Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon 4:31 pm, 13th September 2016

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I shall focus on the universal service obligation for broadband, an area in which we, as a Government, have made huge progress. I want to gently encourage some important tweaks which will help those who are missing out. There have been some incredibly powerful speeches from colleagues on both sides of the House, highlighting just how important access to superfast broadband is. It is a utility, like gas, electricity and water, and it should be a given wherever practically possible.

These tweaks come about from my experiences in my constituency, where we have two challenges that are recognised by most—urban and rural—and the role that BDUK should take in solving these problems. In urban areas, there can be no excuse. We should have, as a given, access to superfast broadband. Clearly, BDUK needs to be given greater powers to bang heads together, get access to the land, and put in the infrastructure so that residents will have the access that we are all so keen to see. Rural areas, more often than not, are not commercially viable. That is where BDUK has to take the lead in making sure that the various pots of money provided by the Government and local authorities to subsidise access are spent quickly and sensibly so that those in rural communities also have broadband access.

In my area about 20,000 houses were not getting access to superfast broadband. The Government provided £2 million, for which we were very grateful. Despite having to make some difficult decisions, the local authority identified a further £1 million, so we had a £3 million pot. Swindon borough council chose to carry out its own procurement exercise which, as a result of reliance on the advice of BDUK, was littered with errors. First, the council mixed rural and urban areas—two different challenges—and put that out for procurement. There should have been two solutions and two procurement exercises. The council ignored areas already covered by other operators, including EE 4G. Then there was no formal check with BDUK to find out what future work was going to be offered by the traditional providers, such as BT and Virgin, allowing commercially viable areas to access the subsidies—that valuable taxpayers’ money that should have been focused on rural areas, where every penny can make a difference.

Unsurprisingly, the only bid we received in this flawed procurement exercise was from UK Broadband, a 4G provider. That was unwanted by residents, who had campaigned for years for fibre access. It was unscalable, with poor maximum speeds and capped data usage, and it would fail any form of future-proofing. It was an outdated technology, and it did not even come with the bundles customers traditionally expect, where they buy the TV providers and the telephone line all together. In an urban area, people would have to pay £195 to add another satellite dish to their house and then pay high fees for something that people currently get free with all the traditional providers. Unsurprisingly, residents were appalled.

The local authority is typical of all local authorities: it does not have specific skill sets that can identify what the future technologies will be, so it relies on BDUK’s expertise, and it was BDUK that signed this off and said it was a good idea—in fact, BDUK’s website champions this technology.

As part of an earlier deal in Swindon, in 2012, UK Broadband was going to provide superfast broadband to 60,000 properties. There was a rather heated and frank exchange about that between myself and the chief executive on BBC Wiltshire, which I am sure all hon. Members enjoyed listening to. Some 60,000 homes were meant to be provided with superfast broadband, but we are aware only of single-figure subscriber numbers. I am going to be generous and say that there were nine—I am going to give UK Broadband the maximum it could have been in single figures. UK Broadband has now secured £3 million of funding to provide for 20,000 houses, so simple mathematics means that it will have three subscribers and £3 million of subsidy, or £1 million a subscriber. That is a total disgrace; it is a total and utter waste of taxpayers’ money, which should be used to help rural communities that do not have access.

BDUK has made this momentous error because it is being rated on the number of properties that have access. Those 60,000 houses had access, and the 20,000 houses will have access, but nobody is going to sign up, so access is irrelevant. BDUK ticks all its boxes—what a great job it has done. That is how it will put it in its press releases on its website, which horrify me when I read them. However, the reality is that residents will not have access. We should be setting parameters based on the people who are genuinely going to be able to sign up for a usable, scalable, future-proof service. One thing we do know is that money is precious, and these generous funds are a one-off. If there is a mistake, that money is wasted and there will not be a change.

Finally, I pay tribute to BT and Virgin, which despite this waste of taxpayers’ money, have stepped up to provide a real solution for the urban areas. Bill Murphy from BT Openreach, in particular, has been incredibly proactive. However, I am distraught that the rural areas in my constituency could have had full use of that £3 million when it was needed and that they, too, could have had a fibre solution.