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Tories Fear Slower 4G Rollout Would Be Nail In The Coffin For Ailing Rural Voters

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a visit to North Yorkshire (Alamy)

5 min read

Conservative MPs have expressed concern that a proposed merger of two of the country's four mobile networks could result in bigger phone bills and rural areas waiting longer for 4G coverage, and are calling for thorough scrutiny of the deal. 

Vodafone and Three UK have announced plans to become one company, which if approved by authorities would reduce the number of mobile networks operating in the UK from four to three.

The two giants have said the deal would be "great for customers, great for the country and great for competition", and have argued that an enlarged company would be in a stronger position to invest in the country's connectivity infrastructure.

However, some Tory MPs have expressed concern about the impact of any potential merger and are calling on the Competition Markets Authority (CMA), the government body which is responsible for deciding whether it should go ahead on competition grounds, to carry out a rigorous assessment of the impact it could have on consumers.

The CMA opened a phase one inquiry into the proposed merger last month and has said it will decide in March whether to approve the deal or instead launch a more in-depth, phase two investigation.

Chris Loder, the Conservative MP for West Dorset, told PoliticsHome the CMA is "right" to study the details of the proposed merger and that he had "genuine concerns" for how it could impact rural communities, "some of whom are lucky to have 3G connectivity".

He said: "The commercial pursuit of 5G overlooks the reality in rural Britain, where not-spots exist and the scale of investment made by these operators is questionable, as is their commitment to ensuring all parts of the country are connected. 

"I also have reservations about the impact on competitive pricing for customers. This merger will reduce the number of operators, potentially hiking prices in a cost of living crisis for current customers who have no say in the matter."

Members of Parliament like Loder have expressed concern that reducing the number of mobile networks in the UK from four to three creates the risk of people paying more for their phone bills.

Those who share these concerns point to a 2020 merger in Australia between Vodafone and CK Hutchison, the company which owns Three UK, that was followed by price rises within one year of the deal being completed.

They are also worried about what a merger of Vodafone and Three UK could mean for the speed at which 4G is rolled out in more rural parts of the country, the delivery of which is a key part of the Government's levelling-up agenda.

Ben Everitt, the Conservative MP for Milton Keynes North, last month told Parliament: “Improving rural connectivity is about tackling regional inequalities and the digital exclusion that we've been fighting during this Parliament. It is about levelling up."

The Shared Rural Network, agreed between the country's four mobile networks and the Government, aims to deliver 4G coverage to 95 per cent of the country by the end of 2025.

Late last year, The Telegraph reported that Vodafone and Three UK, the two companies involved in the proposed merger, as well as O2, had told ministers that they could miss the first agreed target when it comes to the national 4G roll out by up to two years. A spokesperson for Vodafone has since said "we have not missed any deadlines on the Shared Rural Network".

Conservative MPs in rural areas will likely feel even under more pressure to probe the proposed deal after a striking opinion poll published on Monday morning indicated a collapse in support for their party in these historically Tory heartlands.

Research by Survation for the Country and Land Business Association found that support for the Conservative party had fallen by 25 per cent on the 2019 general election in the 100 most rural constituencies in England, while the Labour Party's had increased by 17 per cent.

The Tories currently hold 96 of the seats surveyed, but according to the pollster, would lose over half of them if these figures were replicated at the next general election, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must call this year. A range of big name Conservatives would lose their seats in this scenario. They include Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride, and former Cabinet ministers Andrea Leadsom, Therese Coffey and Jacob Rees Mogg.

The Conservative Party's northern MPs have also expressed concern about the proposed merger and the impact it could have on 4G prices and infrastructure in their areas.

John Stevenson, the MP for Carlisle and chair of the Northern Research Group, told PoliticsHome: "We must do everything we can to reduce regional inequalities across the United Kingdom, and especially in the North of England which has historically been the most unfunded part of the UK.

"The Conservatives broke the Labour stronghold in the North in 2019 by promising Levelling Up, to many this meant bringing opportunities to people no matter where they live. 

"Bringing 4G to people across the UK is a key part of reducing these inequalities and we cannot allow anything to slow it down."

Speaking about the CMA inquiry last month, its chief executive Sarah Cardell said: "This deal would bring together two of the major players in the UK telecommunications market, which is critical to millions of everyday customers, businesses and the wider economy.

"The CMA will assess how this tie-up between rival networks could impact competition before deciding next steps. We now have 40 working days to complete this formal Phase 1 investigation, before publishing our findings and any next steps."

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