Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:25 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Antoinette Sandbach Antoinette Sandbach Conservative, Eddisbury 5:25 pm, 13th September 2016

I very much welcome this opportunity to take part in the debate. Like many of my parliamentary colleagues, I agree with the majority of the principles outlined in the Bill. However, I must caution that it is the way in which they are applied that will ultimately make the difference. In my rural Cheshire constituency, many people feel left behind. There has been huge progress with Connecting Cheshire, but 18,000 households in my constituency remain without access to superfast broadband. At present, they feel that providers can bat around excuses and let themselves off the hook without explaining why my constituents are living in digital blackspots. Those households also seem to be the ones without a mobile signal. That digital exclusion represents a double whammy for them.

We have seen banks being hauled up for mis-selling PPI insurance. I would quite like to see mobile companies being hauled up for mis-selling contracts to customers such as those in my constituency who, more often than not, cannot get a signal. They are being sold 3G and 4G contracts even when the providers know that no such service exists in their area. The chief executives of many of the phone companies have openly written to me to say that they provide only a 2G service there. I urge the Secretary of State to close that loophole and to ensure that the Bill makes provision for those people either to get out of their contracts quickly or to access the 3G or 4G service that they have paid for.

In relation to broadband blackspots, Connecting Cheshire offers a voucher that allows access to satellite broadband. I would like the Bill to offer the opportunity for technology-neutral vouchers, so that customers can decide whether to use them to obtain a wireless connections through radio broadband. That is a very effective provider of broadband that can, in many areas, provide a solution to the last 5% of customers. I have heard many other Members call for those who are at present excluded to be the first to be brought in under any new contracts, and I would like to add my voice to those calls.

Like many others who have spoken today, I have farmers in my constituency who cannot upload the information that they need on, for example, cattle passports or on claiming their single farm payments. More and more VAT returns can now be completed online, and digital exclusion really affects those peoples’ businesses, given the amount of time they have to spend working with a really rubbish connection. This is hugely costly to us as a nation.

I also want more sense from BT. Old connections to exchanges can often run over many miles through copper wire. However, modern developments mean that there are often much closer exchanges that may already be fibre-enabled, but there is no power to require BT to move exchanges. I want that loophole closed so that constituents who are closer to a modern exchange can get connected.