Moved by Lord Mendelsohn
1: Clause 1, page 1, leave out lines 11 and 12 and insert—“(2B) The universal service order shall say that broadband connections and services must be provided—(a) with speeds of 2 gigabits or more;(b) with fibre to the premises (FTTP) as a minimum standard; (c) with appropriate measures to ensure that internet speed levels are not affected by high contention ratios;(d) with appropriate measures to ensure service providers run low latency networks.”
My Lords, as well as moving Amendment 1, I shall speak to Amendments 9, 10 and 11. These amendments cover the nature of the universal service obligation and the setting of standards—issues relating to market structure and how best to roll it out are dealt with in group 5—so these focus particularly on those aspects. These are probing amendments that address whether, in passing such an important Bill that makes a further step in developing our digital economy, the measures contained are sufficient, and whether this legislation will provide leadership and adequately address our future needs. It is important that we remain ambitious and have a flexible policy and, now that we have an industrial strategy, have the mechanisms to meet it.
There is of course a strong case for a universal service obligation. A “universal service” is an economic, legal and business term used in regulated industries to provide a baseline of services to every resident. It establishes the availability of a quality service at just, reasonable and affordable rates, which should be available to all consumers. Universal services were widely adopted across Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, and there is a case to say not just why we should have one but why we have not had it. It is therefore welcome that the Bill establishes it. Across the EU, only Finland, Malta and Spain have provided for a minimum broadband speed in national law—Germany is on the way to it—but this Bill is an important step. That reflects the fact that communications, such as broadband and the like, have become a fourth utility that is crucial to modern life. Citizens face more and more encouragement to be online to access public services, commercial services or other things, and there are now penalties for those who cannot access, or are not adequately served by, broadband or who find it difficult to use.
The universal service obligation is a critical part of the Government’s strategy to ensure that the current model of broadband delivery does not risk ending up in a two-tier service, dividing the digital haves and have-nots and exacerbating the potential for holding back Britain’s regional economies. The Government are providing funding to support the rollout of fast broadband to those areas of the UK where commercial rollout has not been sufficiently attractive or where the market structure has not developed to incentivise it adequately. This is mostly, but not entirely, in rural areas. The broadband universal service obligation will act as a safety net, allowing those with poor connections the legal right to request a fast connection.
The Bill contains enabling powers for the USO to be specified in secondary legislation. The download speed will be specified in secondary legislation, and is expected to be 10 megabits per second. Amendment 1 would write that ambition on the face of the Bill, and it sets out the speed and nature of the delivery—fibre to the premises—and covers contention and latency issues.
Prior to getting into the meat of the amendments, I think that it is important to see broadband in the context of mobile. The universal service obligation should be on mobile as well, and we will come to that in later debates, but it is important to take note of it at this stage, because we are here following the market, not consumer behaviour. We are addressing much, although too little, of what is happening.
Ninety per cent of the UK adult population is online, which is about 48 million people. The share of adult users has held steady, suggesting that stubborn challenges remain to reach 100% use rates. Most room for growth lies in take-up and deeper usage of online services among the over-55s. With the growth of mobile, focus has shifted away from broadband, but the fixed broadband market is still slowly growing. Seventy-seven per cent of UK adult users connect to the internet via broadband at home, and this number has held steady. Regarding devices, laptops and smartphones, each of those boasted 38 million users; tablet ownership has been declining. Use of a desktop PC has been on a steady decline since March 2011, and this is forecast to continue over the next few years.
Mobile connectivity has become such an important part of our life that one of the central findings of the National Infrastructure Commission’s report was that,
“mobile connectivity has become a necessity. The market has driven great advances since the advent of the mobile phone but government must now play an active role to ensure that basic services are available wherever we live, work and travel, and our roads, railways and city centres must be made 5G ready as quickly as possible”.
Many in this Chamber will have digital services: many will connect via broadband; some will connect through 5G services; they are interrelated.
I turn to the issue of speed. The Government argued in the universal service obligation consultation early last year that 10 megabits per second was sufficient to enable,
“full participation in a digital society”.
Later, Ofcom was charged in its technical specification to model around that definition. It modelled 10 megabits per second—10+1 being the upload speed and 30+6 being a speed frequently mentioned by others.
Is 10 megabits per second really a sensible target? I would suggest that we look at the evidence supplied by Sean Williams, the chief strategy officer at BT Group, to the Committee in the other place. He stated that BT has,
“made clear our willingness to deliver 10 megabits to every premises in the country by the end of 2020 without any further public funding and without even really progressing the USO regulations”.—[
If it is that easy, is it a sensible target?
In its assessment on the technical specification, Ofcom made a very important point. Ofcom has published evidence showing,
“that a speed of 10Mbit/s is sufficient now to allow multiple users to simultaneously use the internet, including web browsing, video streaming, video calling and gaming”.
That would not be the opinion of my children, but that is another matter. It goes on to acknowledge that this minimum,
“may need to increase over time”.
Even if we took the argument that 10 megabits per second was sufficient at this stage, which I do not think is the case, it would not be a very sensible approach to start with.
What are our anticipated needs? Many representations have been made. I think the National Farmers’ Union made a very cogent argument as to the speeds it was looking at. It would need to establish, as a minimum, both upload and download of 30 megabits per second. Is that sufficient? European Union Governments are committed to providing this speed universally by 2020, and EU targets are now of 100 megabits per second by 2025. If the broadband USO is intended to be only a safety net, this means that there is currently nothing offered for the 5%, and they will have limited access to anything that is defined as superfast.
New York announced a plan that, by the end of 2018, there should be 100 megabits per second, and by the end of 2019 this should rise to 300 megabits per second. Included in the package to deliver this was an affordable broadband service to unserved, underserved and low-income residents. It is no accident that the list of top 10 countries does not include the UK but does include such luminaries as South Korea, Norway, Sweden, Hong Kong and the like. When it comes to an international comparison, looking at download speeds for fixed internet services, the UK currently resides in 23rd place. We may feel that we have achieved a huge amount, but we are only in 23rd place. If we aggregate download and upload speeds, looking for the average between the two, we drop another 15 places. That is hardly encouraging. I have to say that it is better than our mobile internet access, on which we are currently placed at 39.
A further point to make is about the nature of the digital economy. E-commerce underpins the UK digital economy. Much growth has come from online sales. Moving forward, we expect a lot of the drivers of e-commerce to be the additional interactive mechanisms —AI and other forms of activity—that require much greater speeds in order to encourage uptake. British brands enjoy great cross-border appeal among European and Asian shoppers. An important part of what we need to do, to give ourselves the infrastructure to be able to compete effectively, is to have the right broadband level.
However, this is not just about speed, and we do not just specify speed here. We go for a speed of 2 gigabits to be established by 2020. That is not an unrealistic objective. There are parts of the world servicing 10 gigabits already, so 2 gigabits is not an overly ambitious target, but it is not just about speed. There is the important issue of reliability and consistency. The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, made a good point in the Committee in the other place, when she said that,
“consumers and businesses would say that reliability and consistency are every bit as important as speed”.—[
Indeed, for many people there has been a huge issue about the underinvestment in routers, which translate broadband speeds at a very low speed across the house, and among many international comparisons we have some of the worst performing routers.
Upload speed is also an important issue. We have no real specification for it, although it is as crucial as download speed.
There is also an important argument about what mechanism we use. We believe that fibre to the premises is the right approach. The provision of broadband to new homes has now been established by a circular sent by the Government to local authorities. Through a voluntary agreement, the Home Builders Federation is now getting fibre to premises, which is an important initiative, but only around 2% to 3% of the UK is covered by fibre. In South Korea, as one would expect, it is over 60%, but this is also true of Japan and of Spain, whose land mass is twice the size of the UK. The argument has always been that having more flats and fewer single dwellings more than compensates for the size of those countries, but that does not hold good, as we now have multiple dwellings and conversions too. BT does not want to replace the copper and is looking at alternative technologies, such as G.fast, which is reasonable. It is currently commercially available and can possibly get to 100 megabits. However, it is only a theoretical construct that it can get to 1 gigabit and it would not give us a long-term plan. As to what would, I recommend the IoD’s outstanding report Ultrafast Britain which sets out the case brilliantly:
“Going forward, fibre to the premise has to be a big part of the solution for two reasons. In pure bandwidth limits, it is future-proofed. It also allows for modular innovation, linking up satellite, wireless, mobile and other connecting technologies for those areas of the country where laying cables is not financially practical, giving even the most rural businesses access to the digital economy”.
There is a very strong case for FTTP.
Our other amendments would ensure that Broadband Delivery UK, which is charged with delivering superfast, is held to the goals and targets that it sets. In its delivery plan in 2011, it said that its future goal was that the,
“UK continues to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe”.
We will not do this unless we establish realistic ambitions. We therefore propose that Broadband Delivery UK is challenged against the targets which it has set itself.
Amendment 10 tries to get government policy to focus and place primacy on the needs of small businesses, which have hitherto been ignored.
Amendment 11 is an attempt to encapsulate a framework—whatever drafting issues it may have—that does not just establish a USO but ensures that we have a mechanism to address Ofcom’s point about how the minimum needs to increase over time.
These amendments are realistic and practical but provide a sense of ambition. They are to probe why we are not looking at these things in a more ambitious way, but they are all mechanisms which we can use. I beg to move.
I will speak to Amendment 2 and make some comments on Amendment 1. Like the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, I welcome the principle of a USO and we are having a healthy debate now. I will probe the Minister in detail about how the Government will respond to the Ofcom report. I was frankly surprised by the report’s language when it came out—it was a mere twinkle in our eye when the House last debated this. It referred throughout to “decent” broadband as a starting point, rather than “world-class” or “leading” or any of those things. As the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, outlined, the work that has gone into modelling the need for broadband is, in one way, completely pointless. Most noble Lords are old enough to remember a time before the internet, or the industries which now use that medium, even existed. You could not have modelled how much bandwidth you would need today 10, 15 or 20 years ago. The industry that will use this network has not been invented so we cannot know what is necessary. Decent is fine but frankly we should be looking for the best possible. In Amendment 1 the noble Lord has set a very high bar.
In Amendment 2 we have taken as our text—as I am sure noble Lords can recognise—scenario 3 from the Ofcom report. It is really to test two things. One is the universal part of the USO. We are of the persuasion that universal means universal rather than 99-point-whatever-it-is per cent. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what he believes universal means. On timing, we have heard various claims that by 2020 at the flick of a finger we could all have 10 megabits. There are many people where I come from in the countryside and from all over the country who would be very surprised if they could get 10 megabits. They are still struggling with ones and twos and upload speeds of practically nothing. The fact that apparently this is so easy and frictionless yet so far away for so many people seems slightly at odds. The point of Amendment 2 is very much to set what I think the previous speaker would call a less ambitious target, but one that we believe should be eminently achievable. I misspoke because it is not a target; the USO is a minimum. The noble Lord who spoke previously used the word “target”. One of the dangers is that this becomes the limit to our ambitions and it should not be. In many senses Amendment 2 is entirely compatible with Amendment 1. We have to get to Amendment 2 as a minimum but Amendment 1 and all the ambition enshrined within it can still be part of this formula.
Looking forward, we will be talking later about how we can assess the progress of this. At the moment we want an amendment that is designed to give the Minister enough pressure on Ofcom and Ofcom enough pressure on the service providers to deliver a minimum standard. It is inconceivable and unacceptable that we should be so down the pecking order at the moment. We will talk about other structural issues through the course of Committee but as a very minimum we believe Amendment 2 sets a standard.
My Lords, I have Amendments 3 and 7 in this group. I reiterate the expressions of support for this Bill given by earlier speakers. There are many aims in this Bill that I support but some specifics are worth raising at greater length. I perhaps should remind the Committee of our family interests in farming although, as far as this Bill is concerned, we are without any form of modern communication in any of our buildings. That might change in the future but clearly we are not an interested player in that part. I am a member of the CLA.
Amendment 3 is quite detailed—so I will not read it out—and tries again to tie things down more specifically than they are in the Bill. It seeks to guarantee clarity over what the consumer can expect from a universal service obligation on broadband. It will ensure that the USO delivers a minimum speed of 10 megabits—perhaps we might have further conversations about that—and that this is reviewed to reflect technological advances and increased demand. Once enforced the USO must also allow those who are not provided with access to broadband at the set minimum speeds a simple means of seeking financial redress if that is not resolved, which they can then use to find an alternative means of getting connected.
The CLA believes that this redress should mirror the reasonable cost threshold, which should sit just above the current landline threshold, at £4,000 per property. Small, rural communities should be able to pool this money to invest in alternative technologies and connection schemes that provide them with faster and more reliable—and potentially cheaper—connections compared to its being done individually. For these most remote premises, making use of a wide range of technologies, including wi-fi networks, satellite and mobile data to help provide universal coverage, will help to ensure that the introduction of the USO is a success and should be encouraged.
On my Amendment 7, which is about “may” and “must”, I need not argue the toss of the wording between the two words but feel strongly that “may” is a facilitator and “must” is a direction. I am sure that other noble Lords are probably heartily sick of receiving complaints from friends, neighbours, colleagues and family about the broadband service which they either have or are still unable to achieve at all. I have often spoken in this House of the areas that are not covered at all; of the services that advertise speeds “up to” but which achieve only a fraction of the implied promise; and of the difficulty of obtaining a helpful response from service providers when things go wrong.
The speed of change on the digital technology front is such that the Government must keep up with both the challenges and changes facing them and with their implications for society. No one can doubt that Ministers are very busy people, who are subject to a variety and quantity of pressures. I feel strongly that Parliament should assist them by indicating those priorities that are paramount. Most of us can have no idea of future provisions that will affect the universal service order. We ought to insist that whenever that order is affected, the Minister has to look closely at it more closely.
I wholeheartedly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn. I merely suggest that it be made clear that most farms—we spoke about rural areas—GP practices and businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises but are often not regarded in that way. My concern may be unnecessary, but I have read a great deal about the difficulties experienced by these enterprises, which are located in rural areas and which may not be recognised as belonging in that category of small or medium-sized businesses. Only last year, those who wanted to put forward their claims for the single farm payment were totally unable to do so in some areas because there was no broadband available, and in fact the department had to revert to accepting written paper applications, which people had been using for years.
My amendments are probing amendments, but it is important that our broadband is strengthened and is available to all. As was quoted, the NFU has suggested a speed of 30 megabits per second. Reliability is absolutely key to success in any area. As the noble Lord who spoke just before me quite rightly pointed out, many of the new businesses that have been formed would never have been started had they not had broadband access. If you look at rural areas and the growth in small and medium-sized businesses, many of them are based in those areas and give an option for employment for people in areas where it would not have been at all possible in the past. Therefore, delivery, accountability, setting challenges and holding to account are hugely important. I know that the Government are aiming at 100%, but it is often said that the aim is 95% or 99%. Often I wonder whether that refers to numbers of people or the areas covered. If it is on numbers of people, obviously it is easier in urban areas than in very rural areas.
I have tabled one or two amendments to the Bill that we will come to later. I support and welcome it, but there are areas which we need to strengthen, and I am glad to have spoken to my two amendments along with the other amendments that have been moved and spoken to already.
My Lords, as I indicated at Second Reading, I very much support the proposal for a broadband universal service obligation. The amendments in this group raise a number of questions in my mind about how the USO will work. Like several other noble Lords who have spoken, I am not convinced that all of these can or should be left to Ofcom, or to enabling powers, to resolve. For example, is the USO intended by government to be a safety net for users for whom no other service is available? Or is it seen as part of a more ambitious and aspirational strategy aimed at ensuring that the UK is, and remains, a global leader in the quality of its broadband availability? If the latter, Amendment 1 would look attractive, setting the sorts of targets that I believe we should really be aiming for. But even if the Government are leaning more towards a safety net approach, as seems to be the case, I would be inclined to support Amendment 2, which includes not just superfast download speeds but provisions for such other key features as upload speeds, response times, information rates and data caps. As the Local Government Association points out in its briefing, and as other noble Lords have mentioned, upload speeds are at least as important to businesses, especially smaller businesses, not least in rural areas.
Ofcom itself, in its technical advice to the Government, looks at three possible USO scenarios, as laid out by the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn. I share the view that the USO should offer more than the basic, standard service. While Amendment 1 might be seen as representing an ideal—a very worthy ideal—Amendment 2 sets out a perhaps more realistically achievable target, which I would support. I also fully support the proposition at the end of Amendment 2 that whatever initial specifications are set should be reviewed annually and increased in line with growing need, as well as the requirement in Amendment 8, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for an annual report on the implementation of the USO. Indeed, I would also support the review of Broadband Delivery UK, proposed in Amendment 9, and the duty proposed in Amendment 11 to ensure that the USO is, in fact, achieving its aims.
Who will the USO fall upon, and who will be designated as universal service providers? Will it be just BT and KCOM in Hull—at least initially, as envisaged by Ofcom—or is it expected that others will be designated; and if so, who might these be, how will they obtain USP status and on what terms?
Finally in this group, I also welcome Amendment 10, which is designed to ensure that the needs of SMEs are addressed as a priority under the USO. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the proposed USO will help to take the UK further up the global league table from the position described by the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, which I think was 23rd going on 38th.
My Lords, I support Amendment 1, and indeed the other amendments in this group, without in any way taking away from the credit due to the Government for introducing the USO. I think we are universally in approval of what the Government have done, and they deserve great credit for it. However, as I mentioned at Second Reading, this is a rather unambitious target. That of itself is not worrying—after all, it can be left to Ofcom to increase the target—except that it will alter the way that we go about things. We need a step change in how we go about things. Ten megabits can be achieved by wringing more miracles out of copper wire, and we would change nothing. This is not even in tune with the Government’s own thinking. Again, the Government deserve great credit for what they announced in the Financial Statement about new funding to look at what we can do with 5G. 5G could revolutionise our industries and the Government have put money behind that. The department would find itself pushing at an open door if it asked the Treasury for more funding at this point.
My last point in this brief intervention is simply to say that, having looked at the broadband advice to the Government and the three scenarios, I was, frankly, pleasantly surprised by how little option 3 costs. If that is all it costs, why not go for it and get the Treasury to cough up?
My Lords, I support all three amendments on the USO. In my view, anything is better than what we have at present and what the Government are aiming for. In particular, I support Amendment 1 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. Theirs is the most ambitious amendment, and ambition is what we desperately need. I do not think that it is pie in the sky; it really is what we have to go for.
In my Second Reading speech, I said that gigabits are the future of connectivity—they are the king—and that megabits are simply history. I stick by that. We cannot have pathetically low connection speeds. As we know, sadly, from its past performance, you can set a target for connectivity as low as you like, and the one thing you can be absolutely certain of is that BT will fail to meet it.
It is very clear that worldwide the goal is gigabit connectivity. South Korea, China, the Baltics and Scandinavia are all racing to the top to ensure that their societies are right at the forefront, and so must we. If the Prime Minister wants an industrial strategy that results in a global Britain leading the world, then she and her Government have to set high targets for 21st-century Britain, and nowhere more so than in connectivity. What the Government propose is like having a man with a flag walking in front of a car to ensure that it does not exceed 4 miles per hour. That is why I support Amendment 1—it flies the flag for digital Britain.
I plead with the Minister: do not settle for a third-rate target lobbied for by BT. It has its own agenda, which is to milk its obsolete copper infrastructure. Its interest is not in the national interest. Will this Government be bold and will they set their sights on promoting a gigabit economy?
My Lords, one issue that has not been raised in this debate so far is the effect on small businesses in rural areas of the poverty of mobile telephone networks. That, combined with slow or poor, and sometimes non-existent, broadband speeds, puts rural businesses at a disadvantage. So I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendments that have been spoken to, and I hope that the Minister will show similar sympathy.
My Lords, I join those who have spoken in support of these amendments. Like some other noble Lords, some weeks I come up from the country to your Lordships’ House. The shortcomings of the infrastructure in rural Cumbria, where I live, is far too frequently a topic of conversation.
As a number of noble Lords have said, connectivity is the crucial aspect here, because it is now part of the essential infrastructure of contemporary life. It is important that we look at this issue from the perspective of what people need, but the reality is that what we need today may not be what we need tomorrow. We have to try to bridge the gap between the digital haves and the digital have-nots, and we achieve that by looking at the issue in the way that I have just described. Therefore, I am not approaching this matter from a kind of nerdy, technical perspective. What matters is the result as much as the means by which you get there.
Over the years, there has been a lot of debate about whether a universal service obligation should be in our law and be statutorily enforceable. I had the good fortune to chair the Communications Committee, and a number of years ago, when we conducted an inquiry into broadband, we debated this issue at length. On that occasion we reached the conclusion that what mattered was the rollout and that it was quite conceivable that a USO would get in the way. With the benefit of hindsight, that was probably a mistake, and therefore it is interesting to see the provisions for such a legal obligation coming into our legislation.
However, at the end of the day I come back to where I started with all this, and it is why I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say. It is not the detail but the result that matters here. We have got to move into a world where the digital divide is bridged. This is particularly important for areas in the country, and I speak from that perspective, but it is also true for a number of urban areas. We seriously deny people access to a whole range of commercial, and other, aspects of contemporary life if there is not adequate connectivity. As a number of your Lordships have said, we live in a country that is adopting a different approach to industry. It is crucial to appreciate that the key to increasing wealth creation in areas outside the south-east of England—which I think everyone agrees is desirable—is improving connectivity. That is the way, as noble Lords have said, to improve the potential of SMEs outside the south-east.
My Lords, I am glad that we are at last able to start this very important Committee. I should immediately declare an interest, which is that I suffer at my home in the country from extremely bad broadband, although we are lucky enough to be able to use microwave technology to do something about this. In addition, last night when I tried to ring my wife from central London on my mobile telephone to complain how overworked I was, I was unable to get a signal. So, I can absolutely sympathise with my noble friends Lord Arbuthnot and Lord Inglewood; I recognise the problems, particularly for rural areas and SMEs, and the Government agree with quite a lot of what has been said in terms of aspirations. I think we will differ when we come to decide how the USO should be used to fulfil those aspirations, and exactly what its role is.
The Government have a clear digital agenda, and our ambition is for world-class digital connectivity. We are determined to ensure that the UK has the digital infrastructure that our businesses and citizens need both now and in the future. The Green Paper published on
We support the spirit of Amendment 1, requiring that the universal service order should define a gigabit-speed broadband universal service obligation—or USO—delivered via full fibre to the premises. We differ in that we do not think that the broadband USO is the right tool to use at this stage in the development of the UK’s digital infrastructure market. To pick up on the point of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, the rationale for a USO is to prevent social and economic exclusion. It does this by ensuring that where the market does not deliver, a minimum set of communication services are made available, on request, to everyone, no matter where they live or work. In doing so, it takes account of the prevailing technologies enjoyed by the majority of people: the USO follows the market, it does not drive market change. The UK’s fibre market is at an early stage of development—currently only 2% of UK premises have full-fibre connection—so I do not think we have reached the stage where there is a case for introducing a gigabit-speed USO. It is not a prevailing technology used by the majority and it is not needed to prevent social and economic exclusion.
We do, however, agree that more extensive fibre connectivity is crucially important to the UK’s future digital growth. We are planning now for the networks that are going to be needed to ensure continued economic growth and development across the UK in both urban and rural areas. In the Autumn Statement we announced more than £1 billion to support digital infrastructure, targeted at supporting the rollout of full-fibre connections and future 5G communications. The Government are consulting on how we might further encourage full-fibre rollout.
