Many years ago, during the campaign for the 1987 general election I hosted a house meeting in our flat in the west end of Glasgow in support of the late Roy Jenkins, then MP for Glasgow Hillhead. It was an exciting occasion for all who attended.
For me, it was exciting as it allowed me to do my bit to support the efforts of a man who then, as now, was a political inspiration to me.
For most of my friends who attended, then in their early twenties, it was more likely exciting because Roy’s then bag carrier brought with him a mobile phone – an item of genuine curiosity.
To call what we saw then a mobile phone is to use the term very loosely. It was only mobile if you were fit enough to lug the phone and its weighty battery up the three flights of stairs to our top floor flat. Even to call it a phone stretched things a little as the number of places where you could get a signal to use it was limited.
Over the last quarter century and more we have seen mobile telephones go from being the plaything of the few to being a basic staple of everyday life.
Many of the communities that I represent are those which because of their size of population and their distance from larger centres of population could derive most benefit from good connectivity.
Unfortunately they are always the last see any improvement.
Doctors, health visitors, vets and other professionals serving the Northern Isles have been left struggling with patchy coverage. People who run their businesses from home, or have children with complex medical needs have been left to fend for themselves. While mobile connections and mobile internet speeds have gone from strength to strength in urban areas, large parts of rural Scotland have been left behind.
In London last week, a member of my Westminster team was complaining about patchy 4G service in his flat. I told him in pretty robust terms that my neighbours in Orkney would settle for reliable 2G coverage. I know that people in many other parts of Scotland will share these sentiments.
What this bad tempered exchange underlined was that as the technology and its accessibility has changed, the gap between the haves and the have nots has grown. Now the divide is not always an economic one. The divide here is between those who have signal and those who do not.
Social and economic development in some of our most fragile communities is being hampered by the lack of mobile connectivity.
In an earlier age provision would have come, as it did with mail services, from a single provider on which a universal service obligation could have been imposed. Instead we have had a market evolve in more haphazardly. Fierce competition amongst independent players has now settled down to a market where adequate is deemed to be good enough. Left to their own devices, the mobile phone companies are not going to go as far as we as a nation, and as an economy, need them to go.
That is why yesterday, in the House of Commons, I introduced the Mobile Communications (Contractual Obligations) Bill. The title of the Bill might need work, but the measures I propose would be an important step towards giving people in places like the Northern Isles the power to hold mobile phone providers to account. The Bill will provide strong incentives that will help ensure rural areas are not left behind.
I am yet to meet a mobile phone user in Orkney who gets the sort of connection speeds advertised by their provider. My Bill would give these frustrated customers the right to break contracts where the mobile operators do not keep their side of the bargain and deliver proper signal. This will not change things overnight, but it would give people a practical alternative to wandering around holding their phone aloft, seeking an additional bar of signal. The Bill would also allow for companies failing to deliver proper coverage to be fined.
This legislation is a signal to the mobile phone operators that customers across the country – especially in our rural communities remote from the large centres of population – need, expect and deserve a better service than they are getting.
Unlike the signal they provide us – this could not be clearer.