Broadband (Suffolk)

– in the House of Commons at 9:49 pm on 13th July 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Simon Kirby.)

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich 10:02 pm, 13th July 2015

It is a pleasure to bring to the House this evening a debate on an issue that affects not just Suffolk but many rural counties in our country. I wish to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister for his work on this issue. I know that he has worked very hard over the past five-and-a-half years to ensure that high-speed and superfast broadband can be rolled out to Suffolk and to other counties. He has visited our county on several occasions, and he understands the challenges that we face. It is the single most important issue facing rural Suffolk and many rural businesses and homes. As my hon. Friend is aware, Suffolk has a population of about 750,000 people and there are about 350,000 premises to which we need to get superfast broadband.

The question is what would happen if the matter were left to the open market. We know that BT’s commercial deployment of fibre-based broadband reached around 50% of Suffolk’s premises, but only in parts of the major towns and cities where it was commercially viable to do so. We know that Virgin Media provides coverage to around 67 premises, which is about one in eight, but only in selective parts of Newmarket, Ipswich and Felixstowe. There are also a number of small-scale wireless broadband providers in some parts of the county, where broadband speeds over BT’s copper network remain poor.

It is not just about homes and businesses, but about other issues including how we develop better public sector services for people in rural areas. We know that delivering more integrated and joined-up healthcare, and delivering care in the homes with telehelp and telemedicine to older people are essential, and the way to do that has to be through improving our broadband and rural connectivity. We also know that education in our schools is hugely supported in today’s world by the internet and the connectivity that the internet brings, but many schools in Suffolk still have very slow broadband speeds, and a number of schools in my constituency are struggling with speeds no better than those of dial-up. This needs to change, and I am grateful for the support that my hon. Friend and the Government have already provided to help address these issues.

Farming and agriculture are the backbone of our rural economy. Farmers tell me they do not have the infrastructure connections to enable fast enough broadband to comply with online Government services, including the new common agricultural policy information services, which require them to submit all information online and have an email connection for communication. This is affecting their ability to innovate and use new farm technology and software, which needs to be downloaded from the internet, and meet other Government regulations such as VAT, vehicle tax and animal tagging. Our farmers need to innovate to increase productivity in order to compete in international markets where higher broadband speeds are the norm. It is for the sake of Suffolk farmers that we talk about the last 5%, which I will speak about later. Farmers and agriculture are important drivers of the rural economy, and for their benefit we will need additional Government support to reach that last 5%—the farm at the end of the dirt track that still does not have broadband and is struggling.

Suffolk and the Broadband Delivery UK rural broadband programme has had some great success. Suffolk was one of the first two local authorities, with Norfolk, to sign a local call-off contract with BT in the first phase of the BDUK rural broadband programme in December 2012 to extend coverage by 100,000 premises to over 80% of Suffolk premises by the end of 2015. There was a grant of almost £12 million from the Government, for which we are very grateful, and that was matched by another £12 million from Suffolk county council. I am pleased that my hon. Friend Peter Aldous is sitting next to me, because he and I campaigned tirelessly to ensure that we got that money for Suffolk, and we are very grateful for the Government support that our county has received.

Suffolk and Norfolk worked closely with BDUK to develop the milestone-to-cash process for in-life management of local call-off contracts with BT, and helped BDUK to train other local authorities around the country. Suffolk has been the first local authority to work with BT to trial a number of new technology solutions as part of the Suffolk deployment, notably wireless to the cabinet technology, which uses a microwave point-to-point radio link, rather than optical fibre cable, to link an enabled cabinet in a village—for example, Tuddenham in my constituency—back to the network, to avoid what would otherwise have been a lengthy and disruptive road closure and high civil engineering costs.

Suffolk has also used copper re-arrangement technology to re-arrange existing exchange-only lines, and lines previously served by other cabinets, on to a cabinet that was to be upgraded with fibre to the cabinet technology. The process was first trialled in Suffolk, and is now being widely deployed across the country. Suffolk has used a number of other technologies, including fibre to the remote node technology and fibre to the distribution point technology—topics which my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to talk further about in his response.

Suffolk has led the way nationally in what we have been doing on delivering faster broadband and superfast broadband to very rural areas—areas where there would otherwise have been commercial failure, areas where operators such as BT and Virgin would not have shown any commercial interest because it was not commercially viable to take superfast broadband to the consumer. That is where the Government money is being spent, and, as a result, Suffolk was the first local authority to sign a second local call-off contract under the superfast extension programme, to extend coverage to a further 50,0000 premises, which means that over 95% of Suffolk premises will be receiving superfast broadband by 2018.

