Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:07 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Conservative, Saffron Walden 2:07 pm, 13th September 2016

I am grateful for this opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on the Second Reading of the Bill. I cannot help feeling the need to pinch myself when we have a Bill of this nature before us. It seems like only yesterday that we were attending protest meetings in our constituencies at which concerned parents expressed the view that the erection of a mobile telephony mast would endanger their children’s health. Similarly, it seems like only the day before yesterday when we could not have imagined that the provision of broadband would create the amount of weekly correspondence to MPs that I and many colleagues now receive.

I welcome the measures in the Bill to improve the coverage of mobile telephony. Vast tracts of my constituency are untouched by a mobile signal, and that position is becoming increasingly ridiculous. I remember being on a visit to one of the poorest states in India to witness the Department for International Development-supported installation of a basic sanitation system, and I happened to glance at my mobile phone. I noticed that it had a very strong signal—much stronger than the signal in large parts of my constituency.

I do not want to talk about the history of the Bill, or to delve into the role of BT and its relationship with Openreach, but I look forward to the Bill reaching the statute book in a form that will ensure universal broadband coverage that provides a level of service that is, as far as possible, future-proof. Of course I welcome the universal service obligation. I remember thinking, when the former Prime Minister first announced this, that a universal service obligation sounds good until we remember that many properties in this country do not have access to water through a publicly supported main and have to make private arrangements, and that many properties do not have contact with mains sewerage. We must be careful and ensure that universal will mean universal for broadband.

I keep saying to constituents that the more populous areas of the country being favoured in BT’s roll-out is understandable—more income will come in and so on—but that does not take account of changes in the structure of society and in business practice. Reference has already been made to some emerging new needs. It is ludicrous that new businesses in the countryside, often occupying redundant farm buildings and working at the highest end of technology, are somehow relegated to the back of the queue when their contribution to the economy is of enormous potential. The Government and their various agencies are also increasing the amounts of data required to be dispatched and submitted electronically. Those who have read the National Farmers Union submission will know how farmers are supposed to be able to download and upload vast amounts of information. Students are increasingly reliant on submitting coursework through electronic means. There is also a growing habit, not unhelpful in dealing with pressures on public transport, of busy executives working from home for part of their week and expecting the same level of connectivity as in their city or town office. For all those reasons, we must ensure that universal means universal.

Anyone who buys a television set these days is like to buy one that is 4K UHD-enabled and with many gadgets. There will be more unrest among people who want a decent television and to take advantage of better clarity and so on if they find that the TV does not do what it says on the tin because they do not have a basic broadband service upon which they can rely.