'Adequate' mobile phone signal is not good enough for users
Former Secretary of State for Scotland writes ahead of presenting his 'Mobile Telecommunications Network Coverage Bill' in Parliament today which calls on mobile phone providers to improve their service provision, which is barely adequate in some parts of the UK.
There can be few areas of modern life that have seen a greater pace of change than mobile telephony. Over the last quarter century and more we have seen mobile telephones go from being the plaything of the few to being a basic staple of everyday life.
As the technology and its accessibility has changed so we have seen the gap between the haves and the have nots grow to become a chasm. Of course, in this case the divide is not always an economic one. The divide about which I speak here is those who have signal and those who do not.
In an earlier age provision would have come, as it did with mail services, from a single provider on which a universal service obligation could have been imposed. Instead we have had a market evolve in a more haphazard way with initially fierce competition amongst independent players. That has now settled down to a market where adequate is good enough and no one has an incentive to do more. It is now apparent that, left to their own devices, the mobile phone companies are not going to go as far as we as a nation, and as an economy, need them to go.
The last coalition government recognised the problem and came forward with the Mobile Infrastructure Project providing public money for the building of masts to eliminate “not-spots”. For a variety of reasons this did not achieve the progress that had been sought and so in 2014 agreement was sought with the mobile phone operators. Promises were made and the Shangria La of connectivity was just over the horizon.
Now, as 2016 wears on, the improved coverage and service seems as distant as ever. Action is needed and it is needed now.
That is why today, in the House of Commons, I shall introduce the Mobile Communications (Contractual Obligations) Bill. It may not be the snappiest title you will ever come across but it could be an important first step in striking at the root of the problem here – the imbalance of power between the mobile phone companies and their customers.
At present there is no obligation on the companies to tell us what coverage they can provide. As a constituency MP I have learned over the years that they do not even really know themselves. My next door neighbour in Orkney was recently told quite solemnly by his provider that the mast serving our community provided a service 99.8% of the time. He and I know differently. No wonder that the consumer group Which found last year that 35% of mobile phone users trusted their providers less than banks!
Giving consumers the right to break contracts where the mobile operators do not keep their side of the bargain will not change things overnight but it would at least provide an incentive for someone to win a competitive advantage by upping their game. The mobile companies must understand that as customers, we are no longer prepared to tolerate a service that is adequate at best – we want a service that is good. My bill is one signal they cannot afford to ignore.
Alistair Carmichael MP is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland