Second Reading

Part of Digital Economy Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 6:03 pm on 2 December 2009.

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Photo of Lord Maxton Lord Maxton Labour 6:03, 2 December 2009

My Lords, I welcome what the last speaker has just said, because I think that he is absolutely right. I wish to concentrate on the fact that the Government are committed to giving every household broadband by 2012. Yes, it will be 2 megabytes in some cases; but for the vast majority of people, it will be considerably higher than that. For instance, Virgin Media is offering me, in an urban situation in Scotland, 50-megabyte access to the internet, which allows me to watch television-or it would if I were prepared to pay the extra £10-and it is experimenting with 100-megabyte service in some parts of the country. BT will be rolling out the same sort of speeds when it puts in its fibre optic cabling. We have to concentrate on that. I was rather surprised by what the noble Lord said about parts of rural Wales not being able to get at least 2 megabytes. I have a house on the Isle of Arran and can get 2 megabytes. You really cannot get much more remote than the Isle of Arran in some ways, but it has created exchanges to ensure that we get it.

I welcome the commitment, which we must fulfil because even now a digital divide is developing between those who can access broadband and the internet and those who cannot; between those who wish to be part of the internet and those who do not-some Members in this House are like that; and between those who can afford to be part of the internet and those who cannot. Some of our older people find the internet more difficult. I have an 85 year-old father-in-law who has access to the internet and uses it, but he is relatively rare among those of his generation. We must have this commitment, because if we do not have it we will have this divide.

I doubt whether I will do any of my Christmas shopping this year in a shop; I will do almost all of it online. I will buy books and records from Amazon and other things from other people. I even buy theatre tickets to give to people if that is the appropriate present. I am an early adopter of modern technologies-I bought my first mobile phone for £2,500 and my first computer for the same sort of money; it was a BBC computer and it had 400 kilobytes, not megabytes-and I have been slightly surprised throughout this debate by the almost negative approach to the internet. If you were a parent, or any other normal person, listening to the end of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, you would never take up the internet. You will lose a fortune to swindlers, your children will be at great risk from paedophiles, and you will wonder why on earth you would take it up.

The internet needs to taken up because even now we have this divide. Moreover, what will be the next development? Noble Lords have already mentioned 50 megabytes and high-speed cabling for broadband, which will allow us to use all sorts of video services. I have been saying for a long time that we should stop talking about broadcasting because the future is narrowcasting: watching what you want to watch on the internet where you want to watch it. The benefits will be enormous. Someone mentioned football matches. Ultimately, that is exactly how you will watch football matches. Manchester United will not continue to have 10 matches a season on Sky when it can have every one of its matches live on the internet throughout the world and collect a fee for it. The fee might be quite small-it might be only £1 a time-but if millions of people are watching it, that is an awful lot of money every week. That will happen, and that will be the way in which the internet develops. There will be an enormous increase in the number of services.

Unlike many people, I will not be worried if the BBC becomes the sole provider of news in a particular area, because there will be access through the internet to a whole range of other news. If I want to find out how the local football team is getting on-or the local rugby team, in my case-I do not wait until the local paper comes out on the Thursday or the Friday; I look at the internet 10 or 15 minutes after the game has finished and then read the report on the local rugby team's website. If I want to know about a local planning decision, I do not wait until the local paper comes out; I go on to the local authority website and find out almost immediately after the committee has met-if I cannot actually watch the committee discussing it on the internet, which is possible in some cases.

I want to be brief, so I shall finish by mentioning a problem that people raise constantly, which is how they cannot get their performing rights paid for on the internet. The problem is that in this country, among our young people in particular and to some extent all of us, we are very used to not having to pay directly-across the counter, if you like-for what we watch. I pay for a television licence for the house, and therefore my wife and my children who live with me watch television for nothing. They do not pay to watch ITV, and now they do not pay for a lot of material on the internet either. I can watch BBC iPlayer on the internet and I do not pay anything extra for doing so. Our youngsters are accustomed to this, so we have to educate them on how they have to pay for people's performing rights so that we continue to support the creative economy, but it is going to be a difficult task.

There are dangers in what the Government are proposing. Most of the Bill is very good and takes the digital economy forward, but I have concerns about the idea of cutting off broadband access. If I am right, broadband will become as important to our households as our gas, electricity and water supplies. We have come a long way in trying to stop the utility companies from actually cutting people off if they do not pay, and we have to adopt the same attitude towards broadband access. We will have to look at other ways of dealing with the problem, and it is something that we will look at in Committee. As I say, a lot in this Bill is excellent, but in some areas, while it deals with today's problems, I am not sure that it deals with those of tomorrow. That is something we will also have to look at in Committee. I am sure that we will give the whole Bill very careful scrutiny, but on the whole I give it a warm welcome.