Second Reading

Part of Digital Economy Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:56 pm on 2 December 2009.

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Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Spokesperson for International Development, Spokesperson for Wales 5:56, 2 December 2009

My Lords, I venture to enter this debate with a short contribution looking at the Bill through Welsh eyes. What does digital mean? Of course it means television and radio, but it also means broadband. I am sure that we will discuss this when the Finance Bill comes to us in March, but unfortunately we are now looking at a Bill based largely on the interim report of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, Digital Britain, which pledges to give us universal broadband access at 2 megabytes per second by 2012. However, the report did not outline how that is to be achieved. I read that Tim Johnson, the chief analyst at the broadband think tank Point Topic, warned that the commitment presents a massive challenge.

The promise of universal access to broadband is vital, but the scale of the task of making that a reality should not be underestimated. Figures show that Wales is still lagging behind much of the country when it comes to broadband access and speeds. We need to look at how to prioritise areas that cannot currently access broadband. I appreciate that it is important that broadband expansion is carried out in a manner that is commercially viable, but we must not lose sight of the fact that accountants must not have the last word. Some areas cannot receive broadband at all.

Many individuals and businesses, especially in rural Wales, still do not have access. That is damaging both to individuals who are missing out on the benefits that broadband provides and to rural businesses, not just the agricultural sector, but people who need high-speed internet to remain competitive. This morning, I spoke to the National Farmers Union secretary for Montgomeryshire, Mr Aled Griffiths. He emphasised the needs not only of agriculture but of businesses in rural areas, which are increasingly trading internationally, and the needs of rural tourism.

In Wales, tourism is now our main industry, and 10 per cent of our workforce are employed in tourism. Welsh tourist organisations-I spoke to them this morning-are unanimous that broadband access is vital. We remember that in attracting tourists we compete not only with the rest of UK but with the rest of the world.

The problem of providing broadband in our rural areas causes real concern. We are glad that the Houses of Parliament and the National Assembly in Cardiff are looking seriously in this direction. It is not only a problem in rural areas but in the valleys of Wales, which have long been known to have special problems and much deprivation. If we look at the tables, we see that Merthyr Tydfil, the Rhondda valley and other places have problems of high unemployment, difficult health situations and low incomes. They are vulnerable places that feel increasingly helpless. Will they have the opportunity to engage in the high-tech developments offered to us?

Today, I looked at the figures for radio listeners in Wales who have ever listened to digital audio broadcasting. I shall not go through the whole list, but in Cardiff, it was 27 per cent, while in the valleys, it was only 4 per cent. That is the difference. The most needy areas will not have the opportunity to benefit from these new high-tech developments. There is a pressing need for an extension of broadband, not least because of the commitment already made by the Government that fibre optic broadband should be prioritised in "notspots", where other technologies have also failed.

In London, 93 per cent of the population is in reach of 8 or more megabytes per second; in Wales, it is 38.4 per cent. In Wales, 26.9 per cent of the population is out of reach of 2 megabytes per second; in the London area, it is 1.2 per cent. We have problems. Last year, the European Union Telecommunications Commissioner said that many people in our rural areas still find that they can not get broadband under the current arrangements. In rural areas, not just in Wales, but in Scotland and parts of England, people find that they cannot get broadband under the current arrangements. The promise to have broadband available to every home is a massive challenge, but it is a target for us to aim at. It is important that areas with historically poor broadband access are targeted.

Once the UK Government have decided a way forward, the Welsh Assembly Government should seek assurances that Wales will be given the tools that it needs to deliver that pledge. Since 2003, the Welsh Government have operated their Regional Innovative Broadband Support project. It has largely been successful, but there are still many people who are not able to access the service. The geographical conditions create that difficulty. In this modern day, broadband is essential to reach the whole of the world, not only the whole of the UK; but it is not an end in itself, but a means to an end that can improve the lives of so many people in so many different ways.