Amendment 2, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, proposes a superfast broadband specification for the USO. This specification is, as the noble Lord said, in line with scenario three of Ofcom’s USO technical advice, which the Government commissioned to help inform the design of the USO. All the scenarios set out in Ofcom’s report are being given careful consideration. Once that work has been completed there will be a public consultation on the design of the USO and the specifications that will be included in the universal service order, including the minimum speed.
The noble Lord’s amendment also proposes that the minimum speed should be reviewed annually. I agree that it will be crucial to monitor progress of this important consumer measure. Ofcom’s USO report foresees that it would monitor the broadband USO on an ongoing basis to ensure that it is effective in meeting the needs of consumers. Alongside this, it also proposes periodic full-scale reviews to assess whether the technical specification for the USO needs to be changed. As noble Lords will be aware, the Bill already includes a power for the Government to direct Ofcom to undertake such reviews.
In Amendment 3, my noble friend Lady Byford has proposed that the minimum broadband speed for the USO should appear in the Bill. She proposes a speed of 10 megabits or more, which is one of the scenarios included in Ofcom’s USO technical report. Last March, when the Government consulted on their proposed road map for implementing the broadband USO, they sought views on whether the minimum speed should be set in primary or secondary legislation. The vast majority of those who responded agreed that the minimum speed should be specified in secondary legislation. As many noble Lords have said, technologies and service capabilities continue to improve rapidly, and it is important that any specifications can be updated over time to take account of these developments. As the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, said, and with whom we agree, secondary legislation can be revised more readily and is therefore a more appropriate means to specify the minimum level of service.
My noble friend proposed that the cost threshold for each USO connection should be set at £4,000, and that communities should be allowed to pool individual requests and explore alternative delivery mechanisms. I am afraid that this would not be possible under the universal service directive, which provides the regulatory framework for the broadband USO. To ensure provision upon receipt of a reasonable request from a consumer, a USO connection is delivered by the universal service provider designated by Ofcom. Consumers will not be able to choose which company provides their USO connection, as not all communication providers will be designated. However, as part of the ongoing work on the design of the USO, we are considering how individual consumer requests to be connected can be aggregated so that communities can benefit.
My noble friend’s Amendment 7 would change the power to direct Ofcom to review the broadband USO into a mandatory duty. In its technical advice on the USO, Ofcom explained that ongoing monitoring of how the USO meets the needs of consumers and businesses would be necessary. It also foresees that there will be a need for less frequent, full-scale reviews of the USO’s technical specification. On that basis, I do not think the existing review power needs to be changed.
Amendment 9 inserts a new clause requiring an independent evaluation of the delivery of superfast broadband by Broadband Delivery UK. BDUK has already been subject to considerable scrutiny of the value for money of the public investment and the level of competition in the rollout programme. It has been given a clean bill of health.
BDUK has published online its plans to evaluate the impacts of the superfast broadband programme over the next five years, as required by the European Commission’s decision to grant state aid clearance, in order to ensure that the programme complies with the terms for using public funds in the deployment of broadband. Superfast broadband projects under the previous state aid decision were subject to an independent evaluation report carried out by the economic consulting firm Oxera. Oxera’s report, which is available online, concluded that BDUK had complied with the terms of the state aid decision, been effective in its role in increasing broadband coverage, and had not created undue distortions of competition. In addition, BDUK has been the subject of two value-for-money and delivery reviews by the National Audit Office and the independent projects authority. Further evaluation is therefore unnecessary and would not add value to those already undertaken.
Amendment 10 calls for SMEs to be prioritised in the rollout of the broadband USO. The broadband USO will have an important role to play in improving SME broadband connectivity, particularly in rural areas. It will deliver economic benefits by providing SMEs with the connectivity that they need to participate in and drive the digital economy. It will, however, be delivered on demand, rather than via a rollout programme, and the extent to which SME connectivity can be prioritised will depend on whether a USO connection is requested. As part of the USO implementation, we will make sure that small businesses have the information they need on the eligibility criteria and the connection process so that they can take advantage of the USO.
We have also been consulting on further support for business broadband. The full-fibre rollout consultation, to which I referred, included the option of a further full-fibre business broadband voucher scheme, alongside other options for supporting the rollout of full-fibre networks locally. We will publish the findings of this consultation and the next steps alongside the summary of the findings of the business broadband review.
Amendment 11 calls for steps to be taken within 12 months of the Bill coming into force to ensure progress on a number of broadband issues. I do not think that there is a need for these measures to be set in primary legislation, as work is already in train on each of them. As I noted at the outset, this Government have a clear digital agenda and our ambition is for world-class digital connectivity. Good progress has already been made, but there is still, we agree, lots more to do. Commercial and publicly funded rollout of superfast broadband continues. More than 90% of UK premises already have access at speeds of 24 megabits per second or more—89% if measured on the basis of 30 megabits per second. We expect to reach 95% coverage by the end of this year. We have committed to reinvest funding from efficiency savings and clawback to extend superfast broadband to as many homes and businesses as possible, including in hard-to-reach, often rural, areas, which would otherwise have been left behind by commercial providers.
We are working with regulators and industry to ensure that advertising for broadband more accurately reflects the actual speeds that consumers can expect to receive, rather than a headline “up to” speed available only to a few. Broadband speed claims made in advertisements are regulated independently by the Advertising Standards Authority, which is currently reviewing its guidance on broadband speeds, with a report due in spring this year.
Measures elsewhere in the Bill give Ofcom powers to ensure that consumers receive automatic compensation when something goes wrong. Ofcom will issue detailed consultation on the exact form of automatic compensation measures.
With that rather detailed explanation—I apologise—I hope that noble Lords will feel able not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I have a confession: I did not expect the Minister to concede on all these points. I have another confession. One has to see the universal service obligation in context. It is a mechanism that addresses a market failure—the inability to get broadband extended across the country and to deal with the problems that are so replete in its delivery. I understand the Minister’s point, although we might disagree about how to use the USO. The Government are using it to nudge towards something that is otherwise not possible, but in the discussion on these amendments we have raised broader issues about what that means. I do not agree with the Minister when he says that we have to follow the market rather than define it. Everything that the Government have done has defined it. If you define it with such a low base, it is a major problem.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, said that this was a minimum, not a target. Our target is a minimum, so we agree on that. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, that we are talking about gigabits because they are the future, whereas megabits are the past. We have to address that material failure.
We are disappointed at what the Minister said about the BDUK report. It established goals that it said were dynamic; it said that it was pegging itself in comparison with other countries in the achievement of its goals for the UK. If you do not measure against a changing goal, you do not believe in the goals. That is the problem. It is not a value-for-money exercise. It is about whether you believe in the goals that you have set for that organisation. If you are not prepared to report on it, it means that you do not believe in it.
In the new clause proposed by Amendment 11, we accept that the Government are looking at what is in paragraph (b), but I would be grateful if the Minister would write and say how the Government are trying to achieve what is in paragraphs (a), (c) and (d).
To finish, let me say quickly that 10 megabits is totally inadequate. If you are trying to establish a small business using 10 megabits and have a variety of people using it, it does not work. That is a huge failure for our country. You have to establish a reasonable target. As one noble Lord said, 30 megabits is certainly affordable.
Even if you get 30 megabits into a house, most people are reliant on using wi-fi to distribute it; they do not use a cable connection. I defy anyone to establish that most of the population is using anything near a definition of superfast in this country. We have a massive problem with routers and where they go. The Government talk about numbers as if they are giving us a proper and defined future. When we sell a USO, we have to have some sense that what is delivered to the public is really worth while. As a mechanism to nudge it forward, it is probably insufficient. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendments 2 and 3 not moved.
Moved by Baroness Janke
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, at end insert—“(2BA) If the universal service order says that broadband connections and services must be provided to any extent, it must require the provision of a social tariff for broadband services which has the aim of preventing digital exclusion.”
My Lords, Amendment 4 deals with the introduction of a social tariff. At Second Reading, Members felt very strongly about exclusion, particularly digital exclusion, and the amendment seeks to address the issue of affordability.
Many people at the moment do not have access to broadband, particularly in some of the more deprived communities of the country. I come from a city and I know that it is easier there to access broadband than it is in rural areas. However, even where there is physical access, large sections of the population will not have broadband because the costs are unaffordable. I speak particularly of families on low incomes, children who need access to broadband for schoolwork and learning opportunities, unemployed people who are seeking jobs, people with limited mobility who have great needs and older people who may find the levels they are being asked to pay unaffordable.
It will become increasingly impossible to live in the modern world without having access to broadband, whether it is for the purposes of banking, claiming benefits, applying for a passport or any of the other things that we expect to do online. It is therefore important for the Government to consider during the passage of the Bill how they will address the issue of affordability.
The amendment seeks to introduce a social tariff. BT has a social tariff for telephones and the Government may wish to look at that. I hope that we can address this issue because, whatever the universal service obligation in regard to quality, accessibility and the extension of broadband to some of our less wealthy communities and vulnerable people is important. There is an opportunity to address this in the Bill and I beg to move.
Very briefly, we on these Benches wish to associate ourselves with Amendment 4. It is an extremely good amendment which raises the important issue of ensuring that broadband is accessible to the unserved and underserved, and others.
The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, made a good point about online access for schoolchildren, particularly in communities where there are great challenges in teaching. You can already hear the reports from many schools about the divide between those who can and those who cannot afford access, with the expanding level of online teaching and resources. Schools are also administering other things online.
We have an amendment to remove the reasonable cost threshold because any extra cost associated with delivery of the USO should not be borne by the users of CSPs. It is important to make sure that the cost of ensuring delivery has been adequately taken care of in the Government’s considerations and that the companies provided to do this do not seek to transfer the costs to consumers. We must make sure that is as affordable as it can be and that it extends to the widest possible number.
My Lords, I would like to add one category of cost to that: someone who lives in a remote area some distance away from the main telephone service. The cost of BT or another company installing a line up to that property can be outrageous, to be honest. It can be very considerable and much more than most people can afford to pay. So to the list of those who are disadvantaged and cannot get full access, including, quite rightly, the disabled, must be added those who live in a single property at some distance away from the main service. The costs can be prohibitive.
My Lords, I will address the House on Amendment 5, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn. We all want to prevent digital exclusion and this is clearly an admirable way of attempting to do so. But the noble Lord suggests that,
“any excess costs … shall not be paid by users of communication service providers”.
So those excess costs need to be paid, presumably by someone other than any of the users of communications service providers. I wonder whether this amendment might be strengthened if it were to set out by whom those excess costs should be paid.
My Lords, let me begin by making it very clear that the Government are committed to building a country that works for everyone, and that we are working to make sure that nobody is digitally excluded. The broadband universal service obligation will provide a digital safety net by giving everyone the legal right to request a connection to fast, affordable broadband.
Amendment 4 proposes that the broadband USO should include a social tariff. The existing telephony USO already includes one—as the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, said—and BT has voluntarily added broadband for those who want it. When Ofcom was commissioned to provide advice to the Government on the design of the broadband USO, we specifically asked it to consider a social tariff to ensure that the USO was affordable for all. Noble Lords will be aware of the report that was published on
I should also make it clear—particularly in relation to the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, in connection with vulnerability and access—that the Government are committed to actively tackling digital exclusion, which can be caused by lack of access but also by other barriers such as lack of basic skills. Some people will never be able to use online services independently, so the Government are committed to ensuring that assisted digital support is always available for these people. The Government’s digital support strategy mandates departments to provide this support.
If I have interpreted Amendment 5 correctly, it proposes that consumers would not be required to pay any excess costs above any cost threshold that is set. Under the current telephony USO, consumers pay the first £130. BT will then pay up to a threshold of £3,400. Consumers are then asked to pay any further costs above the cost threshold. Similar arrangements are in place for other essential services such as electricity and water. Ofcom’s technical advice, which we are considering, sets out analysis of this kind of model for a broadband USO.
Under the telephony USO, consumers have the option of carrying out some of the work themselves to help reduce their costs. Individual consumer requests for a USO connection can also be aggregated to help reduce the cost per premises to below the reasonable cost threshold. We are considering whether this type of arrangement would be suitable for the new broadband USO; this will be the subject of the later consultation. With that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.
