Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:17 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall 3:17 pm, 13th September 2016

I completely agree. We need to get the same access that all urban areas have, because otherwise we cannot compete on a level playing field.

Every week, my constituency office is contacted by people who have consistency issues with their broadband reliability and are not receiving the speeds they paid for, or look on in frustration as they are told by the superfast broadband companies that they cannot have broadband and yet their neighbours on the other side of the road can. In fact, my office has created a broadband not-spot map to highlight which constituents have poor broadband speeds, because we have not been able to access that information through our superfast broadband provider. That is shocking and the map is becoming substantial.

This digital age fundamentally changes how we operate in our daily lives. Like water, gas and electricity, broadband is now a necessity and has become part of the progressive society. That is why I am delighted with the Government’s introduction of the universal service obligation, which gives my constituents the protection they need for a decent broadband service, and of the electronic communications code, which emphasises the provision of broadband and mobile internet.

I understand that the USO aims to provide 10 megabits per second, which is enough to do tasks such as sending emails and browsing websites. That will help many farmers, businesses and households in my constituency to access a level of broadband that they should expect to receive, and it will also allow them to provide their services and to hold the service providers’ feet to the fire. However, paying for a 10-megabit connection and receiving only 0.1 megabit is completely unacceptable, so it is right that we place a statutory obligation on service providers. Farmers are increasingly reliant on broadband. A recent survey by the National Farmers Union found that 58% have speeds of less than 2 megabits per second.

Given the access to streaming video capability that we now demand from our internet, whether we access vital services to engage in e-learning, to catch up on our favourite programmes on Netflix or other providers, or to play fast-moving computer games, the USO is more important than ever. Therefore, I urge the Government and Ofcom to be bold and ambitious with the universal service as it starts to take shape.

If we could get a guaranteed household speed for farms and businesses in North Cornwall of at least 15 instead of 10 megabits per second, that would ensure that all of the satisfactory internet speeds could be considered to be faster and that they would not be lagging behind some of the speeds offered by some superfast broadband providers.

I appreciate that 10 megabits per second is good, but in reality it may well be outdated by the time this Bill comes to fruition and we may need to address the more modern demands of internet service users. I hope that the Secretary of State will give an assurance that the Government will consider higher broadband speeds as this Bill progresses and as they and Ofcom develop the USO.

Furthermore, will the Secretary of State explore the possibility of making superfast broadband a statutory function for all new build properties? The utility should be a lawful requirement so that families and businesses can use it immediately. That would also lower the cost for some service providers. I raised that point recently during questions to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I am keen to hear whether the Secretary of State will consider working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to amend the Bill and make superfast broadband a statutory requirement for all new build properties.

I also welcome the Government’s plan for a new electronic communications code to enhance the provision of broadband both on the ground and in the air. Mobile signal and mobile broadband coverage in North Cornwall is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed. Chris Bryant, who, sadly, has left the Chamber, mentioned Polzeath. When the former Prime Minister was there on holiday, he was unable to access mobile phone coverage. That is an issue that affects everybody right across Cornwall. The Bill will help coastal communities in particular and those areas of outstanding natural beauty that have to have mobile phone masts, which present a huge problem in terms of planning applications.

It is critical that we continue to improve all forms of communication, as there are many areas in North Cornwall that lack both broadband speed and mobile phone reception. It is imperative that our mobile operators can erect masts in new areas, to deliver better broadband speed in a number of different ways. As with broadband, farmers are becoming more reliant on a decent mobile phone signal. A recent NFU survey suggested that only 32% of farmers across the country had access to a good signal. Given that farmers are often out working on their own, we should try to take that important step. With superfast broadband being rolled out across North Cornwall, it is becoming easier for mobile phone operators to site masts in rural areas and to cover 3G and 4G internet.

The Government have embarked on a £5 billion investment programme to improve mobile infrastructure. The new code will go further by reforming the old and complex code, which the Law Commission said was

“complex and extremely difficult to understand”.

The new code enables operators to upgrade their equipment without having to consult landowners, which can result in disputes and higher rents, as other Members have said, and can cause higher bills for customers and a less reliant service. Concerns have been expressed by the Country Land and Business Association. It is important that operators continue to have a healthy dialogue with landowners, even if statute does not necessarily demand it. By continuing to roll out better mobile coverage, especially in areas such as North Cornwall, we should seek to benefit not just residents, but tourists who come to those areas. By improving the signal in many areas on North Cornwall’s coastline, we will improve Cornwall’s tourism offer.

Phone signal is also very important for communications with the emergency services, and enabling further coverage across North Cornwall should help to keep Cornwall safe. Coastguards have no mobile phone access in many of the outstanding natural beauty on our coastlines, which presents a huge problem.

On our railway services, we rely on phone signal and fast broadband speeds, whether directly to our phones or via the train’s onboard wi-fi service. As a regular user of the railways, I know the frustration that many passengers feel when they constantly lose mobile phone signal or wi-fi internet service. Having communications on our trains is imperative to remain productive on long journeys, especially in the south-west, where rail journeys are often longer due to lower track speeds. I hope that the Government will work with the phone and train operators to improve the provision of mobile coverage across the whole of the south-west.

Ultimately, I am keen to see North Cornwall embrace the digital economy for day-to-day communications and to attract more information technology, coding and gaming companies to the area. North Cornwall is strategically located near the A38 and A30 trunk roads, and it is well situated between two regional airports. It is a good home for IT companies that want to benefit not only from good internet connections and transport links, but from living in a fantastic place.

The south-west already hosts many people in the digital sector. In 2014, the number stood at 80,000 employees. With its expanding superfast broadband network, North Cornwall and the wider community has huge untapped potential.

I support the Bill and thank everybody for listening.