iPads and iPhones. It is also a spectrum that is ideal for rural areas. So why has Ofcom stated in its consultation that it has no intention of increasing the coverage from the current level, which, as hon. Members will know, is 95% of the population, 90% of the time? That equates to about 87% of the population.

Ofcom states in its consultation document that it can see no benefits from extending the coverage further. In fact, it states on page 67 that the costs would outweigh the benefits. Why? Because it is worried about losing money in the auction—nobody knows how much—and is worried that when it tries to sell the radio spectrum, which it owns, to the mobile telephone companies and asks them to increase their coverage obligation from 95% to 98% these companies might pay less in the auction. Indeed, they may. It stands to reason they would pay less, but probably not as much less as Ofcom fears. The reality of auctions is not that people operate on a fully rational basis, counting the number of their masts and then bidding exactly less than that. We have all participated in auctions. They are elaborate psychological procedures that are exactly designed to extract as much money as possible.

To put it bluntly, it is a no-brainer. This is the time to act. If we are going to do it, we should do it now. There is some fantasy out there that if we get it wrong, we can go back to the mobile telephone companies in two or three years’ time and say, “We’re very sorry, we didn’t impose an obligation on you, but would you mind awfully providing 98% coverage?” However, by that time they will already have begun to lay out their infrastructure and will have made their decisions. Acting then will be more expensive, the mobile telephone companies will be under no obligation to do so, and we will have to pay them. At that point their interests will not be aligned with ours.

If we impose an obligation at the right moment and say, “You’ve got the licence; now provide 98% coverage,” their interests will be to provide it as cheaply and efficiently as possible. If, on the other hand, we approach the mobile telephone companies in three years’ time as a contractor, we should remember that there will then be an additional problem. As my hon. Friend suggests, if we do it now, there is no cost to the taxpayer. The money would not come from raising taxes from people or stealing it from another Department. All that we would be doing is taking the risk that we would make slightly less in the auction. That would not be the case in three years’ time. If in three years’ time we suddenly wanted to spend £215 million on building masts, we would have to tax people or move money from other Departments; and we absolutely know that people who say, “Give me that bird in your hand, because I can promise you those two in the bush in three years’ time,” are almost certainly misleading us. This is the time to do it.

There is only one question—the fundamental question—that we need to ask Ofcom: does mobile broadband technology matter? Will this thing that I have in my ocket—this mobile device—and that everyone else has in their pocket matter in five years’ time? Will people be using iPads and iPhones then? If we have reason to believe that the technology is important, why are we proposing to leave between 6 million and 9 million in this country on the current figures excluded from using these machines? For the sake of what? Why exactly are we being told that those people should not be able to use the technology?

I hardly need explain to the people in the Chamber why this technology matters or what its uses are. Others will develop that far more, but to run through them quickly, the fantastic comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) was absolutely right. Our economy is driven by these devices. Growth comes from productivity, and the biggest, simplest contribution that we can make to productivity in this country is through broadband and mobile coverage, which is particularly true for rural areas, as the many people in the Chamber from such areas know. Why? Because the biggest contribution to economic growth through mobile and broadband technology is made by small and medium-sized enterprises. What do we have predominantly in rural areas? Small and medium-sized enterprises. My constituency is an example. The national average is that SMEs occupy 50% of the private sector, but in Penrith and The Border, SMEs with fewer than 10 employees employ 92% of our work force. Furthermore, because we are almost starting from scratch in rural areas, we are not talking about a slight increase in speed from 2 megabits to 3 megabits; we are talking about a step change in economic productivity for rural areas.

We are also talking about making a real difference in public services. As we all know, more and more public services are being driven online. In Cumbria, for example, 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. In the United States, 40% of post-secondary school students are taking a course online. Recent research by Carnegie Mellon university suggests that mixed online and classroom learning can increase the speed at which children learn by 100%. And I do not need to talk about Twitter, Facebook and all the other things that everyone in London, and every child in those parts of the country with mobile coverage, take for granted, except to ask why everyone else should be excluded.

My argument is about mobile broadband coverage. What is the argument against extending it in the way that I have suggested? It is cost. Ofcom’s only argument is that it is worried that it might make a little less in the auction. Let us say that, based on the Swedish and German models, the auction is going to generate about £3.215 billion. Ofcom is worried that it might make only £3 billion. For a number of reasons, that is probably an underestimate. That £215 million represents an absolute worst-case scenario. Let us look this directly in the eye: £215 million is less than we spend in three weeks on our operations in Afghanistan. In fact, mobile coverage is one of the smartest, cheapest forms of infrastructure investment that we can make. It is far cheaper than fixed telephone lines, and far cheaper than ports or roads. As far as infrastructure investment that would create real productive growth in the British economy is concerned, £215 million is a small sum of money.

