Minister pledges to improve mobile phone coverage for rural areas

PUBLISHED: 08:36 30 September 2014 | UPDATED: 08:36 30 September 2014

File photo dated 28/04/14 of Culture Secretary Sajid Javid who has said that Labour have not

File photo dated 28/04/14 of Culture Secretary Sajid Javid who has said that Labour have not "learnt their lesson" on the deficit and he claimed "spending and borrowing run through Labour like the words in a stick of rock". PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday August 6, 2014. See PA story POLITICS Javid. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire

A pledge by a government minister that mobile phone companies will have to ensure better mobile phone coverage in rural areas has met a mixed response in Norfolk.

Boost for notorious not-spot

A notorious “not-spot” which has plagued the residents of a north Norfolk village is set to get a much-needed boost as part of a £1bn investment to improve mobile phone signal.

Blakeney is the only community in Norfolk, and just one of 12 in the country, to be put on the Rural Open Sure Signal programme

And now Vodafone UK, the company behind the scheme, is urging more people to sign up for the community-led initiative.

“We are now looking for a further 100 to take part,” a spokesman said. “All mobile phone networks across the world suffer from ‘not-spots’ areas where traditional masts can’t reach.

“This could be due to geography of some rural areas. It can also be difficult to achieve coverage in areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as areas of Norfolk, and planning regulations for traditional masts can be difficult to achieve. We may also see a lack of community support or landlord permissions.

“In these cases, we need to work closely with communities and local authorities.”

The programme works with Vodafone’s Open Sure Signal and uses “femtocell technology” which provides 3G signal via broadband.

The boxes are about the size of a cereal packet, come in a range of colours and can be installed on many types of buildings including village halls, pubs, shops and homes across the community.

“Blakeney has shown how real partnership is the answer to bringing mobile coverage to rural communities,”

The programme is part of £1bn being spent on Vodafone UK’s network and services this year and the company has teamed up with the National Association of Local Councils and Countryside Alliance, the national representative body for 9,000 parish and town councils in England, to encourage more communities to apply.

Sarah Lee, head of policy for the Countryside Alliance, said: “Mobile phones are an essential part of modern life, but many rural businesses and families cannot be sure that they will be able to access their network when they need it most.”

Applications close on October 14.

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Culture secretary Sajid Javid told delegates at the Conservative conference in Birmingham it was not good enough that large areas of the countryside still receive poor mobile phone signal, and he would make network operators improve it. Under his plans, mobile phone firms will be forced to allow customers to swap freely between rival networks – like roaming between networks when abroad – unless they can end blackspots.

The proposed scheme comes after the EDP last year launched a campaign called ‘Let’s Get Connected’ for better mobile phone and broadband coverage in Norfolk and Suffolk which gained widespread support.

Mr Javid’s plans have been welcomed by some. But George Nobbs, a Labour councillor and leader of Norfolk County Council, said: “I will believe it when I seen it. This is months away from the general election when they have had four and a half years to do something about it.”

The government has already pledged to provide £150m to fund new mobile phone masts providing coverage to the most rural areas.

But only a small number of masts have so far been built as a result. Jono Read, a spokesman for North Norfolk Labour Party, said the government offered no road map on how this would be resolved. “For us living in north Norfolk there isn’t one particular company that can be proven to offer a reliable signal across the district, and we are also finding those companies like Vodafone the technology is becoming outdated. Too frequently we’re finding if one transmitter goes down it is having effects on others around Norfolk.”

But Clarke Willis, chief executive of Anglia Farmers, welcomed the announcement. He said: “Government and local authority support is vital to any project of this type so it can only be good news that this is being spoken about at the highest level.”

Mr Willis is one of the partners in an ongoing ‘digital divide’ campaign which is pushing for government funding to pay for satellite broadband masts.

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