Could the Minister help the House with what she has just said about Ofcom’s recommendation being that it was likely that a social tariff would be needed? Can she explain exactly where within the legislation that social tariff will be introduced, bearing in mind what is said in Clause 1 about setting out the universal service obligation characteristics?
My Lords, I will need to check this to be absolutely sure, but it will not form part of the legislation. I am talking about the report that is being considered with care at the moment. There will be a public consultation after that report, so we cannot commit to this without fully exploring our thoughts and proposals in response to the report of
My Lords, I start by drawing attention to the National Infrastructure Commission report that came out recently, which I am sure the Minister is well aware of, in particular to its references to the future of communications and mobile networks. This was central to the request by the Government for a review, so that the commission could come back with some recommendations which the Government might build into future plans. The report starts by saying that,
“the UK lacks the level of coverage … to offer … mobile services ubiquitously. In rural areas 3% of the population do not have any coverage outside their homes”,
which it calls “complete not-spots”, and that,
“25% do not have coverage offered by all the main mobile networks (partial not-spots). Coverage on our road networks is poor even for voice coverage … 17% of A and B roads are in complete not-spots and an additional 42% have only partial coverage”.
The Committee will probably have to read Hansard carefully afterwards to get exactly what I am trying to say on the not and have-not spots. However, the picture is pretty poor.
The commission’s report goes on to say:
“The UK performs poorly in comparison to other countries”.
We do not seem to have an overall plan for what to do. It also says that,
“government has agreed with operators that they should deliver 90% geographic coverage for voice and text by 2017”,
“it is not clear that this will meet consumer service expectations”— a point which has already been made in earlier debate. It continues:
“As it stands, gaps in current 4G networks mean that around 20% of urban premises and almost 80% of rural premises are in a not-spot for 4G coverage”,
which is surely unacceptable. It then comes to the point that bears on the amendment we have tabled in this group:
“The next generation of mobile connectivity will need to deliver the right type of networks, in the right places, for the services that people and business need. This means that 5G networks cannot be thought of in isolation but must be considered as part of a wider ecosystem of mobile connectivity. Delivering the connectivity we require for the future must start by ensuring that we have the networks we need for today—this will not only provide a basic level of service to consumers … but … the backbone of the network infrastructure we need for the new services of the future”.
These points are relevant to Amendment 6. I think that we are agreed that a USO will have some value although we are not that agreed on what it will be and how much it will bite—we might be able to make some progress on that. If we have a USO, Amendment 6 addresses whether it is just for the provision of wi-fi and wire-to-premises services or will include the additional services that will probably be necessary to achieve full coverage.
Everybody hopes that the USO will deliver 100% coverage. As the report from the National Infrastructure Commission makes clear, we would not be able to reach that coverage without some element of mobile telephony. Therefore, while we shall be regulating for the wires and the fibre to take the signal by a conventional route, we shall be stuck with unmet need. We shall not be covering the last 5% or 10% of people who will probably need supplementary provision. Indeed, the Minister himself said that the only way that he could satisfy his children’s need for proper access to the internet was to provide microwave technology in addition. Therefore if the USO is to be effective, it will need to cover forms of technology other than simply communication down wires or through fibre.
Amendment 6 simply suggests that the Government should take a step forward along the lines set out by the National Infrastructure Commission. They should add in the mobile coverage that would be required to complete what would be the first widely acceptable USO at whatever level it is meant to be. That is necessary if we are to make the progress set out in that report.
Amendment 19 concerns the vexed question of roaming. A number of issues seem to arise whenever anybody picks up a contract for a mobile phone and tries to use it. First, if in the shop you ask whether you will be able to use a phone throughout the United Kingdom, a promise will almost certainly be made that will not be honoured in the detail. It is quite clear to anyone who does any travelling that service from the various network providers varies considerably. I think that the Government will argue that this is a good thing because only by having competition between the mobile network operators will one get the maximum coverage sought. However, since it patently does not achieve that, one has to ask whether this is the right way forward.
From time to time the suggestion is made that even if you could get the coverage that you wanted from the network and contract to which you signed up, it would not be sufficient. This is because there will always be a point at which the income to be generated from additional coverage will be less than the investment in new masts and equipment. Therefore there will always be not-spots, even with mobile and not just internet connections. As the National Infrastructure Commission said, voice coverage will be patchy and not be fully efficient unless we can do something to make it more possible to receive any signal, not just the signal from the contracted operator. It is going to be mixed— if we are to reach 100% we will need to have more than the current incentive for services to include that.
This amendment proposes a national roaming provision at certain points. Without this we will not see the coverage that the National Infrastructure Commission wishes, which common sense dictates and which usage will demand. Consumer pressure may well be the final straw on this point. We will need to make sure that there is a possibility of reaching out to whichever mast is nearer and whichever services are appropriate to needs. Roaming may be the answer. I beg to move.
My Lords, my Amendment 17 is along similar lines. Perhaps because of my comments at Second Reading, I have had various meetings with mobile phone operators. They take me to task for contrasting their performance with my experience of broadcasting where for 50 years ITV and the BBC have been sharing masts. They correctly point out that broadcasters can differentiate their product by content, whereas they cannot. Their business model is based entirely on one provider owning one mast and providing that signal to its subscribers alone. In fairness, it is not the ideal way to build infrastructure. For water, the equivalent would be three water mains running into the average house and three sewage pipes taking waste away. It is a pretty silly way to organise things, but it is the way they have been organised and—as everyone says nowadays with a degree of resignation about quite a lot of subjects—we are where we are.
I accept that no roaming is the rule of the game normally, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Stevenson. What happens when the market just stops and cannot deliver? Recently, Ofcom produced an app which I recommend to all noble Lords. It is free, and will tell you what signal you are getting on your premises and your broadband speed et cetera, as well as showing you which providers offer the best signal. It is going to arm the average citizen with the information to challenge their providers and say, “Look, you are meant to be giving 4G by the end of December 2017. At the moment you cannot even give me 3G. What are you going to do about it?”. The Bill at the moment simply requires a communications provider to provide compensation. That is important, and compensation matters, but it does not actually help deliver the 4G or whatever that the end-user is looking for.
My amendment suggests that once the current system has been shown to fail, we should allow roaming. My noble friend Lord Stevenson used the term national roaming, which we use to distinguish it from roaming when you are abroad, which is most people’s experience of roaming. The fact is that anybody who comes from Europe to this country can roam and find the best signal. We are simply saying that in certain circumstances, when an adequate signal cannot be provided by the mobile provider, the end-user should be allowed to roam.
Beyond that, I would like to see the development of joint masts and would not rule out the possibility, I am afraid, of subsidy. If at the end of the day we are prepared to subsidise the provision of fibre, we should also be prepared to subsidise if necessary in very remote areas the sort of masts that will host 5G, because that will be the way that a lot of people get broadband.
My Lords, I just want to raise an issue of the future rather than the present. I hope that masts will soon be a thing of the past and we move to satellite provision of telephony in the very near future. I do not know whether that will be the case, but I have certainly heard it will be. Otherwise, I agree with my noble friends that we ought to be moving to having the best provider we can get in any area. I am with EE, and when I am sitting in my motor car driving along with my wife, who is on O2, and my son, who is with Virgin Media, who gets a service on their phone in some areas of the country will depend on the provider.
My Lords, as someone who is not as well versed as some noble Lords with the technology, it always strikes me as strange that if you go abroad, wherever you are, you seem to be able to get access. What do they do that we do not? Are there lessons that we should be learning? Do they have a different system? How does it actually work? It seems ludicrous that we are going into such nitty-gritty when perhaps, over there, there is something that we are not even opening our minds to.
My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions in this interesting and important debate. Amendment 6, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, seeks to include mobile coverage within the scope of the guidance on the broadband universal service obligation. The universal service directive currently provides the regulatory framework for a broadband USO and although, depending on the design of a broadband USO, there is scope for the USO connection to be provided using mobile technology such as 4G, the directive does not apply to mobile coverage.
I am afraid we do not currently consider there is a case for a USO for mobile. The Government have already secured significant progress to ensure mobile coverage across the whole of the UK through the licence obligations arising from the December 2014 agreement with the mobile network operators, which locked in £5 billion of investment to support the rollout plans. We want to hold the mobile operators’ feet to the fire, and noble Lords will be aware that Clause 10 will give the regulator, Ofcom, the power to issue hefty fines to mobile phone companies that fail to meet their licence obligations. The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, mentioned that it does not help if you are not getting a full mobile service, but it is a direct incentive, as is compensation. We are trying to achieve what he wants.
Amendment 19, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, seeks a licence variation to require roaming within networks where there is an intermittent or no signal, while Amendment 17 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, would offer roaming as automatic compensation. I understand the frustrations of people whose mobile experience does not live up to their expectations, but although roaming appears to offer a quick fix, it would do more harm than good, undermining the incentive for operators to invest in new infrastructure. This is particularly important for areas that have no coverage from any provider at all, as there is no incentive to invest capital in a new mast if other operators simply piggy-back off your investment.
Noble Lords mentioned coverage in other countries— my noble friend Lady Byford mentioned travel abroad. The reason for that is there are international roaming agreements, which apply to a UK citizen travelling in Europe. However, it is offered on a fair-use basis, when tourists travel for a limited period of time. Details of a fair-use test to prevent abuse of roaming are being agreed in the EU at the moment.
Roaming was considered by the Government in 2014, but was rejected in favour of licence obligations to drive increased coverage by all mobile operators, which locked in the £5 billion investment I mentioned earlier. We are making progress: Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2016 report, which records progress to June 2016, shows that 99% of UK premises now have indoor voice coverage and 98% have indoor 3G or 4G data coverage. Our recent reforms to mobile planning laws in England, and the proposed reforms of the Electronic Communications Code which we will be talking about later, will support further investment and improvements in connectivity across the UK and reduce coverage not-spots. We are working to make it easier and cheaper for mobile companies to invest so that consumers benefit from good coverage and can receive it at low prices. Our measures are achieving this, and our future reforms will support this further, thereby delivering a better deal for consumers across the UK.
Noble Lords will also be aware of our commitment to being world leaders in 5G, as the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, suggested. That is why we announced over £1 billion of funding in the Autumn Statement to support the deployment of the next generation of digital infrastructure. We want to support investment, and not discourage it. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, talked about his desire to see no masts at all and for the system to be based on satellites. I am not an expert on the technical side of this, but I think I am right in saying that for 5G, which is what we are aiming for, we are going to see more masts, I am afraid, or more transmitters attached to various edifices—we will talk about that later, I am sure—because they have shorter range and greater bandwidth. So I am afraid I do not think the bandwidth that is possible from satellites will enable what we have all talked about and what is required for the future.
I am grateful that the Minister has brought up the matter of smaller and more populous transmissions for 5G, because one of the issues that he could consider when implementing this is to limit the amount of new ducting and work that needs to be done on our streets and in our towns. To enforce, or expect, the sharing of ducting across our towns—which is not necessarily forthcoming—would help us with that. Perhaps the Minister will consider that.
An amendment on that issue may be considered later today. That, however, will be a little taster for later. I have, therefore, come to the end of my explanations and I hope that, with those reassuring words, the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment for the moment.
That is not at all the impression the noble Lord has given. Again, we have seen a lack of ambition to solve some of the long-standing problems. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was right to draw attention to what happens when you go abroad: you get a completely different experience—you are regularly connected to a service that you have become used to and there are no questions about which mast to point at. Wherever you are you will get service. Why we cannot get that here, I do not understand.
On this issue, however, we will always come up against the fact that if we are to get a 5G service across the whole of the United Kingdom the current system will not work. The directive may provide convenient help in propping up the Government’s arguments at the moment but that will not be available in a couple of years’ time when 5G begins to roll out seriously. We will come back to this issue. If we are to get to more than 92% coverage—the sort of ambition in the Government’s own paper, Connected Future—we cannot stick with the current model, which clearly does not work. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Amendment 7 not moved.
