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4G phone masts could be installed in schools and hospitals to boost rural coverage

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Publicly owned buildings like schools and hospitals could be used to install mobile phone masts to improve signal for rural users, culture secretary Nicky Morgan has said.

Speaking at a parliamentary debate on proposals for a Shared Rural Network, she said her department was working with the Cabinet Office on the plans and “having conversations to make sure that local authority infrastructure such as hospitals and schools can also be used to increase and improve connectivity in these communities”.

The new network plan revealed last week is designed to increase 4G coverage to 95 per cent of the UK. It will see the UK’s four main mobile network providers sharing masts and equipment in rural areas to combat “4G not-spots” with help from £500m in investment from the Government.

Labour’s Liam Byrne, the shadow minister for digital, felt that the plans did not go far enough. He said that while Labour welcomed the 95 per cent commitment “because it is better than the 91 per cent that we have today” it still leaves a “4,681 square mile area of the country where coverage will be non-existent or not good enough”.

He added: “I suppose the progress is welcome that we’ve had today, but this is really half of a half measure when what was needed was a bold 10-year national switch-over plan to deliver ubiquitous gigabit per second access to every corner of the country.”

Morgan said Labour should support the proposals, which are “a significant step forward” for improving connectivity.

She added: “It was a typical grudging response from the Labour Party, rather than a recognition that actually this is a significant step forward for consumers and for our constituents.”

“I think it is right that we should see that it is delivered properly and comprehensively across the UK rather than rushing, but we’re very clear with the 2025 target.”

“This is a significant moment for improving mobile connectivity which is absolutely essential to making sure the UK plays its part in being able to develop and to use and to innovate the technologies of the future,” she concluded.

The plans will be underpinned by legally binding commitments from each operator to reach more than 92 per cent UK coverage by 2026.

​If they cannot demonstrate that all reasonable efforts have been made to comply with the obligations, there are penalties for the operators with a maximum fine of up to 10 per cent of annual turnover, Morgan said. She added that many consumers will start to see the benefits of the programme “long before” its 2025 conclusion date.

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