Rural mobile phone coverage is NOT an optional extra - minister David Heath

Manager of The White Horse pub in Overstrand, Lucie Gillett, trying to get a signal on her phone fro

Manager of The White Horse pub in Overstrand, Lucie Gillett, trying to get a signal on her phone from the first floor window. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: Archant

Rural development minister David Heath said mobile signal and broadband were not just an optional extra for people in deep rural areas with parts of the country experiencing communications where 'frankly a man with a stick would be quicker at delivering a message'.

The Liberal Democrat claimed he was shouting out 'with monotonous regularity' to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – which is responsible for mobile phone signals.

At the party's conference in Glasgow he praised the Eastern Daily Press Let's Get Connected initiative, which he said highlighted the issues and said the problems with mobile and broadband coverage were always raised when he met rural groups from Norfolk and Suffolk.

'Sadly, we (Defra) don't have the lead as far as provisions are concerned,' he said.

'This is another department. We're in the rather unenviable position of being the people that shout about the fact that country areas are left out.

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He added: 'It is a fact we have a serious problem if we blithely talk about 90pc coverage – that sounds great, except actually we live in the 10pc in the rural parts of this country.

'We can't afford that. One of our roles is to try to fill in the gaps.

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'This isn't an optional extra for people in deep rural areas. This is absolutely essential for our economic future. We simply cannot create jobs in rural Britain if we don't have the basic infrastructure to underpin it.

'In terms of mobile communications, in terms of broadband – that is as basic as the road was a century ago.

'Unless we are prepared to make that investment as a government and follow it through with the companies that are the main providers, we will have failed a very significant part of our rural communities.

'I'm not prepared to let that happen and you can be sure I will continue to bang my fist on the table until we get delivery of what we were promised and what I hope we can deliver.'

He spoke of his experience where he lives in Somerset, which he said was not dissimilar to that of rural Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambs and Essex.

'The chief whip can't get hold of me sometimes because curiously enough they do not have any means of communicating with me in Somerset in my constituency,' he said.

'That is sadly almost the case. I have what is laughably described as broadband.

'Frankly a man with a stick would be quicker at delivering a message than my so-called broadband in Somerset.'

He described how he had to move into an uncomfortable spot in his kitchen or else he could not get a signal.

'It's quite difficult when you're expecting a call from your private office … you just spend your time squatting against the sink in your kitchen waiting for the phone to ring. A point I have made to my colleagues.

'If I walk up the lane there is a spot where I do get something approaching a signal. So all is not lost.

'But if I was running a business how could I run a business from my home with that sort of provision? The simple answer is I couldn't.

'This is a fundamental, not just social issue, it; a huge economic issue for rural areas.'

He also hit out at the government's broadband roll-out programme, which he described as the 'most frustrating exercise'.

'It's bad enough not quite knowing the speed the main supplier is going to roll out – they won't even tell you the bits they're not going to reach. It becomes a little bit exasperating.'

But he added that he thought the government was making progress on it.

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