Moved by Lord Fox
8: Clause 1, page 2, line 23, at end insert—“72B Universal service order: annual report(1) OFCOM must publish an annual report on the implementation of the universal service order for all areas pursuant to the provisions of this Act.(2) The annual report must include information on—(a) the number of premises that have been supplied with the minimum download speed as specified by the universal service order;(b) the number of premises that have been required to cover some of the cost of connection;(c) of the premises under subsection (2)(b), the average cost of connection per premises covered by residents, disaggregated by local authority area;(d) the number of premises that have chosen not to be connected via the universal service order after being provided with an estimate;(e) the amount of time on average it takes to provide an estimate and connect a premise, disaggregated by local authority area; (f) the percentage of premises nationally connected via fibre to the premises (FTTP);(g) the take-up of superfast broadband as a proportion of connected premises;(h) the measures taken by OFCOM, Government and others to increase take-up of superfast broadband;(i) the average time taken by named service providers to reconnect broken connections;(j) the number of community schemes set up in that year and the level of subsidy delivered to achieve this; and(k) the extent to which the rights of consumers are explained to them.”
It transpires that since I last spoke in Committee—literally since I last spoke in Committee—I must now declare an interest: I have just received an email telling me that my broadband service conditions will change. The price has increased. I am virtually certain that the bandwidth has not.
Whether the Minister’s world-class targets, or the gigabit economy of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, is in play, the purpose of Amendment 8 is to address the issue raised very eruditely by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, which is that BT will miss its targets. The aim of this amendment is to introduce a way of monitoring performance regularly. There is a lot of talk about driverless cars but we do not want this to be without some serious driving. It is the central mechanism by which we on this side believe that the Minister and Parliament can drive performance on a regular basis. We talked, in Amendment 2, about an annual review of the USO, and we believe that this would be the precursor to that process. It is designed to create a sense of urgency and—to be honest—pressure, on both Ofcom and the service provider. Noble Lords will be aware that it is based on a suggestion, or proposal, of the LGA, but it has additional key measures designed to monitor progress.
It is perhaps simplistic to say so, but we should see ourselves—the Minister and Parliament—as the client in this relationship, Ofcom as the project manager and Openreach, or KCOM, as a contractor, and we need to be able to measure progress regularly. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest some measures. Without going into huge detail, the measures address a number of issues. They address performance: paragraphs (a) and (f) look at minimum download speeds and the amount of fibre being installed on the premises. The economic aspects of (b) and (c) look at the cost of connection borne by citizens and the mean cost of connection. In (d), (e) and (i) we look at service levels, premises choosing not to connect, the time to get your estimate for connection and the time for repair—which many noble Lords will have experienced and should also be measured.
We then look at take-up and public acceptance, and my noble friend Lord Foster will pick up on some aspects of driving take-up. We need to look at the percentage of people opting to take this up and find ways of pushing it. We should have a way of measuring community schemes: in some senses the ease with which they can be established, and, frankly, the amount of resistance from the service provider that stops them happening. We also need to know that consumer rights— what they are receiving—are fully explained and understood, as I think the Minister has already said.
The reason for having an annual report is that we cannot rely on the Openreach mission to deliver this and we need to be able to put regular pressure, through Ofcom, on that delivery. Amendments coming up talk about the delivery model—the connection between Openreach and BT—but while we are in that situation, and even after, this amendment is a strong way of driving performance.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Fox has said, I will very briefly address one element of the report, though I support the principle and all other aspects of the proposed list of things to be covered in that report. However, I draw the House’s attention to subsection (2)(g) and (h). Paragraph (g) talks about the take-up of superfast broadband as a proportion of connected premises and (h) about the measures taken by various bodies to improve that take-up.
I fully share the Government’s desire to create a digital Britain, with all the benefits that it can bring, including the online delivery of our public services. However, all the discussions I have had about broadband since joining the House have predominantly been about its speed and making it available. We know the figures—they are fairly clear: about 89% of households can currently access high-speed broadband, but we also know that only 31% of households have actually taken up the offer and 22% remain entirely offline. Furthermore, last year’s Ofcom study revealed that some 10% of households make it clear that they have no intention whatever of getting on to the internet at any speed. We also know that it is those with limited means—perhaps older and less well-off people—who make up the bulk of the 30% of the population who currently have either very limited or no access to the internet.
Bearing those figures in mind, and while I welcome all the energy, enthusiasm, debate and deliberation going on in the House—and by the Government, Ofcom and others—to improve the availability of high-speed broadband, at the same time as addressing the supply side we need to do far more work to address the demand side as well. If we are to reap the full benefits of digital Britain—to bridge the digital divide and reduce the unit cost of the installation of high-speed broadband—we need a concentrated and co-ordinated demand-side management programme. I have argued before that such a programme would address issues such as: skills training, which we will come on to later in the Bill; marketing the benefits of broadband; addressing the cost barriers—we have already had a brief debate on that with the amendment of my noble friend Lady Janke in relation to social tariffs; and of course developing quality, technology and content.
I readily acknowledge, as I have in the past, that there is good work going on in this regard by BT itself, the BBC, Barclays and many others. Local councils deserve a great deal of credit for the work they are doing, and the Do It Digital campaign is trying to help businesses get online. The Government have played their part with changes to the IT curriculum and aspired improvements, at least, to digital skills.
However, given that the take-up rate is so low, far more needs to be done, from the skills agenda to having a digital TV switchover-style campaign, advertising the benefits of getting online. It needs co-ordination. I believe that BDUK would be best placed to do that—its business voucher scheme was a good demand-driver—and the Minister might comment on where we are with the next iteration of that in his response. I toyed with tabling an amendment adding to the purposes of BDUK to cover responsibility for that but, for the time being, so that we have an opportunity to hear the Minister’s reaction and find out a bit more about what the Government plan in demand-management measures, I thought it more sensible to leave it included as one of the issues to be reported under the excellent proposal of my noble friend.
My Lords, I express our support for the amendment so ably produced by the noble Lord, Lord Fox. It is entirely consistent with Amendment 21, to which we shall come in the next group, and it provides a useful window on performance. In considering what the full report should look at, I just suggest that it would be useful if it considered upload speeds, outages and user experience. We talk far too often about what speeds are delivered to the home and not enough about the user experience; it would be very useful to include that in such a report.
My Lords, Amendment 8 also relates to reviewing the delivery of broadband policy. We have spent some time discussing broadband policy and I do not wish to repeat myself by setting out the Government’s digital agenda again. We do not disagree with the urgency, and the noble Lord is right to mention it.
The amendment would require Ofcom to produce an annual report on progress in implementing the universal service obligation. We should remind ourselves that that is the point of this part. The amendment lists a number of areas that the report should cover, not all of which relate to the broadband USO. As noted previously, I agree that it will be crucial to monitor progress of this important consumer measure, but I think that it is reasonable that the reporting requirements should be decided once the design of the USO has been finalised, not before. This will be done following the consultation on the detailed design of the USO.
Some of the areas listed are already reported on by Ofcom. For example Ofcom’s Connected Nations report, which is published annually, already provides details of superfast broadband coverage and take-up, including the percentage of premises nationally connected via fibre. The length of time taken to repair lines is also monitored and reported on by Ofcom under its market review process. Ofcom also conducts mystery shopping exercises to check compliance with the broadband speed code of practice. Under Ofcom’s voluntary code of practice on broadband speeds, broadband providers agree to give clear information on broadband speeds to consumers when they consider or buy a home broadband service and provide redress when speed performance is low. Earlier, I mentioned the Advertising Standards Authority’s review.
The noble Lord, Lord Foster, mentioned take-up, as he did on Second Reading. We agree that that is an important issue. It is interesting that Ofcom’s report assumes an 80% take-up, which we will have to think about. We agree that it is important for the per-unit cost to reduce as it is rolled out. This will be one thing we can take into consideration in the consultation. He also mentioned the broadband voucher scheme. As I said earlier, the full fibre rollout consultation included the option of a further full fibre business voucher scheme alongside other options. We will publish the findings of the consultation and the next steps alongside the findings of the business broadband review.
Therefore, although we sympathise with the spirit of the amendment, we do not think it is the correct thing to do at the moment, before the decisions have been made, and I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw it.
I must confess to being disappointed. The idea that because the service provider publishes some information to consumers, the point of the amendment is addressed, misses the point. Whatever else we have in our broadband service provision, it is not a free and fair market. It does not work as a market. The whole point that we are debating is that, if we were going to build this from scratch, we would not start from where we are now. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, who mentioned market correction. This is designed to enable us to maintain market correction of something that is not a market. We have deliberately created something that is completely agnostic as to what the universal service obligation should end up being, and it would be strengthened by the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn. I ask the Minister, in quiet reflection afterwards, to think again, but in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
Amendments 9 to 11 not moved.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 13, 20 and 21. These are probing amendments: three are “why nots?” and one is a rather extended “why?”. Amendment 12 follows on nicely from the final contribution of the noble, Lord Fox, to the previous debate. It attempts to address the competitive dynamic of the market—what it is there to achieve—and whether competition works in the broadest interest. We contend that the structure of the market has impeded private investment.
In 2005, responsibility for the broadband network was given to BT, which already owned the copper landline network—that seemed like a good idea to achieve a certain series of goals. Those goals were achieved but, unfortunately, time has moved on and there are other requirements.
In those terms, BT has done a good job—there are limits to what it can do—and we have much to thank it for. I should declare an interest here: I am a very small shareholder in BT—since last week, an even smaller one—and I do not believe in BT bashing. We create frameworks and incentives, and it is not a company’s fault for following them. Markets have changed. BT receives a lot of criticism for its move into content, but that is adjustment to the market. Frankly, they can find people who are prepared to buy a service to watch the Bundesliga, and I have used it to watch Borussia Mönchengladbach, but the Government are finding it difficult to balance the needs of a national broadband infrastructure with BT’s corporate requirements. The market just does not work well and there are few incentives for new entrants and little scope for small players. Bluntly, the Government’s reliance on BT’s free cash flow moves it from having a real policy to being reliant on prayer.
The communications market revenue growth has accelerated from about 5% to about 5.5%, and this is driven by two particular factors. The main one is price rises which have been unsurprisingly in that 5% to 5.5% range, and there has been a movement to try to compete on the basis of ever-faster connections, or the marketing of ever-faster connections, even if they are not met.
In that price competition it is not sufficient to say that there is a fully competitive market that allows for new entrants, forms of investment and competitive pressures to come in. It is competitive pricing but it is not a competitive market. The greatest illustration of where we can see market failure is that Ofcom has devoted so much effort—indeed a whole section of its digital communications review—to empowering and protecting consumers. There is so little dynamic in the market that it is the regulator’s task to deal with a whole range of issues to protect and provide opportunities to consumers to be able to get data, recompense, standards, and other things.
What we need is a different sense of how we are creating a competitive market, and I would be very grateful if the Minister will address that question. Every time we read a document, it describes the notion of having some degree of competition, so can he describe the mechanics of this competitive market and how it drives the benefits that we are looking at, beyond just price competition?
In Amendment 13 we are looking at a new requirement to try to ensure a rollout to,
“areas with no or very low broadband coverage before deploying their networks in urban areas”.
The reason we are doing this is because we believe it would be a wonderful opportunity if, when tendering for 5G, we were able to use that to advantage by ensuring not just the effectiveness of the rollout of 5G but in plugging the gaps where broadband is deficient. Companies bidding for it can develop reasonable economic models at that point of investment to do it. This is not pie in the sky. The reason why I think this is such a good suggestion, and I would be very grateful to hear the Minister’s view, is because this is exactly what Germany did in a previous auction that took place between 2009 and 2011 when the licensing conditions and the whole process included specific coverage obligations aimed at getting fixed broadband to homes, which was the primary focus of the obligation rather than just mobile coverage in rural areas. They were required to ensure that they hit the smallest areas before they could move on to the others, so small towns and districts with 5,000 or fewer inhabitants were priority stage 1. It then went up through other stages to priority stage 4 where there were more than 50,000 inhabitants. Deployments in each stage could begin only when 90% of the population in 1,000 districts specified in the previous stage had been provided with access by one or more of the licences. This was extremely successful. In fact, a number of companies bid for this and have delivered it, including—maybe these are familiar to some noble Lords—Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile, Telefónica and Deutsche Telekom. Do these seem like unremarkable companies that we will not have bidding for our particular arrangements?
