Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:21 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Conservative, Wantage 6:21 pm, 10th July 2017

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. In fact, although I welcome Virgin Media’s investment in cable in Didcot, the company has irritated quite a few of my constituents on the Ladygrove estate, so he is right that companies should clear up after themselves. I suppose I did not make myself entirely clear; my point was that, while councils should hold companies to account, their retribution should not be, “You can’t do any more work,” because they would be punishing constituents for companies’ past transgression.

Clearly, the Government want to encourage full fibre—fibre to the premises. It is true that we are falling behind some other countries. Spain, for example, is well advanced, but that is an historical advantage, because the infrastructure was put in 30 years ago, with extraordinary foresight. One also has to remember the topography of the built environment, because the more apartment blocks—as opposed to spread-out domestic homes—there are, the easier it is to deliver broadband quickly.

One should also not necessarily be seduced by statistics. Members might see, for example, that France is ahead of us in terms of fibre to the premises, but that fibre is in the same place as fibre to the cabinet, so very few people take it up, and a lot of people would say that it is wasted investment. The incremental approach taken in the UK so far—of getting universal coverage for superfast broadband and then moving on to fibre to the premises—is the right approach, because it keeps pace with customer demand. That is what has to happen.

The good news about fibre to the premises is that the cost of investment is coming down rapidly. TalkTalk has conducted trials in York, and what has happened is telling. The company has got the cost of connecting each home down to a few hundred pounds—£200, £300 or £400, I think. Also, people now talk about the impact on the community—about whether their house is in the green zone, which is where the fibre to the premises is, and people want to be there. Interestingly, customers do not actually care whether they can access 1 gigabit; what they get by having fibre to the premises is an absolutely 100% reliable service, whereas even those of us who have signed up to superfast broadband know that the service can drop out.

This is a very important and welcome Bill. I would simply ask the Minister when he sums up—I do not know whether it will be the Secretary of State or my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital—to talk a little about whether the Government have considered how this relief impacts on mobile infrastructure. The roll-out of 4G in this country has been very successful, and we should not forget that it has all been done through private investment. When we rail against the mobile operators, we have to remember that they pay us—the taxpayers—by paying in to the Treasury coffers for spectrum, and they then build out their networks, effectively with their own capital. However, they come across the most bizarre planning issues all the time, and although the Minister talked about the electronic communications code, which will help to make mobile planning easier, we could perhaps hear about whether the Bill will apply to the fibre that goes from the masts back to the cabinets, or whether it could be amended so that mobile masts were free from whatever business rates these companies pay.

I would also like to hear how the Bill will encourage the roll-out of 5G, which will potentially transform everything. What we need are small cells dotted throughout the urban environment. The company Arqiva is already trialling a 5G network with its own spectrum. Again, we potentially need a rethink on planning to make it much easier for mobile companies to roll out these small cells. Given the dense coverage companies need, requiring them to get planning permission for these small cells will be a real hindrance to the fast roll-out of 5G.

As I made my remarks, I could tell that I had the full attention of the House. I noticed one or two yawns and a few slightly irritated looks as people thought, “When is this guy going to finish so that I can make my speech about our rotten broadband and get it in my brilliant local paper?” Well, the time is now, because I have finished.