Rishi Sunak makes call for national phone roaming deals

RICHMOND MP Rishi Sunak has called on the Government to consider making mobile phone companies share their networks in rural areas.

Speaking during a House of Commons debate on the Digital Economy Bill, Mr Sunak said that national roaming agreements – similar to the arrangements in place when Britons use their phones overseas – should be encouraged to overcome ‘not spots’ in rural areas of the UK.

In welcoming the Bill, which includes a series of measures to improve broadband and mobile phone connectivity and protection against spam email, nuisance calls and online pornography, Mr Sunak urged the Government to look an example in Australia where two networks – Vodafone and Telstra – have combined to form a national roaming agreement, allowing network sharing in the country’s most remote regions.

In the most isolated areas, the user’s phone automatically switches to the better network as soon as their normal network’s coverage drops off.

He added that when the next spectrum licence auctions for 5G came along, the Government had to ensure that coverage was paramount in the conditions that mobile phone companies had to meet.

It should also consider agreements which made rural areas a priority over urban areas as had been established in parts of Germany.

Mr Sunak also urged the Government to look at how the infrastructure for mobile phone networks was provided in the United States.

US phone masts were mostly independently owned, unlike the UK where masts are owned by the networks. The US masts were more effective in being taller and more efficient because they provided a facility for multiple networks and helped reduce costs.

During the debate Mr Sunak stressed the absolute importance of connectivity for rural areas.

He said: “The average smartphone user in the UK uses their device for more than two hours daily. So, when we talk about rural communities without access to a mobile signal, let us be absolutely clear about what we mean.

“We are talking about the fact that people in swathes of our country are unable to participate in an activity that the rest of us consider so indispensable and so vital that we engage in it for 10 minutes of every waking hour.”

Other provisions in the Bill include:

  • Allowing Ofcom, the communications sector's regulator, to financially penalise communications providers for failing to comply with licence commitments.
  • Creating an age-verification regulator to publish guidelines about how pornographic websites should ensure their users are aged 18 or older. The regulated should also be able to fine those which fail to comply.
  • Creating a legal right to minimum Internet download speeds for consumers.
  • Requiring internet service providers to compensate to consumers if service requirements are not met.
  • Allowing English and Welsh courts added sentencing options for Internet copyright infringement.
  • Providing for increased penalties for nuisance calls.
  • Giving Ofcom oversight of the BBC.