That was supported by a grant of £15 million from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, matched by another £10 million from Suffolk county council and £5 million from the New Anglia local enterprise partnership. It is an example of Government working with the county council and the local enterprise partnership for the benefit of the county, recognising the importance of supporting rural businesses in Suffolk, and making sure that schools and the health service are considered part of that rural broadband roll-out.

Suffolk has signed up to the accelerated deployment process, agreed between BDUK and BT, to bring forward the end of the second contract by six months from the end of 2018 to mid-2018, so Suffolk is ahead of schedule in the roll-out of the first contract to reach 80% of premises, and moving ahead of schedule also on the second contract. I hope that the Government will recognise and reward Suffolk’s success in rolling out superfast broadband when we come to the third roll-out to the final 5% later this year. There are still questions about how to get superfast broadband to the final 5% in some of the county’s most rural areas, where farms and rural businesses are often operating on dial-up speeds. That situation is clearly unacceptable and needs to change urgently.

Let me set out the current status of the Better Broadband for Suffolk programme. As at the end of June, Suffolk has extended coverage to 90,986 premises, against a target of 100,000, so we are on track to complete deployment under our first contract with BT by the end of September. Those premises would not have been commercially viable and would not have received superfast broadband without support from the Government or the county council. That is a tremendous achievement. Peter Ingram and the Better Broadband for Suffolk team should be commended for all that they have done.

However, there is still more to do. Concerns have been raised with me—I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend the Minister would address these when he responds—about the conduct of BT. In general, Suffolk has a good relationship with BT, and the first contract is on track to meet, or slightly exceed, its coverage target of 100,000 homes by the end of September 2015, and within budget, which is a rare for public sector projects.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I think that he is about to move on to the nub of an issue that I want to raise. Does he agree that part of the problem in Suffolk is that for many years BT has underinvested in its commercial roll-out? That means the Government and Suffolk County Council’s resources have been diverted from tackling the real problem of getting to the hard-to-reach areas. I have in mind a case from the town of Beccles, where my constituent Mr Tony Twomey has been waiting for months to get superfast broadband.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

My hon. Friend is right to raise his constituent’s concerns and to highlight the fact that although the relationship between BT and the county council on the roll-out has generally been good, there have been concerns.

The money was originally put in place to hit those non-commercially viable areas, but not to supplement BT in activities that are commercially viable for it. Better Broadband for Suffolk has raised concerns with me about BT’s behaviour in a couple of areas, and I want to touch on those briefly. I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend the Minister could respond to some of those concerns, because they might affect some of the contractual relations with BT, particularly with regard to the third phase of funding, which is expected later this year.

We know that BT’s claims for its commercial coverage in certain trouble spots included villages on long lines from commercially enabled cabinets that got no benefit from the upgrade, and that were excluded from Suffolk’s intervention area under the first contract. BT was slow to admit the problem, initially promising the villages that they would be upgraded commercially and then reneging on that promise. The affected areas have been included within the Suffolk intervention area under the second contract as a result, but BT has been slow to prioritise coverage of the affected areas—my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has just pointed that out—which will now be delivered more than two years later than originally planned. The residents of Suffolk, our constituents, are suffering as a result.

Suffolk has had similar problems getting BT to prioritise coverage of industrial estates and business parks, which are vital to the county’s economy, particularly in rural areas. In general, BT tends to ignore Suffolk’s priorities in favour of its own, which many of my constituents find unacceptable.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

I wish to reiterate the points my hon. Friend is making. This is an issue not only in his constituency but in mine. Whole streets in villages such as Old Newton and Bacton have no service. This is the fourth utility. It affects every Department, including the Department for Work and Pensions through universal credit, which is a digital platform; the Department of Health as we roll out telehealth; and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs through the basic payment scheme. It disables our constituents if we do not give them the facility of broadband. A £6 million company in Ingham in my constituency is failing to expand as it wants to because it does not have broadband. That should be addressed.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a pleasure to speak alongside her in this debate. Her advocacy on issues such as broadband in rural areas will be greatly appreciated by her constituents.

