Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:44 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Transport) 3:44 pm, 13th September 2016

I recall that I once had a visit from a former Member of this House who said that he loved visiting my constituency because he could always see the two most beautiful words in politics—no signal.

My hon. Friend Calum Kerr gave a forensic and helpful speech on the opportunities in this area. He has been a critical friend, pointing out where the Bill could be improved and what needs to be considered. I want to touch on a few of those points.

As chair of the all-party group for digital economy, I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of people in the industry and to take some thoughts and comments from people across the length and breadth of this subject. It is clear that we are facing a radical change in how we deal with things. We have heard today about the internet of things and the opportunities for blockchain. My hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes talked about the opportunities for currency, data provision and a new way of holding information. There will be opportunities for new types of jobs, but challenges about how technology replaces jobs.

We will have to look very carefully at the Bill and how we move forward, because it will affect people’s lives and health. If we look at the use of technology in remote and rural areas, telehealth will become very important. It is therefore vital that we have the connectivity to allow that to take place.

The universal service obligation has to be a truly universal service. The obligation should be to make it the same. People say it should be like water and electricity—yes, absolutely it should—but the obligation just does not reach to broadband. It should be about connectivity, so we have to look at digital very carefully. What will the cost be for people who want to access technology in the future? What levels of service can they, should they and must they expect as things move along? How do we tackle digital exclusion for those who simply cannot afford the kind of technology many of us take for granted, particularly as new devices become available for people to use? All those things will have to be considered in the context of how we create a fair digital society and a fair digital economy.

If we look at suppliers, what will the service be like? What should we make sure to look for? The Bill needs to contain ways to measure that properly, something that has been asked for before today. We need to know how the Bill will keep pace with developing technology. Earlier, the Minister talked about 10 megabits per second being a minimum standard. Thank goodness for that, because that will be an absolute minimum in a matter of months, such is the pace of technology.

We also have to consider issues of latency. Upload speed has been mentioned. Voices in the industry are calling for a minimum of 2 megabits, and we have heard about upload speeds from other hon. Members today. Upload speed is a critical factor in ensuring that business can truly compete and that we can take advantage of all the advances coming forward.

The Bill must contain measures to create backhaul and ensure that the distribution of equipment to supply will be sufficient to get into all areas, particularly rural areas. I have been an advocate on this subject for a number years. Before 5G, I was talking about the availability of 4G and the Government taking the opportunity to use the licensing regime to make sure there is an obligation on suppliers to ensure that rural and remote areas are supplied first. In years to come, they will need it more. They will need to access all those services in the way that others, because they live in commercial areas, take for granted. I hope that that will be taken forward.

As Members have said, 5G needs high-frequency broadcast, so we need to look at lots of infrastructure over a fairly short distance that is able to transmit the signals that will be required to supply that very high-frequency service. When we are looking at filling the gaps in provision, we have to get away from the idea of satellite being an absolute solution. As it stands, it does not fill the gap required to fill 5G. We have to encourage communities, in the way we do in Scotland with the community broadband Scotland programme, to be able to set up their own systems to broadcast a signal, so that it can be developed in future to ensure that 5G is applicable to them. That must be an absolute priority, so that we do not take our eye off the ball on what will happen in the future.

It is important for the Bill to make progress on ensuring people’s rights when it comes to mobile phone contracts. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk for mentioning the discussion I had with Ofcom last year and what was agreed by the then Minister, Mr Vaizey. The Bill should include provision so that people who have mobile phone contracts that are not usable or who get a poor service can have the same rights as those with broadband connections to change or cancel their services and move on to another provider. I hope that progress will be made on that. I see the Minister nodding, so I am pleased that that will be coming forward. We do not want people such as Sally who lives in Tomatin in my constituency to be told by a mobile company that she could get a signal, only to find on powering it up, having travelled miles to get the phone she wanted, that there was no opportunity for it to happen. That happens too much. People have been putting up with too poor a service for too long.

Let me make a final point before I conclude. Tariffs for broadband should be limited to what is actually possible. It should not be possible for a telecoms company to charge someone for 76 megabits per second when they are being supplied with much less and there is no way to get that 76 megabits service. That should be made a condition. In Scotland, we have set out the ambition for 100% superfast broadband by the year 2021. We will take on board all that we need to do to make sure that happens. It is time for ambition across all the nations of the UK to make sure that we deliver something that is truly fit for the 21st century.