Stewart’s £150m reward for rural correctness

Being a pain in the arse works sometimes.

So, hats’ off to Penrith and The Border MP Rory Stewart, who got  George Osborne to set aside an extra £150m so that up to six million people living in mobile not-spots might actually get a signal.

Stewart organised a Commons debate, possibly still the best-supported debate ever, to get Ofcom to increase its mobile coverage target, and with it, high speed 4G coverage, from 95% to 99%. The motion passed unanimously.

But it came at a cost. Shortly after the debate Stewart went public with tales of being told in dark corridors that uppity first-time MPs needed to shut up and watch the big boys at work.

Obviously, it took more than “a few words to the wise” to intimidate a man who first walked 6,000 miles in two years through Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, and later ran an Iraqi province during the height of the military adventure there.

As I recall, Stewart worked out that it would cost an extra £210m to build the masts to provide 99% coverage, so Osborne has not been over-generous to Stewart. But it is proof of Stewart’s resilience and his ability to work behind the scenes as well as in front.

While this is a coup for Stewart, it’s too soon to call it victory in the battle to get the UK a globally competitive broadband infrastructure, if today’s BT broadband outage, which affected large parts of the UK for hours, is any sign.





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4 responses to “Stewart’s £150m reward for rural correctness

  1. Small correction Ian 🙂 .Stewart sought 98% and not 99%, which makes the smaller investment from central government even more unusual as that additional 1% would be several times more expensive. As per the original debate text: “urges Ofcom to increase the coverage obligation attached to the 800MHz spectrum licence to 98 per cent”.

    Otherwise, congrats to Stewart for some excellent work.

    • Thanks Mark. So, what do you think Osborne is playing at? That looks to me like a gap even Moore’s Law can’t overcome in four years. I’m also curious: what do you think is the role for dual or multimode Wi-Fi/LTE femtocells running at 2.6GHz, rather than conventional base stations running at 800MHz in rural areas? Is that a way to bridge Osborne’s funding gap (assuming we can resolve the backhaul issue with affordable access to BT’s poles and ducts)?

  2. I’m not sure Ian, at the moment he hasn’t clarified what band(s) the coverage commitment would apply to. Naturally we all assume 800MHz but it’s still unclear. My guess though is that he’s looking for a match-funding style split with mobile operators, which would put the “real” cost closer but still less than £300m.

    I’m not sure if femtocell tech would work well in an already isolated rural area but there’s not enough information about to draw any constructive conclusions. Surely the fundamental problem with such a solution is that those areas will already exist miles from a good fixed line connection.

    Crucially, every area is different. I just don’t think femtocell’s would work as a major coverage solver for rural needs.

    • Femtocells wouldn’t work for providing mobile connectivity over large geographic areas, but they might certainly be worth looking at for covering farm buildings, hamlets, small villages, even business parks, if there is a reliable backhaul capability. People at the edges of networks can usually find a way to get things done. It’s only when they try to link up with the rest of the world that they hit problems. The “middle mile muddle” is what needs attention from Ofcom and councillors in charge of BDUK money.

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