It is a very basic estimate predicated on the assumption that, to increase from 95% to 98% coverage, we would need to build approximately 1,500 masts, and that the average cost of a mast hovers at just under £150,000. So the figure of £215 million represents a worst-case scenario. The assumption is that the mobile phone companies will cover some of the costs of the masts anyway, because they will get increased revenue as a result of installing them. The Government should not have to pay for all those masts. Furthermore, companies such as Three already have the infrastructure in place, and were those companies to win that chunk in the auction, they would not have to pay to install new masts. The £215 million is a worst-case projection for getting up to 1,500 extra masts and pushing through to 98% coverage.

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. In every other part of Britain, if you happen to live in central London, you will be able by 2015 to attach a device to your heart, which can monitor your vital signs, transmit in real time to a hospital, regulate your drug intake and help you stay at home. I am sorry, though, but you live in Northumbria and you are not going to be allowed to have it”?

Are we prepared to turn around to students and say, “Everywhere else in this country, if you happen to live in Chelsea or the centre of Manchester, you can do online learning, you can learn the harp, you can study German or Russian. In fact, you can study anything you want from anyone you want at any time you want, but unfortunately you live in Suffolk, so you are not going to be able to do those things.”?

By 2015 it will not be just data-rich businesses or internet-rich businesses, but the basic small and medium-sized enterprises that will be dependent on these devices to cut their transaction costs, increase their reach to market, drop their advertising costs and so on. Are we prepared to turn round to every one of those businesses and say, “Of course it is extremely beneficial for a business to have these services—in fact, it is the only way a business can compete and survive—but because you don’t happen to be located in the very centre of London, you are not going to be able to work in that way.” ?

Are we to say to a farmer, “Through this technology, you might be able to use special identification tags and make some use of the astonishing bureaucracy being imposed on you, but only if you happen to be farming in Chelsea. If you are farming in the uplands of Cumbria, you might as well forget about it.”?

We are looking for a positive narrative. We are looking for a narrative around growth. We are looking for growth, which is not effectively saying, “Oh, we are just going to get 90% of the country going”. We are looking for growth that is saying, “We want 100% of this country going.” Growth is about productivity; productivity is about the internet. If we are looking for a positive narrative, let it be this: at the moment, our best mobile next-generation coverage is worse than that of Uzbekistan. I know something about Uzbekistan. I would not be surprised if someone were to stand up and say to me, “In Uzbekistan, there are more political prisoners in jail than there are in Britain”. However, I am not just surprised, but horrified to learn that in Uzbekistan, the mobile next-generation coverage is better than it is in the United Kingdom.

Let us stand behind this motion. Let us push Ofcom with all our might to take that small risk to reach that 98% of coverage. 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.

John Woodcock MP (Barrow and Furness)
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I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate and, of course, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), my Cumbrian neighbour, on leading it. He made a superb speech that touched incredibly well on many issues, particularly the need for a narrative and action on growth and the means to deliver it. There is always space for him on the Opposition Benches—quite a lot of space at the moment. He made the point that, “Of course we can spend money on X; look at how much we spend everyday on all these terrible wars”, which would chime very well with what some of my colleagues say; I was surprised to hear it from the Conservative Benches. I have worked with him on the need for faster broadband in Cumbria and will say more about that in a moment.

It was good to follow the very well-made speech by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). He said that nothing had been done over the past 13 years, and obviously I wish that in many areas we had gone faster. We now need to accelerate progress, but I do not remember being able in 1997 to sit in my room in Barrow—it is upstairs, admittedly—and flick through the 3G and wi-fi on my iPhone, so things have really improved. The regulatory framework put in place by the previous Government has been part of that, and the Minister has past experience of that. We should recognise that much has been done and that much more needs to be done.

I should also say that I have written to Mr Speaker to ask to be excused from the winding-up speeches, as I am travelling to Scotland this evening for the funeral of David Cairns tomorrow. I hope that the Minister and other Members will excuse me.

In the brief time available, I want to stress the economic importance of faster broadband networks in my constituency and across Cumbria. We of course want faster roll-out and see the urgency of that. I am happy to support the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, but we need to do this as fast as possible, and 2015 is still a significant way off. There is a need for greater action from the Government and from broadband providers, which we must not forget.