The speed of roll-out has not been helped by BT, because Better Broadband for Suffolk and the county council have had difficulty in managing the contract. During the first half of the deployment, under Suffolk’s first contract for 100,000 premises to be covered, it was clear that Better Broadband for Suffolk had the potential significantly to exceed the contractual parameters in delivering on budget and to a more rapid timescale. Latterly, it has been clear that BT has been limiting Better Broadband for Suffolk’s efforts. It has been only just meeting the contractual parameters and planning sufficient structures slightly to exceed the contracted plans, not putting any further structures in place. BT will not go faster when Better Broadband for Suffolk could deliver faster. That has been to the detriment of our constituents, who have not received broadband in the timely manner they should expect. That is particularly true of many rural businesses.

There has also been a problem with BT on availability. BT has been slow to recognise and respond to issues that prevented customers from ordering upgraded services on newly built lines, with delays sometimes lasting many months and cases where Openreach has demanded that excess construction charges be applied to make the final customer connection. Some upgraded cabinets have become fully utilised quickly, and it has then taken more than three months for Openreach to install additional capacity. That is unacceptable. Taxpayer subsidy—taxpayers’ money—is being delivered through financial support from the county council, the Government and the LEP, with many millions of pounds going into this. When there is the capacity to go further and faster more effectively to support rural businesses and to deliver broadband more speedily for our residents and our constituents, that should be enabled and encouraged, not slowed down by BT. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will outline what the Government can do better to hold BT to account through Broadband Delivery UK and how this might affect the allocation of the money for the final 5%. I would be grateful for his thoughts on these issues that have affected our constituents.

According to Which? magazine’s analysis, customer experience of broadband has been patchy. It found—we have found this in Suffolk as well—that only 17% of households with fixed broadband received an average speed that matched their advertised “up to” speed, and that this figure dropped to 15% during peak times, when the advertised superfast broadband speed is not as fast as it should be. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend outlined what measures will be available to consumers in Suffolk who are suffering from lower than expected and lower than advertised broadband speeds.

There is also a clear issue of superfast broadband being superfast only at times of low usage. That is a problem for businesses, in particular. They will obviously be using the internet and broadband services at peak times, and if the superfast broadband service that they have bought into is not superfast, then it is not fit for the purpose for which it was intended. This issue will need to be urgently addressed as part of the future roll-out process, as will the way in which we support existing businesses to ensure that they can get the speed of service that they need in order to be effective in looking after their clients and customers.

I have three or four questions for the Minister. I hope that the Government will bring forward proposals and funding for tackling the final 5% as soon as possible. The sooner there is certainty on the proposals, the better for our residents in Suffolk. Suffolk is keen to ensure that the final 5% of customers can enjoy the same fast, reliable, sustainable and future-proof solution that has been put in place for the other 95%. We want to avoid creating a digital divide between the 95% who will receive superfast broadband by 2017 and the remaining 5%, and Suffolk will be willing to work with BDUK on alternative approaches to achieving that objective.

Suffolk supported the Government’s commitment to the universal service commitment of at least 2 megabytes per second by the end of 2015. For that policy commitment to be fulfilled for those who may have to wait until 2018 or beyond to get a superfast broadband service, it is imperative that the scheme delivers the 2 megabytes per second as soon as possible, and in time to ensure that services can be delivered by the end of 2015.

In delivering superfast broadband for Suffolk, I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister not only addressed the issues about BT and the final 5%, but picked up on whether we can ensure that improved broadband services are linked with better mobile technology and improved mobile phone reception in our area. We know it is vital that all people running rural businesses—for example, farmers needing satellite imaging on their combine harvesters—have broadband connectivity that is not just about fibre to the home, but broader in being linked online through a portable device. That issue is intrinsically connected with mobile phone coverage and 4G.

As part of the roll-out of the third phase of broadband funding to deal with the last 5%, I would be grateful for my hon. Friend’s support in ensuring joined-up thinking by the Government, as I am sure there will be, and that businesses in the most rural areas—particularly those operating out of doors, such as farming—are properly supported.

In conclusion, there are questions for the Minister on the conduct of BT, on the final 5% and ensuring that proposals are made in a timely manner, and on joining up mobile phone coverage to ensure that there is a holistic approach that benefits both Suffolk residents and the taxpayer.

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) 10:22 pm, 13th July 2015

I am very grateful for the chance to reply to this important debate. I thank my hon. Friend Dr Poulter for securing it, and I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) for their timely interventions.