Here we have a practical measure—a practical way of tendering—that would bridge that gap, would fill it and allow for effective competition and an effective economic model to be developed. I would be very grateful if the Minister will say why that is not a good idea.
Amendment 20 addresses the question of Openreach. There have been many debates on Openreach so everyone agrees with the conclusion of Ofcom, to ensure that there is a proper legal separation where the upstream business is established as a separate legal entity within the wider group and that it remains under the same overall ownership but there is a divisional board that can act independently from the group board. That is an interesting proposal. I think that there is a case for structural separation but it is reasonable to look at legal separation at this stage and measure where that is.
However, there are two elements to this amendment which address some of the major concerns. The highly respected Enders commented on this proposal from Ofcom saying:
“Ofcom’s latest proposal for the structure of BT’s Openreach sits neatly between BT’s offer and its competitors’ demands, and is broadly sensible if the Pension Fund and cost issues can be resolved”.
It could have added debts, and the like, and there is a range of issues to sort out. It is hard to have a USO and so much running on a company encumbered by such issues.
Openreach is fundamentally immensely profitable. When you can finally get to understanding the accounts —it tries to suggest that there is a lot more capital there—you can identify the profit. In fact, I cheated because one of the other group companies revealed the level of profit. This is a business with some of the highest margins in the FTSE. It is a highly profitable business, so it should be able to address these issues. It is wrong to encumber the decisions of Government by someone being able to hold a gun to their head saying that it has all these other particular problems.
The other element is that this proposal should be acted on. We have proposed the amendment because we think it will be timely to ensure that this is delivered. This should and can take place now. It can be enforced now, either through the EU arrangements, or even through domestic UK arrangements. There is no reason for any delay or for the Government not to encourage the separation to happen as soon as possible. I will be grateful if the Minister will give us some indication of whether the Government will be looking to ensure that this separation takes place now.
We like Amendment 21 very much indeed, apart from coming after the report which I hope the Minister will reconsider. It address a big issue. The Government’s Autumn Statement provided funding for the rollout of fibre to the last 5%, some would say, and it has not met with great interest from the private sector. This is largely a result of two factors. The first is that the competition is in superfast, and to try to deliver a low spec on this one is not a massive incentive for companies and, secondly, there is not much chance to roll out further. It is important to create a more competitive, performance-driven and dynamic market to make changes for the benefit of areas.
If we were to look at some of the top 10 cities of the world for delivering broadband speed, the number one is Seoul, Hong Kong is number two, number three is Chattanooga, number four is Kansas City, number five is Lafayette and number six is Bristol—in the United States. Number seven is Riga, and then we have Amsterdam, New York, and others. London is better but we have a patchy service. That is because the local delivery of new forms and new arrangements to ensure fast broadband have been pioneered in a variety of other countries and we should have that method.
I will tell two stories. Hudson, Ohio, had two internet providers where connectivity was slow, unreliable and expensive. The city decided to become its own provider. This was a real problem because it could not attract businesses. It became a one gigabit economy. Since that time, 900 companies have moved into the area and transformed it.
In 2010, Chattanooga—yes, Chattanooga— modernised the power grid and laid a fibre network. From 2011 it had a one gigabit economy. Last year it rolled out 10 gigabits, and users could get this at home. In my private business I have been to Chattanooga and it is absolutely extraordinary. It has attracted a whole host of companies, including a lot of tech companies, start-ups, 3D-printing companies and some of the most innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It is the number-one-ranked service provider for customer satisfaction, eclipsing Google Fiber. That was fought quite heavily by the existing providers but it has been able to transform an area’s economic prospects and the life and livelihood of the populations there. There are areas in our country that are not being served well and an authority could start to deliver a better outcome to the population by creating a better infrastructure, and we should certainly give it the means to do so. This amendment fulfils that. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendments 12 and 13. I have no mobile coverage at all at my home in Wales and would have no broadband worthy of the name if it were not for a small local supplier offering a line of sight wireless service and willing to do so in competition with BT, although “competition” is hardly the word I would use to describe it.
I believe that a more competitive marketplace is essential to increase the speed and quality of broadband rollout, including, or especially for the final few per cent which I hope means household rather than geographic coverage, and who of course tend to be in rural areas. Similarly, my experience in Wales leads me to believe that to achieve a genuinely competitive and open market, it may well be necessary to bring about some sort of separation of Openreach from BT. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how the Government plan to promote a more competitive marketplace as a driver of better services across the nation.
My Lords, these are very important amendments. There is a concern that BT has tended to invest just enough in a particular area to make it uneconomic for competitors to come in and provide services there. This may just be a natural complaint by people who have been beaten fair and square in the marketplace, because BT is a very large and effective company which is, in many respects, a national champion. However, if it is a canard, it is a persistent one. I hope the Minister will be able to say something to reassure the Committee, either that it is untrue or that something is going to be done about it.
My Lords, I too support these amendments, which are on the right lines. My only reservation is that if BT is already the owner of the line into a property—it could be a commercial one—who is responsible if a repair needs to be done: Openreach or BT?
My Lords, we associate ourselves with Amendment 20. I was under the impression that Ofcom was already looking at the process of legal separation, and if this is designed to strengthen its arm and make sure that it happens, then we approve. At Second Reading, I talked about the desirability of full structural separation. We know that the pension deficit has been used as a reason. When that calculation was made, was the full effect of the EE acquisition factored into the pension equation? Now that there have been substantial changes in the make-up of the corporate parent, can a different argument be made on pensions?
In the recesses of my mind I recall something being attempted in York along the lines of Amendment 21. It foundered because there was no separation in the BT/Openreach model and the route to market proved very difficult. Perhaps to be successful Amendment 21 needs Amendment 20, if not full structural separation.
My Lords, I will address Amendment 20. The separation of Openreach from BT is fundamental to the success of Britain being a leader in the digital economy in the 21st century. It is unanswerable that BT has been given a monopoly in fixed broadband connectivity. It displays classic monopoly behaviour: it controls the distribution, sets the prices and dictates the terms to its competitors. It has no incentive to improve the quality of its service—just the minimum. I would not be so vehement on this issue if BT was supplying a brilliant service, or even if it gave us believable market facts. Its broadband coverage is awful and it successfully lobbies to persuade Ministers and others that it is meeting its targets; it is not. It is undeserving of any government support, particularly in its ownership of Openreach. Why should it be granted this monopolistic licence to print money? Alternative owners will have a real incentive to improve the service.
Fixed and mobile connectivity are converging. The route may be different, but they are joining up: data are data. BT is rapidly taking on all the attributes of the overall monopoly supplier: all internet connectivity. If you aggregate its stranglehold in broadband, add its ownership of EE in mobile and then factor in its future 42% ownership of the 5G spectrum, it is overwhelming. We have a massive monopoly in the making. Separating Openreach will certainly clip BT’s wings and improve broadband connectivity.
My Lords, at Second Reading I spoke against the continuation of BT and Openreach as one unit. Many of us have experienced disappointing results when we have asked BT and Openreach to do things: the two of them seem to pass the buck to each other. Separation is a very good suggestion and I support Amendment 20 in principle. If this is not possible —like others, I have followed the current pension debacle, which is adding to the difficulty—who holds BT to account? If it is Ofcom, is it doing its job; if not, should somebody else be doing it? One does not often hear praise of BT, and its provision is unsatisfactory. If the Government say that the Amendment is not necessary, the Minister should tell the Committee what he is going to do about the current position, which is far from satisfactory.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed. Amendment 12 would introduce a new clause to require that the rollout of the broadband USO be delivered on a fair and competitive basis. Under the EU universal service directive, the USO is delivered by one or more designated universal service providers. Designation of the provider or providers is a matter for Ofcom under Section 66 of the Communications Act 2003. The Act enables Ofcom to set out the procedure for designation in regulations, and Section 66(7) requires that this procedure must be efficient, objective and transparent, and not involve or give rise to undue discrimination against any person. Existing legislation therefore already provides for a fair and open process for the designation of a universal service provider, which meets the concerns of this amendment.
As noble Lords may be aware, in April last year Ofcom published a call for inputs, seeking views from industry and consumers on the design of the broadband USO. The majority of respondents shared Ofcom’s preference for a transparent and competitive designation process for the universal service provider. At the same time, however, few industry stakeholders expressed a desire to be designated as the provider of the broadband USO. In light of this, Ofcom’s USO technical advice, published on
Amendment 13 would require the designated universal service providers to roll out in rural areas before deploying their networks in urban ones. I do not think this would be appropriate. There are, I know, more rural consumers struggling with slow broadband speeds, but I do not think that the needs of urban consumers are any different from those of rural ones in the same position. As such, they should be treated the same. The USO is being introduced specifically to target those areas where commercial providers have not provided, and are unlikely to provide, connectivity, be they rural or urban areas, and to confront social exclusion wherever it is located.
The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, talked about the role of smaller suppliers in the BDUK superfast programme. Of course, smaller suppliers can successfully deliver infrastructure into communities in the hardest-to-reach parts of the UK. There are now 11 smaller suppliers contracted to deliver superfast broadband projects through BDUK’s programme. The noble Lord also asked why we do not introduce an outside-in rollout, like Germany. We agree that has been very successful but unfortunately it is not comparable to what is proposed under the USO. In Germany there is no USO, but a publicly funded rollout programme. It worked by giving the commercial sector the opportunity to roll out in more commercially viable urban areas. The USO is intended to target areas that are not commercially viable.
Amendment 20—I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for his measured remarks about BT, which is a bit of a whipping boy here—would give the Secretary of State a power to direct Ofcom to begin the process of legally separating the Openreach division of BT. We do not think this power is necessary, since on
Furthermore, through its comprehensive digital communications review, which reported in February 2016, Ofcom examined closely the whole of the UK telecommunications market. It concluded that changes to the governance of Openreach could benefit competition and consumers, and consulted last summer on the form that these changes should take. Last November it announced its decision that legal separation was the way to go. Therefore, Ofcom has already carried out most of the actions set out in paragraph (2) of this amendment. If the Secretary of State were to use the power granted by this amendment to direct Ofcom in the manner described, the result would be repetition and delay due to the requirements of the clause.
Because Ofcom is an independent regulator—I can say to my noble friend Lady Byford that it is Ofcom that holds it to account—the Government do not wish to take a power to direct how it should carry out its duties. However, I can assure noble Lords that the Government are listening to Ofcom in case there is anything we can legitimately do to ensure that the changes the regulator has proposed can be carried out expeditiously. I will leave that there for the time being.
Amendment 21 would require local authorities to take steps to ensure that alternative suppliers are in place to meet the requirements of the broadband USO where they identify areas which do not receive this. It would also give local authorities the option of publishing data on broadband speeds in their area and the extent to which the broadband USO is being met.
If I have understood the intention, the first part of this new clause seems unnecessary, as the process for designating the universal service provider is intended to ensure that no operator would be excluded from being designated. It would be for operators themselves, either on a national or regional basis, to put themselves forward to be considered for designation by Ofcom. This is not something that local authorities would have a role in. If, on the other hand, the intention of the new clause is that local authorities should take a role in procuring alternative suppliers to deliver broadband to the same standard required by the USO, this would fall outside the USO measures in the Bill. Local authorities can, of course, carry out procurements to provide areas with superfast broadband through the UK’s national broadband scheme, and areas covered in this way will not need intervention under the USO.