I want to mention the example of Kates Skates in Barrow. Barrow is an urban areas, but urban areas within larger rural counties experience these problems cheek by jowl with people and companies that would more readily be associated with rural surroundings, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood noted. In 1996, Chris and Catherine Palmen thought that it would be a good idea to construct an indoor ice rink in the centre of Barrow. It actually turned out to be a bad idea, which did not get anywhere at all, but their story is testament to our extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit in Furness and throughout the country, because unperturbed by the mammoth flop of that business the Palmens decided to go into retail.

Kates Skates started with ice skates and quickly expanded to the point now where it has possibly Europe’s largest range of skates, skateboards, snowboards—if any Government Members are skater boys or girls, they can help me out—and scooters. The company has a really tremendous range, ships upwards of 250 orders a day from its small store and employs about 20 people, with 5% of its orders coming from the shop in Furness and 95% from online orders from the rest of the UK and, increasingly, Europe.

That is exactly the kind of business that we need to promote to ensure that such concerns can prosper anywhere in the UK, but the Palmens tell me of their enormous frustration at their slow broadband connection, which really hampers their internal processes. They spent quite a lot of money developing 3D images of their products, but having reached that stage they realised that they could not put them online because their broadband link was too slow to sustain them. We have to be able to do something about that. Companies such as Kates Skates say, “We started up in the area where we are from, we want to stay there, we love the quality of life in Barrow and the access to elsewhere in the Lake district, and we don’t want to move to a larger city.” The Palmens are in an increasingly difficult situation, however, because of the slow broadband with which they are forced to contend.

Many people have raised this problem with me, and I am sure that we will hear further examples throughout the day. CGP Books in Broughton, a great company producing textbooks, has itself shelled out for a faster link, but the increasing costs are obviously affecting its bottom line. Furness Internet, which provides services throughout the area, has frustrated customers who want to do more but cannot because of a single point of failure: the data cable that it purchased at great expense. The company says that the cable is relatively reliable at the moment, but if it goes down, all the customers of Furness Internet will be up the swanny, and that is really worrying for people who are looking to locate to the area. I spoke to the head of Cumbria’s chamber of commerce today, who stressed how absolutely essential it is for us to sort out the problem if we are to drive wider progress in the county.

This is not only an issue for the Government but for the private sector and for individuals. There was a collective failure to anticipate the rate of growth across the world and how critical it would become to people going about their business and to the operation of businesses and public services. It is now absolutely right to put in place steps to ensure that we can grow, right across the country, to the extent that we need to.
The Government need to put in place a more robust framework. We made that case strongly before the election and continue to do so. There is also a role for the big providers, which need to do more than they are doing at present. I am pleased that BT has sustained work at its call centre in Barrow, which was earmarked for closure. After a robust campaign by me and by workers and the Communication Workers Union, BT thought again and is now talking about increasing the level of work in that call centre. One of the reasons it initially gave for the difficulty in bringing work into the area was that it did not have the broadband speed that some places in India had. That is a very alarming fact that shows the clear business need to speed up the level of service.

I would say to BT and other companies that competitions such as Race to Infinity, which I imagine a lot of areas represented here took part in, must not merely be a data capture exercise in which the top five win and the companies end up with massive numbers of people to write to about products in future. It is important to reflect the clear business need that exists in these areas and the business case for putting in superfast broadband. It is vital to strengthen the framework, but we also need more action from the private companies in doing the right thing by the many individuals who rely on superfast broadband and by the businesses that are crying out for it so that they can grow.

Tim Farron MP (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
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I start by paying tribute to my neighbours and friends in Cumbria and other Members for excellent speeches. This is a tremendously important debate, and I will restrict my comments mostly to the third part of the motion, which refers to target broadband speeds. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), talked about the impact on business, but I wish to mention the impact of broadband coverage—or, in the case of south Cumbria, the lack of adequate broadband coverage—on social equality and social justice.

Let us look at the wider picture. The biggest issue facing folks in the Lake district and the dales, and in the areas that are so beautiful that they are not in either national park in south Cumbria, is the mismatch between average incomes and average house prices. The average house price in my patch is more than £250,000, but the average income is significantly less than £20,000. One in three young people leaves our area and never comes back.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) spoke about the loss of businesses from his area because of the lack of broadband coverage. Many people who employ four or five members of staff will shift their business out of the south lakes because of a lack of business space, but they also move away because of the lack of access to decent broadband coverage.

