Rural Broadband

Oral Answers to Questions — Culture, Media and Sport – in the House of Commons at 9:30 am on 16th October 2014.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch 9:30 am, 16th October 2014

What assessment he has made of the conclusions of the 50th report from the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 2013-14, on the rural broadband programme.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Will the Minister finally acknowledge that there was a flaw—a major flaw—in the approach to rural broadband because the bid was drawn up to favour one company that could effectively meet the criteria? Is it not now time for the Minister to find a plan B to deliver proper, superfast broadband in rural areas, as well as in inner-city areas such as mine in Shoreditch?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Culture Media and Sport)

No, I do not accept that at all. The plan was drawn up to encourage open competition, but it is important to remember that anyone who bid for this funding had to allow competitors to use a publicly funded network. BT was the only company prepared to accept those recommendations. In urban areas, there is plenty of healthy competition, and I note that in the east end of London—an area she so ably represents—Virgin Media is now investing in increasing its footprint, covering an additional 100,000 premises.

Photo of Eric Ollerenshaw Eric Ollerenshaw Conservative, Lancaster and Fleetwood

On broadband connections, will the Minister find out why new housing developments, such as the Quay and Moor hospital site in Lancaster, can be built with no telephone or internet connection until a resident moves in and then has to rely on BT to put the connections in at whatever leisurely pace BT chooses?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Culture Media and Sport)

We have sat down with various telephone companies— including BT, but also Virgin Media and other companies such as Hyperoptic— and developers to work out a protocol to ensure that all new developments are notified to these telcos. Only this morning I received a letter from the chief executive of BT Openreach, which talked about the progress made and the additional engineers hired.

Photo of Tom Greatrex Tom Greatrex Shadow Minister (Energy)

One concern about broadband services in rural areas is the way in which some customers end up being charged more than those in other areas even though there is no difference in the cost base for the suppliers. My constituent George Drain is in the process of moving from an urban area to a rural area in Scotland. The infrastructure is already there, but his supplier is charging him considerably more in the area to which he is moving, under cover of the market segmentation defined by Ofcom. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that that is reviewed to make sure that people pay a fair price for their broadband services?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Culture Media and Sport)

It is important to emphasise again—I made the same point in answer to the question about mobile phones—that we have one of the most competitive broadband markets in the world and very low prices. We pay on average about half the price that would be paid in America. I cannot comment on the specific example, but if the hon. Gentleman would care to write to me about it, I will certainly look into it.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Conservative, Newark

Rural broadband in Nottinghamshire suffers from the reality that the target of either 95% or 98% of the population is calculated by residence rather than by population. Of course, in a predominantly urban county such as Nottinghamshire, the vast majority of homes that broadband will not reach lie in my constituency and that of my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke. Is there any chance with future broadband schemes of changing the formula in order to cover residents rather than residences?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Culture Media and Sport)

Some £10 million is going into the Nottinghamshire rural broadband roll-out, and we are planning to cover almost 50,000 premises, but it is hard to see how we could change the criterion to the number of people who lived in those houses. If we are to obtain value for money, we need to get to as many premises as possible with the money that is available.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The whole House knows that the roll-out of rural broadband is 22 months late. Yesterday, however, in answer to my questions, the Minister admitted that after three years only two of the 135 sites involved in the mobile infrastructure project had gone live, and that only £20 million of the £150 million for the super-connected cities programme had been spent. The targets are not going to be met. The Minister is lucky that he does not earn his living as a pizza delivery boy. Will he now apologise to the millions whom he has let down?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Culture Media and Sport)

I am sure that pizzas were not being delivered last night to the Labour women’s dinner, which I gather took place at the Imperial War museum. No doubt the hon. Lady will want to join me in congratulating the museum, which is so ably led by Di Lees, on its magnificent refurbishment, which has introduced the world war one galleries.

I am pleased to confirm that we are bang on target for our roll-out of superfast broadband. We expect to deliver it to 90% of premises by early 2016, but I expect that, given the pace of the programme, we shall exceed that target. The mobile infrastructure project is a pioneering project which has already brought many benefits to rural areas, and I am pleased to see that the super-connected voucher scheme is well under way.

Photo of Tessa Munt Tessa Munt Liberal Democrat, Wells

I spoke to the Minister again in July about broadband in my area, and showed him the map of the proposed coverage. It seems that exchanges just a couple of miles away from main roads such as the A38 and the A370, where fibre-optic cables were laid years ago, cannot be connected, and—to use BT Openreach’s description—the “poor-quality cables” around new cabinets that have been fitted in places such as Wells mean that previously generally reliable but slow services running at 750 kilobits have become desperately unreliable and pathetically slow, at about 250 kilobits. There is no point in changing the provider, because all the signals are carried over the same wires. What do my constituents have to do to get superfast broadband?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Culture Media and Sport)

We are delivering superfast broadband to Devon and Somerset, and under our programme, which is worth some £50 million, it will reach 90% of premises. However, as my hon. Friend says, this is a very complex engineering project which involves very complex work. I am particularly happy to praise the work that BT has done in many areas where it is already well ahead of schedule.