The second part of the new clause is also unnecessary as local authorities already have the option to publish data about broadband speeds in their area without the need for this legislative provision. They would, in any case, rely on Ofcom data. Ofcom has extensive data-gathering powers and reports to the Government on the availability, take-up and use of broadband in its annual Connected Nations reports. The reports include data at local authority level. In future, once the USO has been introduced, the Connected Nations report will also provide a means of reporting on the broadband USO and whether it is effectively meeting the needs of consumers and businesses. Given those explanations, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for his very full answer in relation to Amendment 12, but it was to a completely different question from the one I had posed, which was about having an objective, efficient and transparent process in establishing providers. His answer concerned delivering on obligations. He should take from the Committee the important message that there is great concern about the nature of the competitive market.
Turning to Amendment 13 and the outside-in approach taken in Germany, I was under the impression that, given the amount of money we have put behind this, we have a similar publicly funded rollout programme. Germany has gone for a different approach—its USO occurs later in the process—and will meet a much higher standard over time. This is one of our big competitive pressures in Europe. Such an approach still has merit because it is the one occasion when you can get the private sector to factor in reasonable infrastructure spend, which it is not doing at the moment.
I thank the Minister for saying that I have been fair-minded concerning Openreach. However, I am sorely tempted to lose that tag. He made the crucial point that if there is a voluntary agreement to meet the requirement, it can stave it off. As he will have seen in the extensive commentary on this issue over the past two weeks, there is great concern that that is exactly its intention and it will delay the process. That is why we have suggested that much swifter action be taken.
I confess that with Amendment 21, we shoehorned in something completely different that does not and cannot really fit within the USO. However, it does provide for effective support for the local and regional economies. We should look at this issue. This is a broader policy arrangement to try to solve some of the problems that we are running headlong into, because the structure of the market just will not service them in the long term and will not maintain our competitiveness. Frankly, when Chattanooga is choo-chooing along at such an incredible pace and we are falling behind, something needs to be done, and that is a bigger policy. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendment 13 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
14: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“Bill limits for mobile phone contracts(1) A telecommunications service provider supplying a contract relating to a handheld mobile telephone must, at the time of entering into such a contract, allow the end-user the opportunity to place a financial cap on the monthly bill under that contract.(2) A telecommunications service provider under subsection (1) must not begin to supply a contracted service to an end-user unless the end-user has either—(a) requested the monthly cap be put in place and agreed the amount of that cap, or(b) decided, with the decision recorded on a durable medium, not to put a monthly cap in place.(3) An end-user may, after the start of the contracted service—(a) contact the service provider to require a cap to be put in place and agree the amount of that cap, or (b) require a cap to be removed, with the requirement recorded on a durable medium.(4) The end-user should bear no cost for the supply of any service above the cap if the provider has—(a) failed to impose a cap agreed under subsection (2)(a) or (3)(a); or(b) removed the cap without the end-user’s express consent, provided on a durable medium as required under subsection (2)(b) or (3)(b).”
My Lords, as we reach the end of this first part of the Bill we have a bit of a conglomeration of amendments in one group. I think we will need to just go through them slowly to get the sense of them.
Amendment 14 is also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foster, and I am grateful to him for his support. It tries to deal with an issue that we probably all agree in this Committee is one of the most complicated areas of domestic expenditure—trying to work out what you owe for your mobile phone. I have never understood the tariffs. I certainly do not understand the various little odds and ends to opt in and opt out of, and I find it hard to get my mind round which bits are prepaid and which are costed at a rate that I do not recognise. Nevertheless, the bill comes in regularly and has to be paid. However, for some people this can be a source of worry and, as with other universal provisions, there may be some danger of vulnerable customers getting into difficulty. We therefore thought it might be interesting to suggest that the mobile operators should be encouraged, either voluntarily or if necessary through some form of statutory provision, to set caps or work on a system under which customers could set caps—more correctly—so that if expenditure was getting out of control on their mobile phone they were not being taken for a ride, even if it was for a relatively short period. Therefore, the idea of a financial cap, which is not uncommon in other areas of consumer expenditure, occurs. The suggestion in the amendment, which I hope the Minister will find of interest, is that it might be a way to make sure that there is a more secure arrangement for this important part of our everyday lives.
Amendment 15 raises the interesting question of how to switch out of your existing contract if you wish to do so. It is a competitive area—many people offer services in mobile telephony—but it is quite hard to extricate yourself from one contract and move to another. It has been suggested for some time—we raised this in discussion on previous Bills, including the now Consumer Rights Act 2015—that the way to do it is to enable mobile provider-led switching. This amendment would put this on a statutory basis, and suggests that it is the standard we should move to.
The current position as I understand it—I look forward to the Minister’s comments—is that mobile provider-led switching is permitted, that how best to expedite it is being discussed with Ofcom, and that progress is being made. However, it seems to take a long time; we were talking about it during the passage of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 but it came up on earlier Bills as well, and we still do not see very much progress. It is still hard to do, and I will be grateful for further comments on whether this is a helpful initiative in this area.
Amendment 16 picks up on what is already in the Bill on the power that Ofcom will get to set a condition requiring payment of compensation by communication providers to end-users where standards or obligations are not being met. There is a gap in that provision in the sense that nothing there suggests that they should do it within reasonable timescales, and we ask that that be taken into consideration.
Amendment 18 deals with the question of whether coverage is satisfactory. This area has already been raised with regard to amendments earlier in the debate. This amendment would specify conditions under which telecommunications service providers would be required to pay compensation and provide satisfactory mobile coverage, which of course is not currently the case; your coverage is not part of your contract, and we think it ought to be.
Amendment 22 seeks to put into a code of conduct a mandatory provision, so that where broadband speeds are specified in the USO or equivalent requirements, these should be placed in a way which makes them more than just a contractual term in an arrangement. In other words, after consultation, the Secretary of State should make a code of practice which would allow the code to specify what speed information we will get under our broadband services. It would require those providers to make sure that they deal with any problems that arise from that, to ensure that there is no penalty if the customers want to leave a contract, because speeds consistently or even occasionally fall under a specified minimum threshold, and to make sure that information is available around that in a more positive way than at the moment. This would be a good thing for work in this area. However, it raises a wider issue, which also came up during the passage of the Consumer Rights Act 2015.
For reasons that we could never get to the bottom of, when one orders digital content—which one increasingly does these days, whether it is books, music or other forms of transfer—the rights you acquire when purchasing that material are not the same as if you acquired it in a physical format. In other words, if you download a CD to your iPod or equivalent and play it and listen to it, you do not acquire the same rights as if you bought that CD in a shop, took it home and played it on the same or a similar machine. We could not understand why that was the case, because the whole purpose of the Bill—I do not wish to rehearse that in this venue—was to try to equalise rights in the digital marketplace with those in the physical marketplace. Yet this was one area where the Government were very stubborn and would not move—although we had a lot of interesting and good debate around other issues, many of which were changed. The argument was largely around whether one could really say that it was comparable to download digital data in a form which was not physical and therefore could not be physically returned if it turned out to be defective. That was the crunch debate. We have moved on since the debates in 2014-15, and we should think much harder about what consumers’ rights should be in a digital age. This probing amendment has been tabled to see whether there is a further appetite in government to take this forward again. I beg to move.
My Lords, we on these Benches have much sympathy for Amendments 15, 16, 18 and 22, although I know that my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones will say a few words in a minute or two about Amendment 15. I will confine my remarks predominantly to Amendment 14. I am conscious that many Members of the House are probably regular users of credit and debit cards. However, we are of course also increasingly regular users of mobile phones. I suggest to noble Lords that most mobile phone contracts are in all but name no different from their credit card contracts: they are a credit agreement, paying retrospectively for services that have been received. Yet with the credit card, of course, a limit is imposed upon you, which is not currently the case with mobile phones.
As mobile phones have developed since they were first introduced 30 years ago, the services that are offered and the billing arrangements are increasingly complex. There are benefits from all of that, but their complexity can lead to difficulty for some people, not least people from low-income families, who are five times more likely to rely on their mobile phone than people from high-income families. Very often their mobile phone is their only connected device, as they do not have a fixed landline or broadband connection. Unfortunately, as the complexity has developed, some of the support systems for customers have not gone alongside them. We know from evidence from Citizens Advice that in 2014-15 it helped no fewer than 27,000 customers who had problems with mobile phone debts, which totalled some £11 million. I was told of the case of Martin, who,
“was in the British Armed Forces and had been deployed overseas. He contacted his mobile network provider before travelling and, based on their advice, believed he had disabled data roaming. He took his phone with him and used Skype to stay in touch with his wife back in the UK, believing he was connected via Wi-Fi and that Skype calls would therefore be free. On arriving back in the UK, Martin found he had been billed £3,700 for data roaming”.
We need some mechanism to help customers from falling into debt unexpectedly. The amendment proposes the voluntary and opt-in cap system.
During the passage of the Bill in another place, a similar amendment was put before the Government on a number of occasions, and they repeatedly said that they did not think such a measure was necessary, because there are a variety of ways in which the consumer can avoid bill shocks. They talked about the range of apps that are available, dedicated phone lines for people for people to check on their current limits, warning texts that are sent when customers approach their allowances, and a range of different online tools. However, the reality is that none of that saves the large number of people who get into difficulty with their mobile phone bills. Nearly five years ago, Ofcom recognised that this was a problem, producing a report in which it said:
“We will also push for increased availability and use of financial caps … We have already called on”,
mobile service providers,
“to do more to develop and promote ‘opt-in’ systems so that consumers can choose to set limits on their expenditure”.
Indeed, Ofcom went even further five years ago, saying that,
“it might be more appropriate to move to an ‘opt-out’ system of financial caps”.
So, five years ago, Ofcom was alerting us to a real problem—a problem that it was proposing could be addressed by mobile service providers at least being able to offer an opt-in cap to their consumers. It did not proceed with that because the mobile phone operators said it would be far too expensive and too difficult to change their billing systems. But those were exactly the same arguments the mobile phone operators used in 2009 against the imposition of the EU roaming cap, which is in place. They said it was far too difficult and could not be done—that there were technical difficulties and so on. Yet they have done it, and it is perfectly possible for them to do it in this country. The evidence of it being perfectly possible is that two companies, Three and Tesco Mobile, have demonstrated that it can be done. They have done it, they are leading the way, and they have shown that they are providing a better service to customers as a result.
The time has now come for us to require mobile service providers to offer an opt-in cap system to their customers. The customer does not have to take it, but the offer should be there. I hope that, at this stage of the Bill— having rejected it on a number of occasions in another place, and given that Ofcom recommended it some five years ago—the Government might now be minded to accept the amendment, or at least something like it.
My Lords, at the beginning of the debate on this group, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said this was rather a disparate group. I agree with him, and on that basis it is entirely logical that I am quite supportive of one amendment, Amendment 15, but entirely unsupportive of another, Amendment 233.
This takes us back to the Consumer Rights Act, which feels but yesterday although, looking back, I see that it was debated at the end of 2014. Amendment 15 is very timely and it is right to probe the Government’s intentions on switching. I have a letter, which the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, wrote to me after we had put down various amendments on the then Consumer Rights Bill, on gaining provider-led switching. She said:
“I think we are in full agreement on the likely benefits of gaining-provider led switching for consumers and for competition in the telecoms industry. This view is reflected in our work on switching, since before the publication of the Consumers, Connectivity and Content strategy paper, when two experts from Ofcom were seconded to DCMS to help develop policy on switching”.
Moving on slightly from there, I thought it was quite encouraging that, in the Government’s May 2016 paper, Switching Principles: Government Response and Action Plan, a number of principles were set out. But I see none of them reflected in the primary legislation. I do not know what the Government’s intentions are in terms of regulations. It is not even clear that gaining provider-led switching will be permissible. Therefore, I ask the Minister whether principles such as these will be enshrined in the secondary legislation:
“Switching should be free to the consumer, unless they are aware of and have consented to fair, reasonable and clear restrictions and charges to do so … The switching process should be led by the organisation with most interest in making the switching process work effectively—the gaining provider … Sites and tools providing comparisons to consumers that receive payments from suppliers should make clear where this affects the presentation of results”.
