MP: Ofcom putting 4G cash before coverage

MPs have accused Ofcom of trying to cash in on the 4G auction for mobile broadband rather than ensure widespread coverage for rural areas.

MP: Ofcom putting 4G cash before coverage

During a debate on rural broadband – demanded by more than 100 MPs – Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith and Borders, called on Ofcom to extend the proposed obligatory reach for 4G networks from 95% to 98% of the population.

The MP said the only reason Ofcom had set a target that he claimed would leave six million people without mobile 4G broadband was to ensure mobile phone operators paid top dollar at auction next year.

“Ofcom states in its consultation document that it can see no benefits from extending the coverage further – it says that the costs would outweigh the benefits,” said Stewart.

There is some fantasy out there that if we get it wrong, we can go back to the mobile telephone companies in two or three years

“Why? Because it is worried about losing money in the auction, and is worried that when it tries to sell the radio spectrum, which it owns, to the mobile telephone companies and asks them to increase their coverage obligation from 95% to 98% these companies might pay less in the auction.”

Penny pinching?

According to Stewart, if the Government doesn’t put pressure on Ofcom to stop “penny pinching” and change the coverage rate now, a generation of people will be left without decent roaming coverage, and all the benefits it brings, or the taxpayer will have to fund a future expansion.

“This is the time to act,” Stewart said. “There is some fantasy out there that if we get it wrong, we can go back to the mobile telephone companies in two or three years’ time and say, ‘We’re very sorry, we didn’t impose an obligation on you, but would you mind awfully providing 98% coverage?’

“However, by that time they will already have begun to lay out their infrastructure and will have made their decisions. Acting then will be more expensive, the mobile telephone companies will be under no obligation to do so, and we will have to pay them.”

According to Stewart, the obligation figures proposed in Ofcom’s consultation called for coverage of 95% of the population, 90% of the time, which he said actually worked out to 87% coverage.

He estimated the additional cost of coverage would be £215 million pounds, and even if the mobile operators lowered their bids by this amount it still equated to only three weeks’ worth of expenditure in Afghanistan.

Ofcom dismissed the claims, saying it was seeking the best deal for consumers.

“We are currently consulting on the design of the 800MHz and 2.6GHz auction and are listening to views of all interested parties,” a spokesperson told PC Pro.

“Our objective is to encourage investment, promote competition and deliver a wide range of services for consumers.”

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