Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:46 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Calum Kerr Calum Kerr Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Digital) 1:46 pm, 13th September 2016

It is realistic to assume that more like 25% of my own constituency will not be covered. The concentration of the 5% can be great in rural areas in Scotland, in particular.

A theme to which I shall return is the desire for the Government, with our support, to show more ambition. As Mr Vaizey—the former digital Minister—put it, they should embrace McBroadband. Never mind your 10 megabits; let us get superfast everywhere. That is a key ambition on which I hope the present Minister can trump his predecessor. Rural areas already have to deal with poor connectivity. We have poor roads and highways; let us not have equally poor digital superhighways, because digital is becoming ever more important. The Government talk about it as a fifth utility, but with that rhetoric—that status—comes a greater responsibility upon them, providers and regulators to provide equality of access. As we talk increasingly of forms of digital citizenship, it is vital that the large swathes of the country that could be left behind do not become left behind as second-class digital citizens.

We welcome the introduction of a universal service obligation, but, as the Scottish Government pointed out in Ofcom’s digital communications review, it is important that the USO is dynamic and capable of evolving over time. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, the USO should be framed in such a way that it offers maximum flexibility and does not offer substandard solutions as we try to hit a minimum standard. Ultimately, we want a USO that helps to incentivise network providers to push fibre further and empower communities, perhaps through a voucher scheme or other mechanisms that support local ambition. We want to ensure a framework that does more to improve rural coverage and protects the interests of rural consumers, rather than cementing a digital divide.

The key to an effective USO will be in its delivery. That is a matter that this Bill refers to Ofcom’s technical analysis, but it is worth noting that a simple headline figure of 10 megabits download is flawed. First, a truly effective USO needs to consider not just basic download speed, but upload, latency, data limits and, of course, cost. Everyone should be entitled to a fair standard of broadband, and that is about a lot more than just download speed.

To return to the other point I mentioned, do we really think 10 megabits will be considered sufficient by 2020? Why do the Government think the bar should be set so low? The SNP challenges the thinking that sees 10 megabits as adequate. I found some of the briefings depressing to read, and they smacked of vested interests who, in their desire to leave markets open for future commercial activity, think rural areas should be sacrificed and given a lesser service, which is totally unacceptable.

Beyond any technical aspects of the USO, Parliament should have an ongoing role to play, especially in the matter of funding. I personally believe there is a strong case for an element of public funding, rather than just relying on the industry or an industry levy, but if the option of an industry levy is to be pursued, we would encourage the Government to cast the net as wide as possible, to cover all who benefit from the digital economy.

We welcome measures to improve the ability of consumers to switch providers with maximum ease, and we want to look closely at measures to incentivise quality of service, to ensure these incentives are universal. The Government have missed an opportunity, which I hope they will reconsider, to introduce measures advocated by my hon. Friend Drew Hendry—what a magnificent constituency name that is!