Superfast broadband is a way of equalising opportunities in rural areas, where wealth and poverty are cheek by jowl. Why would people not live in a staggeringly beautiful place such as the Lake district or south Cumbria if they could afford to do so and if they could make a living there? People move into our area to retire—they are extremely welcome if they have the wherewithal to do so. Others buy second homes and visit occasionally, which is okay. However, many are effectively displaced, because they cannot earn a living there. Adequate—or, I hope, more than adequate—access to superfast broadband would give people the opportunity to set up or work for businesses and to make a decent living.

The current situation in my constituency is that many areas have access to pathetically slow broadband speeds. I pay tribute to Colin Barr and the team from Colton parish council, whose study showed that 45% of people in the High Furness local area could access no more than 0.5 megabits per second. Our communities and their MPs will not tolerate that. That is why I am so proud that our communities in Cumbria, and South Lakeland especially, are choosing to make their own luck. I pay tribute to the folks in Colton, Hutton Roof, Grasmere, Beetham, Kirkby Lonsdale and Upper Kent, and to the team from Fibre GarDen who ensure that we can deliver superfast broadband to Garsdale and Dent. They show a vision that UK plc—I am not aiming criticism in any specific direction—has so far not matched. This debate is about demonstrating that the House of Commons stands behind them in solidarity.

We must show ambition. The ambition that saw the development of the railways, canals and so on is lacking so far in that critical aspect of our infrastructure needs. The target of 2 megabits per second, as I am sure most hon. Members know, is staggeringly unambitious. Next year, Norway will roll out to 98% of its inhabitants 100 megabits per second, and the EU digital agenda is for 30 megabits per second by 2020. I admit that Singapore is not entirely rural—[ Interruption. ] It has bits of rain forest—I checked on Google Maps and once upon a time spent six weeks there. Singapore has access to 1 gigabit per second, for pity’s sake, which is what we are competing with. The reality is that we are behind. That will matter.

When I studied at university in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) in 1990—I would barely touch a word processor at that time, never mind anything else—I read an article about mobile phone usage. People were asked, “Can you see yourself needing a mobile phone in the next 10 years, or would you want one?” but only one in five answered yes. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton was asked how many of his constituents want access immediately. I am sure that many do, but I am also sure that many of his constituents, like many of mine, do not realise that they want it, or that they should want it.

There is a need for evangelism to sell the need for access to superfast broadband. We will need something like 100 megabits per second, and we will need it soon. For example, those places in Cumbria that are most remote from hospitals and the most likely to benefit from telemedicine are the least likely to have the chance to access that technology. World leaders such as Gilkes in Kendal, which is providing hydroturbines in south, central and north America, need to be able to upload incredibly complex graphic designs. Kendal now has 20 megabits per second and that is wonderful, but even that will not be enough for very long. Rural farmers need to be able to complete their Rural Payments Agency forms. The £2 billion Cumbrian tourism industry needs to be able to punch above its weight as it fights the city break market. To do that it needs more than the 2 megabits per second that we are talking about today.

I am proud to be part of the campaign across Cumbria with the county council and BDUK—Broadband Delivery UK—to roll out the broadband pilot in South Lakelands. I am also proud of the broadband pioneers and the hub co-ordinators we have in the area. I welcome what is happening in Cumbria, but I am frustrated by the speed of the project and the speed of the target. I am concerned that the infrastructure as it is built across Britain must be future-proof, but it is not even now-proof. We have to build a network that is in the interests of our communities and businesses, and—dare I say?—not in the interests of one or two large telecommunications companies. That is the great fear I have about our county project. We have heard that fear about Lancashire and I suspect that it is shared across the country.

We need to state that copper is not the answer and that fibre to the cabinet is not a future-proof answer. It might suit certain companies, but it is not future-proof and fibre to the home and business is the answer. Mobile and satellite solutions also play a huge role, and I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said about mobile networks. Costs should not be higher for users in rural areas than they are for users in cities, and that is another important issue.

Andrew Fleck, the chairman of Fibre GarDen—the team trying to bring fibre-optic, superfast broadband to Garsdale and Dentdale, said in his e-mail to me a couple of days ago:
“The cost of nationwide implementation is prohibitive in the current economic climate, but the economic penalty for delay will be greater still.”

He is absolutely right. Tonight I will get on the train to Oxenholme and travel on a rail network that was built by visionaries 150 years ago. That is the sort of vision and ambition that we need today.

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