MPs demand broadband expansion

MPs today piled pressure on telecoms regulator Ofcom to expand superfast mobile broadband to 98% of the UK.

Members from across the House complained that rural communities and businesses were being "isolated and undermined" by slow internet coverage.

Opening a backbench-led Commons debate, Conservative Rory Stewart said Ofcom should expand the coverage obligation attached to the 800MHz spectrum licence from 95% to 98%.

Ofcom is carrying out a consultation into its plans to auction off the rights to the next generation of mobile wireless networks.

Mr Stewart (Penrith and the Border) said: "This is the last chance we have for a generation to provide good mobile broadband coverage for six million people who will not otherwise get it.

"It is the last chance because at the end of this month the Ofcom consultation closes, which will determine the coverage obligation imposed on mobile telephone companies for the 800MHz spectrum.

"This is a spectrum on which we all depend for our smartphones, our iPads, our iPhones. This is the spectrum which is ideal for rural areas."

Scores of MPs have signed a Commons motion recognising that "rural businesses and rural communities across the UK are isolated and undermined by slow broadband and the lack of mobile voice and mobile broadband coverage".

The cross-party motion "urges Ofcom to increase the coverage obligation attached to the 800MHz spectrum licence to 98%" and calls on the Government to "fulfil its commitment to build both the best superfast broadband network in Europe and provide everyone in the UK with a minimum of 2Mbps (megabits per second) by 2015".

But Mr Stewart warned that Ofcom had "no intention" of increasing the coverage obligation.

"Why? Because they are worried about losing some money in the auction," he said.

"Nobody knows how much money they're going to lose in their auction but what they're worried about is when they sell this radio spectrum, which they own, to the mobile telephone companies and ask them to increase their coverage obligation from 95% to 98%, these companies may pay less for the auction.

"Indeed they may. It stands to reason they would pay less. But probably not as less as Ofcom feared."

The UK's "best mobile next generation coverage" was currently worse than Uzbekistan, he said.

To cheers from MPs, Mr Stewart added: "Let us not allow the clever arguments of narrow economists blind to technology ... to miss the chance to let Britain 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."