Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed 3:35 pm, 13th September 2016

I thank the Minister for his intervention, which will very much reassure those for whom that matter has not perhaps been made as clear as they wish it to be. The key will be to support Ofcom’s proposals, which I understand we can expect at the end of the year, so there is clarity and we can control the situation.

In Northumberland, BT has done an enormously good job in very difficult technical circumstances. When the telephony system was installed back in the 1950s, a cabinet was put at the end of almost every street in Durham, but one was put in only every 10 to 20 miles in Northumberland, with very few copper cables going on for miles and miles. This is proving a very serious challenge for BT in meeting the needs of farmsteads that might now have nine or 10 homes, where in the 1950s there was one farmer who perhaps did not even want mains electricity at that time. We have some real engineering challenges in Northumberland, but I want to put on the record that BT and Openreach are doing an incredible job in trying to find ways to meet them.

One issue that has not been raised in any detail is the gainshare programme. The BDUK money, which has been rolled out through BT to reach some of my constituents, will not come back in at the speed we would like unless the offer of broadband, where it exists, is taken up by my constituents. The Government need to think carefully about how they get across the point that if broadband is available in a community—it is available in many places, although not nearly enough across Northumberland—people must change their contracts to one involving broadband to ensure that the gainshare will come back in for the rest of the community. The iNorthumberland team at Northumberland County Council have worked tirelessly alongside me for four years in my broadband campaign to drive it out, in spider’s web fashion, to our smaller and smaller communities, but we are definitely not there yet.

The target of reaching 95% by 2017 is very unrealistic in my patch, and we need to review it. The reality is that superfast broadband will continue to expand. Where broadband already exists, superfast broadband will continue to expand, which is fantastic for such constituents. However, it is not good, while superfast broadband keeps expanding, if we cut off more and more small communities as a result because they have not been able to put in place the infrastructure for it.

The challenges of using technologies other than fibre to do that are real. In Northumberland, bizarrely enough—we tested it in my own home—the satellites leave us caught between two different beams, so satellite broadband does not work very well. The idea is good, but in practice we are stuck between the two beams. To be fair to BT, it looked at the three villages where we had done some work and has supported trying to drive forward work to get fibre a little closer—the distance is down from 9 miles to 6 miles—to improve things.

There are also some real challenges with point-to-point wi-fi. The Northumbrian hills are quite a long way from one another. In some landscapes in the UK, the hills are closer together and point-to-point may well work much more effectively. In my constituency, the hills are large and at great distances, and the signal fades, so we will not get the impact that we need for those living in rural communities. Up the Coquet valley, farmers and their families are several miles—an hour and a half in the snow—from the next community, village or farm, but they need that comms technology available to them.

We have to find ways to ensure we have one-off investments. In the ’50s, some farmers said that they did not want mains electricity, but people will invest in and support the costs to get fibre to far-off communities, to ensure that we do not cut them off. Northumberland gets 7 million tourists every year. They all expect that there will be broadband and wi-fi in the houses they rent and the hotels and bed and breakfasts that they stay in, but it simply is not there, in the most beautiful parts of the county. We need to make sure that the investment is driven right through.

My constituency neighbour, Calum Kerr, mentioned that we always talk about download speeds, but for business development, upload speed is a vital part of the data process. We must make sure that that is understood. I would like to see it specifically in the Bill. Download is only one part of the process. It is great for streaming films if someone has 10 megabits—or so I am told; I can only get about 4 megabits in my house—but without a very good upload speed, we will not be able to get any kind of business development into rural communities. We want to broaden the engagement of those businesses in our rural communities.

As was said earlier, people who work a four-day week in their office in Newcastle, let us say, but for the sake of their quality of life want to spend three days a week working from home cannot possibly do that work or upload the documents that they need to upload without that clear upload speed of 10 megabits per second. In some of the larger villages in my constituency, the upload speed is often less than 1 megabit per second. It is impossible to work with that from a business perspective. Will the Minister therefore consider how we can make sure that operators meet a commitment on that as well?

Provision of sites for infrastructure is covered in the Bill. I have had concerns for some time—more have been brought up with me over the past few days—about the balance of the relationship between site providers and operators. How the rent for the use of private land by operators is determined will be important in ensuring that land can be rented easily for infrastructure, particularly for telephony systems. I have heard of anxiety from potential site owners that voluntary agreements may be harder to reach—something that will simply slow down investment in telephony systems for my constituents—if there is no provision in the Bill for a reasonable consideration to be paid, albeit perhaps one below current levels.

Potential site owners are concerned that the Bill implies that there could be retrospective change to existing arrangements, which is slowing down tenancy agreements. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that the new code will not be retrospective, to ensure that an operator will not have the option to break an existing lease purely to enter the new code. My main concern for north Northumberland is that that risks slowing down the roll-out of the emergency services network, on to whose masts my constituents hope to rely to extend our telephone system to some of the most rural communities. I hope the Minister will be able to answer those questions.