Evidence demonstrates communications providers cannot be trusted to provide proper services to their customers without tight regulation, says Lord Alderdice.
Self-evidently it is easier and more profitable to provide broadband and mobile telephony services in heavily populated urban areas. However if we are to limit the drift to depopulation and economic decline in rural areas, not to mention ensuring safety for visiting tourists, resident farmers and country-dwellers, mobile telephony services must be provided and maintained throughout the UK.
In recognition of this the coalition government announced last October that it would provide £150m in capital expenditure to improve mobile coverage in areas where there is an insufficient commercial case - the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP).
The Glens of Antrim, a rural (but not remote) area of Northern Ireland have traditionally been poorly served, however in recent years a mobile telephony provider erected a mast providing coverage for the area. This was warmly welcomed by local residents, farmers and business people as well as the thousands of tourists who visit Glenariff Forest Park and the surrounding area. I knew how important this service was because my elderly mother lives in the glen and I visit the area regularly.
Suddenly in April without warning or advice Everything Everywhere – the company that runs T-mobile and Orange – switched the mast off and the coverage stopped. The local community was up in arms. There had been no problem providing the service but those who had taken out contracts because there was coverage of their homes or businesses were now, without warning, suddenly bereft of the service for which they had contracted.
Investigations indicated that this was not an isolated incident and other rural dwellers and small businesses elsewhere in the UK were suffering too, not because of technical difficulties in providing coverage - the usual defence of the companies and the reason for the £150m subsidy. They were reducing coverage for commercial reasons without due regard to the effect on rural communities and vulnerable people.
The local people were supported by political parties right across the traditional divide in Northern Ireland and the company has agreed to address the problem. However the episode raises two questions. Has the regulator, Ofcom, sufficient regulatory powers to ensure that its licensees fulfil their duty to provide and maintain a proper service, or is Ofcom not using all the powers it already has?
The fact that Ofcom imposed a record £3m fine last year on Talktalk and Tiscali UK demonstrates that communications providers cannot be trusted to provide proper services to their customers without tight regulation.
The evidence of retraction of coverage in some vulnerable areas rather than the expansion which is government policy suggests that more intervention may be necessary to preserve these public communications services which are now receiving substantial public funds for precisely this purpose.
Lord Alderdice is to ask Her Majesty's Government, in the light of their commitment to ensuring adequate mobile telephony services throughout the United Kingdom, what action they are taking to ensure that mobile phone operators provide and maintain services and coverage to rural populations.