The Countryside Alliance briefed ahead of an Oral Question by Baroness Neville-Rolfe on Broadband and Mobile Communications. Please read on for our thoughts, including work on our own campaigning work in this area. 

Tuesday May 13

HOUSE OF LORDS

Countryside Alliance Brief
May 2014

To ask the Government:- In the light of their policy to increase the number of central government transactions carried out online, such as the filing of tax returns, what progress they are making with the roll-out of broadband services and the provision of comprehensive mobile coverage

Suggested supplementary questions:

• When will the government publish its response to the Law Commission’s report on its recommendations for reform of the Electronic Communications Code.

• How many applications have the government received for its alternative technology broadband fund which opened on 17 March and will deliver broadband connectivity to the hardest to reach premises.

• Is the government monitoring the roll-out of 4G phone coverage to ensure that the block of spectrum which contained a 98% indoor coverage obligation is met by 2017.

• What assessment has the government undertaken on the progress of the Mobile Infrastructure Project, which is due to improve mobile phone coverage for 60,000 premises by 2015.

• How many masts are now operational and how many premises now receive a mobile signal due to the Mobile Infrastructure Project.

Introduction

The importance of broadband and mobile signal to rural households and businesses cannot be overestimated with many deeming them essential services, alongside water, electricity and gas. Recent research showed children living in rural areas miss out educationally because of poor broadband, which is why the Countryside Alliance is making the case to Government that if rural economies are to grow, then this needs to be matched by a proper commitment and delivery of mobile and broadband networks in the countryside sooner rather than later.

The Government has promised that 95% of UK premises will have superfast broadband – more than 24mbps – by 2017 and a roll out of 4G services to 98% of the population. This still leaves many homes without superfast broadband or a mobile phone signal. This is unacceptable and innovative schemes to provide better services to the hardest to reach areas must be encouraged. Digital communication is no longer a luxury but a necessity and we all need meaningful access to it.

Broadband

• The Countryside Alliance is increasingly concerned that the Government is saying the right things but not delivering. Our concerns were confirmed by the Government announcement in June 2013 which revised the broadband delivery targets and forecast that the BDUK programme will complete its rollout 22 months later than planned. In June FOI research and polling that we conducted showed that:

o £3m has been given out in Government grants to just two councils as part of the BDUK project between October 2010 – March 2013 – out of a total budget of £300m for England that is just 1% of the total.
o £6.4m has been spent by councils towards delivering the BDUK project.
o 53% of rural dwellers rate the Government’s efforts to roll out broadband into rural areas as “poor” and 80% of all adults believe rolling out high-speed broadband across the whole of the UK is the technological improvement that will impact positively on the UK economy. That rises to 85% among rural dwellers.

• The Countryside Alliance has frequently praised this Government’s commitment to improving rural broadband coverage and the funds they have put aside for councils are very welcome. However, as our research showed, local authorities are struggling to turn Whitehall’s promises into reality. It has been nearly four years since BDUK was launched and the people who live in areas with no, or unreliable, broadband coverage have not seen any real improvement yet.

• Unless more is done to simplify the process of acquiring and implementing rural broadband projects, the digital divide will continue to grow and the money pledged by the Coalition will remain all but worthless. For rural businesses still struggling with no, or an unreliable, internet connection this is simply not good enough.

• The BDUK project was criticised by two high profile reports last summer. The National Audit Office found that the rural broadband project is moving forward late and without the benefit of strong competition to protect public value; and the Public Accounts Committee then reported that BDUK has been ‘mismanaged’ and placed BT in a ‘quasi-monopolistic position which it is exploiting by restricting access to cost and roll-out information’.

• The Countryside Alliance is continuing to hold the Government to account on its broadband delivery, but believes that to ensure connectivity in rural areas we should not be relying on just fixed line broadband, but embracing all technologies including mobile and satellite. We will continue to campaign for the rollout of mobile signal coverage to support the broadband network.

o We continue to call for the use of public money for open access fibre-optic hubs to be dependent on installing fibre to a local level rather than to the cabinet.

o We Support the European Commission’s suggestion that open access to dark fibre at the cabinet-level should be introduced as a condition of BDUK’s umbrella state aid permission.

Mobile Communications

4G Networks

The Countryside Alliance welcomed the announcement by Ofcom of the five winning bidders to deliver 4G in the UK in the Spectrum Auction last year; however, the Countryside Alliance believes that its success will lie in a swift delivery. One block of spectrum contains a 98% indoor coverage obligation, which was won by Telefonica/O2, and this will be delivered by 2017. The promise is that almost the whole UK population will be able to receive 4G mobile services by the end of 2017 at the latest. 4G coverage will extend far beyond that of existing 3G services, covering 98% of the UK population indoors, which will be even more when outdoors.

The recent spectrum auction will hopefully allow the future mobile market to be competitive, which can only be good for consumers and will ensure greater choice for those living in rural areas. However, the true success will be delivery of a 4G network in the countryside sooner rather than later.

Mobile Infrastructure Project

In October 2011 the Chancellor, George Osborne MP, announced the Government will invest up to £150 million to improve mobile coverage in the UK. This investment will improve the coverage and quality of mobile services for the 5 to 10% of consumers and businesses that live and work in areas of the UK where existing mobile coverage is poor or non-existent.

Some areas of the UK are not provided with any mobile coverage by mobile network operators and other areas receive low quality coverage which results in a poor level of customer experience.

In certain areas of the UK, particularly rural areas, there is a limited commercial case for market-driven investment to improve coverage and quality of service.

Increasing mobile connectivity is vital to ensure business growth, extend access to key public services which are delivered online, and bring an improvement for mobile customers across the UK.

Procurement for the Mobile Infrastructure Project began in spring 2012, and the project will be completed by 2015. This will be achieved by working with industry to address mobile not-spots.

Law Commission Review – Electronic Communications Code

The Law Commission is currently reviewing the law on accessing land for infrastructure such as mobile phone masts and telecoms cables. The Electronic Communications Code governs the rights of electronic communications network providers to install and maintain infrastructure on public and private land.

Ministers set out their ambition to look at the code in the Superfast Broadband Strategy published in December 2010 and the Lord Commission’s review will feed into the Government’s expected Communications Review.

The Review will addresses two key issues: firstly the drafting of the code following criticism from courts and lawyers that it is “unclear and inaccessible”; and secondly, considering the way disputes are resolved.

The Commission published their recommendations in spring 2013 and we are awaiting the Government’s response.

Countryside Alliance Mobile Campaign

Better mobile signal for all areas of the country has been a major campaign for the Countryside Alliance over the last couple of years. In June 2013 we launched a campaign to map the true picture of mobile phone coverage by teaming up with the digital technology company RootMetrics. The RootMetrics App, which can be downloaded onto a Smartphone through Google play or the Apple Store, tests call performance and data speeds and then this information is fed into a coverage map which can help consumers decide which is the best operator for them.

The App has been terrifically well received and nearly 100,000 samples of mobile phone reception are pouring in each day as part of the project. We have produced a report, Sick of No Signal, which is an analysis of the crowd-sourced data that has been collected so far, and also contains some policy recommendations we believe will ensure everyone benefits with better coverage, no matter where they live. One of which is the simplification of planning regulations, which ensure Government targets for digital connectivity and customers’ demands for service are met.