As we have heard today, the Bill casts its net wide and sets out to address an enormous range of issues, doing so extremely well for most. I want to add my voice to further issues, to echo the words of others and to make a special plea for rural areas and the particular problems that they face.
By the end of next year, 95% of premises are likely to have access to broadband speeds of considerably more than 10 megabits. It is important to note, however, that the remaining 5% is composed of rural areas, which make up much of Somerset and my constituency. For example, just 4% of our farmers can currently access superfast broadband and more than half receive nothing more than 2 megabits—like many of my constituents. Providing hard to reach areas with the framework that they need to get connected is a huge step forward.
However, those affected include not only farmers and other people, but businesses. One of the great opportunities of the digital revolution is that it does not have to be led by urban spaces. Given sufficient infrastructure, rural areas can be just as fertile. If the Bill’s universal service obligation—by whatever means—and its reasonable cost threshold make sense for isolated rural areas, we will have to look at a variety of means and methods, because fibre may not be appropriate. If the reasonable cost threshold makes sense, new technologies and the opportunity provided by reform of the electronic communications code to make infrastructure installations easier can make rural investment pay.
I welcome the electronic communications code changes. Digital connectivity is an essential utility that must be put on the same footing as other public utilities, as we have heard today from many hon. and right hon. Members. Without the improved framework, communities in areas such as Somerset will continue to be connected based on the ease of connecting them rather than their need for connection—two distinctly different things. For example, villages with many businesses and therefore, in purely economic terms, a greater return on investment can currently be abandoned by the fibre programme in favour of less active but easier to reach areas, which makes no sense. If all small and medium-sized enterprises traded online, some £18 billion would be added to the country’s top line, so I think looking at the bottom line and the outcome of infrastructure investment is a pretty good idea.
Many of the harder to reach areas in Somerset will be leaping with unaccustomed joy at the move towards compensating those with a substandard broadband service. We all have constituents who suffer from slow broadband—I have a slow connection, too—and Somerset has had some appalling long-term outages recently. One village, West Pennard, had an outage lasting for many days, so a bit of recompense certainly would not go amiss. Facilitating full connectivity and properly connecting rural Britain is the beginning of the path towards creating a much more equitable national picture.
Uniquely, the digital world has the capability to start to rebalance the economy away from London and other cities. If talent is the new capital and if talent is flexible, with the right tools the uneven spread of power can be changed. That represents real equality of opportunity and I might even go so far as to say digital democratisation.