May I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich both for his kind words about the work I have done during the past five years in rolling out the superfast broadband programme and for the balanced tone of his speech? I must confess that too often in these debates I hear from many colleagues one long whinge about the superfast broadband programme. That is difficult for me to take, because I know that it has been an absolutely stunning success. I must say that my hon. Friend balanced his remarks by pointing out the programme’s extraordinary success in his own county of Suffolk. Before my remarks are somehow misinterpreted as portraying him as some kind of quisling rolling over to the Minister, let me say that he showed a superb understanding of the programme, which meant that the points he made at the end about how things could be improved had additional force and perspicacity, and therefore deserve the fullest answers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, because they also reflected very well on Peter Ingram and the Suffolk team, who have been instrumental in making the county of Suffolk one of the textbook examples of how to run a good programme. It is worth reminding ourselves that this is a partnership of central Government funding and direction working with local authorities. The most successful programmes are those in which in a local authority such as Suffolk and the local enterprise partnership, which my hon. Friend also praised, work in harmony in clearing away the obstacles and working together to achieve success. That is why, for example, some 17,500 premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency will get superfast broadband thanks to the programme in phases 1 and 2, as well as 8,500 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and 16,000 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds.

The programme is successful, but my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich made six points to which he asked me to respond. The first is the conduct of BT and, in particular, its reneging on promises when it has planned to roll out to a village and then does not. He also asked what it is doing to support business parks. Although I am unstinting in my praise for the way in which BT has rolled out the national programme, there is no doubt in my mind—I have said this before—that it has some problems with customer service.

One issue has been that BT has promised broadband and then not delivered it to certain communities. When BT gets on the ground and does the mapping exercises, it might find that getting to a particular village is more complicated than it had thought, so it revises its plan. There is no doubt that that causes great consternation to villagers who were expecting broadband to be delivered. It is my intention in the autumn to update all relevant Members of the House on the progress of broadband in their constituencies to make it absolutely clear where broadband will be delivered. It is important to warn those who might be at the tail end of the programme that they might have to wait some time. We cannot deliver it overnight.

Business parks and industrial estates are also an issue that we negotiate regularly with BT. Again, the issue is somewhat balanced. It surprises me sometimes that business parks do not take it into their own hands to provide superfast broadband for tenants. The market is replete with numerous business suppliers of broadband. As we found from our business voucher scheme, which has connected 25,000 businesses, we have more than 600 registered suppliers all over the country that are more than willing to provide superfast broadband. Business broadband is a different beast from residential broadband.

On the question of BT not exceeding its contracted plans with Suffolk, there is good news on the way. We can consider some of the more advanced counties, by which I mean advanced in terms of time if not achievement. For example, Cornwall, which originally contracted for 80% coverage, has reached 95% with the same money. We expect shortly to be able to look at where money is coming back under the programme, because we get money back under the contract as more people take up broadband, and at whether money is available to extend roll-out even further. That links to my first point, as BT, perhaps keen not to over-promise, leaves some of my hon. Friends with a feeling of frustration, but I am certain that BT will be able to exceed its contracted plans and that in a short time we will be able to announce how that will benefit Suffolk.

I shall take away with me the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich about BT being tardy in installing additional capacity in cabinets where demand is high, as again I suspect that it is more to do with BT customer service than any sinister plot to deny broadband to customers who are waiting.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that last month Ofcom made it clear that consumers will from now on be able to terminate their contract with any broadband provider that does not provide advertised speeds with absolutely no penalty. It is quite right to put the power in the hands of the consumer so that they can walk away from contracts that do not fulfil what they promised.

I know that Suffolk is not well served by mobile broadband roll-out. We have a landmark deal with mobile providers to provide 90% geographic coverage, as opposed to premises coverage, and that should be in place by the end of 2017. We are working quickly and effectively with mobile operators to get better mobile broadband coverage for my hon. Friend’s constituents, which is fast becoming almost as important as fibre coverage.

Finally, I hear what my hon. Friend says about the final 5% and I am keen to announce plans as soon as possible, and certainly before the end of the year, about how we intend to reach that final 5%. It is certainly our intention to leave no one behind and we think that there are two or three different ways in which we can secure a timely roll-out for the final 5% so that by the end of this Parliament virtually everyone in this country will have access to very fast superfast broadband speeds.

I thank my hon. Friend once again for his well-judged speech, which showed a comprehensive understanding of the broadband programme with some timely and constructive critiques of the plan, which I have taken on board.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.