MPs urge mobile firms to fill in rural 'notspots'

Mobile phone mast Image copyright PA

When Ofcom slipped out the news that it was postponing the 4G auction, the regulator suggested it was nothing to worry about, while critics warned that the UK was slipping behind in the next broadband revolution. Now MPs have joined in the criticism but they are putting the blame fairly and squarely on the mobile operators.

In a report examining the spectrum auction, the Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee says Ofcom is generally taking the right approach - but slams the network operators for their constant infighting and special pleading.

What's at risk, say the MPs, is the provision of mobile broadband to parts of rural Britain that are already poorly served when it comes to getting online. Their report calls on Ofcom to be tougher in setting the rules for the 4G auction, making at least one licence winner guarantee to give 98% of the population broadband coverage. The regulator's current plan is to set the requirement at 95%.

The operators will grumble that the extra 3% will prove very costly and so make the licenses less attractive but with political pressure building behind better access for the countryside this toughening of the auction rules looks likely to happen.

When I spoke to the committee's chairman John Whittingdale, he pointed out that he and many other Conservative MPs had rural constituencies where poor mobile and broadband coverage was becoming an ever bigger issue.

And he said there was also some concern about the impact on the UK economy in general of a delay in the 4G auction while others are already deploying the new technology:

"At the moment we're in the middle of the pack, but if there is a significant delay then we could find ourselves trailing behind."

In rural Britain, though, there is mounting concern about the future of broadband, a fear that places in the slow lane now could be left even further behind as new technology arrives. This week Ofcom released some maps that give an interesting, if broad-brush, view of the state of communications in the UK.

Look at the map showing 3G coverage and you will see vast stretches of the UK, including most of Wales and Scotland, where the kind of mobile signal you need to get online is available to less than 60% of the population. So there's plenty of work to do.

Luckily, I don't need to worry as I live in London with a fast broadband connection and excellent mobile coverage. Or so I thought.

I woke up this morning to find that my broadband line had failed, and had to resort to a mobile connection on a tablet computer to get this post online. And I'm now looking at an E in the top corner of the screen and realising that my mobile connection isn't that hot either. It may be my imagination but I think I can hear voices from the countryside shouting "Welcome to our world."