These are principles that the Government have set out in their own paper, and it is not clear at this stage whether they fully plan to deliver on them. I would appreciate an answer from the Minister on that.
On Amendment 233, I am not sure why the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson—with whom I have sparred on a number of occasions on software issues, and certainly on the then Consumer Rights Bill—believes that we are in a different place and need another bite at this particular cherry. The software industry carefully negotiated a particular break-out from the Consumer Rights Act, for good reasons, because of the way that software is developed. There are beta applications that need to be perfected before the final product is fit for purpose, and there are upgrades and so on, as is perfectly well understood by the industry. So I do not support a call for another look at this. I do not believe the evidence is yet there that we have moved into a new place. It is barely two years since we debated these issues and I do not think technological progress has been so quick that we can afford another look at this without prejudicing our software industry.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in this debate. I begin with Amendment 14 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Lord Foster of Bath. The amendment seeks to place a mandatory obligation upon mobile phone service providers to agree with the customer a financial cap on their monthly bills at the time of entering into a contract.
Providers offer consumers a range of innovative ways to manage their usage, such as apps that allow consumers to turn financial caps on and off, warning text messages when customers are approaching their existing allowance limits, and dedicated telephone numbers that advise the customer about their usage. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, has already referred to some of these opportunities.
We expect providers to continue to take steps to minimise bill shock and to ensure that their customers are sufficiently equipped to manage their usage. Having said that, if the Government consider that more needs to be done, the forthcoming consumer Green Paper will be an opportunity for us to consider the issue of bill capping in more detail. It is also important to note—and perhaps it has been said before in another place—that Ofcom has guidance on its website to help consumers avoid so-called bill shock. Tips include making sure you have the right deal to suit your usage, switching provider or increasing your usage allowance, monitoring your usage, and how to protect your phone from unauthorised use.
Amendment 15, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Mendelsohn, seeks to amend the Communications Act 2003 and Ofcom’s power to set conditions to ensure that the interests of the consumer are protected when purchasing a contract relating to a mobile phone, and when switching mobile provider. Changing provider should, of course, be quick and easy for everyone. This is why Clause 2 makes explicit that Ofcom has powers to facilitate easier switching across all the communications sectors, including mobile services. Ofcom has an existing statutory duty to protect consumers of communications services, including consumers of mobile services, under Section 51 of the Communications Act 2003. The combination of this power and duty thus already creates the effect this amendment seeks.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is concerned about whether there is more to be said on this matter. The clause extends Ofcom’s power to set conditions for switching, so it will be for Ofcom to decide what should be required and whether switching is an appropriate requirement to impose on providers.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but I find that a somewhat extraordinary statement. The Government are responsible for policy—indeed, they have published a paper on switching principles. The question is: what has Ofcom been asked to implement? Surely the type of switching that will be implemented is not purely up to Ofcom. The Government—the business department, as was—published a paper setting out very clearly the principles on which switching was to be based. We cannot have a situation where a Minister simply says that it is all down to Ofcom and that is the kind of scheme that it will suggest. I find that extraordinary.
My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord finds it extraordinary. However, I think that he has made a reasonable request and I will make sure that we write to him in detail, giving a full reply.
Amendments 16 and 18 seek to make additions to Clause 3 to ensure that compensation is paid within a reasonable timescale and that, for mobile phone services, compensation is payable where the provider fails to meet a specified standard or obligation. Also, one of those standards must be satisfactory mobile coverage.
The drafting of the clause already allows for Ofcom to consider timescales for compensation, as well as what service standards are within scope. In the spring of this year Ofcom plans to publish a full consultation setting out how automatic compensation could work. Thus, we do not see the need for these amendments.
Amendment 22 seeks to establish a code of practice on business broadband speeds. In January 2016, Ofcom published a voluntary code of practice on business broadband speeds, and it came into force in September 2016. The code gives businesses clearer, more accurate and transparent information on broadband speeds before they sign up to a contract. Signatories to the code also commit to manage any problems that businesses have with broadband speed effectivity and to allow customers to exit the contract at any point if speeds fall below a minimum guaranteed level. Ofcom will continue to work with the industry to ensure full transparency. With such a code already in existence, we see no need for there to be a power for the Secretary of State to prepare one.
Amendment 233 would amend the Consumer Rights Act 2015. I am grateful for the response of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, to this amendment, as I have to hand the transcript of the debate on that legislation—it makes quite enjoyable reading—when he referenced the consequences of an amendment which is the same as the one before us tonight. He said that,
“the consequences of this amendment could be quite unforeseen and extremely contrary to the interests of the strong and vibrant software industry that we have in this country”.—[
We entirely agree with the noble Lord that things have not changed that much, and they certainly have not changed in that regard. The rights set out in the Consumer Rights Act were designed to achieve a workable balance to reflect consumers’ reasonable expectations while not imposing unnecessary and potentially damaging requirements on our vibrant, growing and technically innovative digital content suppliers. We believe that this amendment would undermine those rights.
When formulating the Consumer Rights Act, we concluded that providing for a short-term right to reject was not necessary in the context of digital content. Unlike physical goods, digital content can on the whole be fixed rapidly and with little effort on the part of the consumer. Consumers accept that it is the nature of digital content that it may be released with minor errors and incompatibilities which come to light in use and which will be fixed to ensure that the product is satisfactory. A short-term right to reject digital content and impose strict limits on the number of repairs and replacements would not be practical in this context. In the digital environment, a fault in one copy of digital content may be replicated in all copies, or the fault may not be the result of an action by the trader at all. That is why a repair is a more equitable solution in the first instance than a full refund.
Many digital content producers are micro-businesses and start-ups, and we need to maintain an environment in which they can flourish and provide innovative products, while ensuring appropriate protections. Enabling rejection as an immediate remedy could cause the industry to be more conservative in its product offerings, reducing our competitiveness and chilling innovation, to the detriment of both business and consumers.
As we know, the Act has been in force since October 2015 and the Government have received no evidence or representations to the effect that it is not working as intended. With that further explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for joining me on Amendment 14 and I welcome the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, with whom we can agree on one thing and disagree on another. I am sure that that will continue—he is a contrary sort of chap and it is sometimes difficult to work out where he is coming from.
I like the phrase “bill shock”—I had not come across it before. It is an issue that might be dealt with in the forthcoming Green Paper and therefore I accept that at this stage we need not progress further on that amendment. However, I should like to reflect on my experience of trying to deal with accounts from my provider of mobile telephony. It is complicated by the fact that I also, stupidly, pay my children’s bills. I should not do that because, if I can never work out what their bills are, I certainly cannot work out my bills, and the combination is almost impossible.
The only way that you can interrogate your bill from that particular provider, whose name begins with a “V”, is by going on to the website and logging in. That is fair enough, but you cannot access your account until the provider sends you a text message on your mobile phone with a number that you have to enter in. That methodology is now becoming common among the banks. However, it does not work in a not-spot, so I cannot reach my account. I cannot interrogate it, I cannot set caps and I cannot do all the things that the noble Baroness talked about in her full and very interesting response. Therefore, there is an issue there with some of the technology that is still being used. I do not think that it is anti-competitive or anti-consumer but it borders on the “difficult to use”. I think that there is an issue there that we might want to come back to, although a Green Paper may well be the right way forward.
If we could have a letter on gainer provider-led switching, that would be very helpful. This is an area where I do not think there is any doubt about where we are trying to get to, but the pace seems glacial and I do not understand what the barriers are.
On the two points on payment, I accept that a paper offering a consultation on that would be useful. If I am correct about the timescale, it seems a little unfortunate that it will appear later than the completion stage of the Bill. The Minister mentioned the spring, but if she could give us some detail in writing about when it is likely to be available, that will be helpful.
With regard to the voluntary code of practice, we come back to the point that we raised on Amendment 1 regarding what the USO will be if it does not have teeth. In some senses, an aspiration is fine and a floor is also fine, but if the code is to be used to make real progress in this area, we have to try to make sure that the ISPs that try to operate it find that it contains something that they have to deliver on. I will look carefully at the Minister’s response and we may come back to that point.
Finally, I turn to my Amendment 233 on digital content. The debates are obviously very familiar. Indeed, I think that the Minister may have been present at one or two of the previous ones and therefore what we say will ring even more loudly in her mind. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, was quick to pick up the main point, but time is moving on. So much more material is now downloaded and not supplied in hard copy, and at some point we will have to look at this again. The more the Minister talks about a strong and vibrant software industry, the more that speaks to me of customers being put at the bottom of the priority list, and I do not think that that is right. It is difficult to operate in a digital environment without the proper digital legislation. I am not sure that we know yet what that is and I accept that we may need more time to go through it. I signal that this is something that we may have to come back to at some point but, in the interim, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
Amendment 15 not moved.
Clause 3: Automatic compensation for failure to meet performance standards
Amendments 16 to 18 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Amendments 19 to 22 not moved.
Clause 4: The electronic communications code
My Lords, this amendment brings the Committee to Part 2 of the Bill: digital infrastructure. This introduces, under Schedule 1, the new revised Electronic Communications Code to replace the code assembled in 1984 and revised in 2003. The Government claim that the new code gets the balance right between operators and site providers. Many of our amendments today are intended to challenge and assess that claim and to make the code work better for everyone.
The code introduces a new no-scheme regime for valuing land sites and access. Under a backstop power there is an element of compulsion—including compulsory purchase, compulsory lease and compulsory contract powers—if agreement cannot be reached. However, the code is distinct from most compulsory purchase powers in that it creates continuing relationships and seeks to impose what would reasonably be agreed. Yet this principle of agreement requires a market value, even a deemed value, rather than compensation for a loss.
In trying to get this code right, the Government sensibly undertook consultations and asked the Law Commission to come up with a solution. However, they suddenly changed tack and came up with this new interpretation which has caused consternation to many who sense that the Government have listened to only one side, the operators—characterised as huge multinationals made up of only a handful of companies —as opposed to site providers, which are, by contrast, small entities with diverse interests. The National Trust, for example, which is charged with obligations under the European Landscape Convention, has concerns where there is a need to protect landscapes and scenic beauty. Fisher German, meanwhile, which represents around 7,500 clients, not only in rural locations but also land owners and authorities in urban areas, argues that there has been close consultation with the operators only to the detriment of land owners.
The Government’s new code aims to incentivise investment in infrastructure which will in turn improve coverage and connectivity for everyone. The charge is that infrastructure costs are too high for the operators. The Government wish to change the balance in favour of those larger institutions; that is, the operators. There are certainly problems with the old code but the sector has made it work. The sector has developed more through the market than by statutory imposition. Changing that to imposition sends warning signals that could lead to much greater resistance by those affected.
BT has claimed that 20% of its costs are tied up with infrastructure. We all want improved coverage and connectivity, yet is it correct that operators blame obstructive landowners blocking development and charging ransom rents? The Government have been convinced by networks regarding these new powers.
I am grateful to Mobile, which has undertaken an investigation into the true cost of mobile network operators’ rental agreements. Its research covered 184 councils, as well as others, with 52,000 masts in the UK. The data compiled by Mobile relating to both rural and urban sites showed that estimates of the average rent costs were 34% less for rural sites and 18% more for urban sites than the information provided by Deloitte. The average urban rent was £11,346 as opposed to an average rural rent of £4,946. Yet it is the rural and more remote areas of the UK where coverage is poor. These statistics point out that the biggest costs are in the urban areas.
The Deloitte report, commissioned by the Mobile Operators Association in 2015, concluded that £270 million could be unlocked for investment in improving networks if the new Electronic Communications Code was in place. The Government assume that reducing costs will result in increased investment. Will cutting the costs of city-centre rents result in better rural coverage? Has the Minister seen the site traffic data and income figures for some of these sites? It is claimed that some sites in London could earn £1 million a month, whereas the code seeks to reduce the rent from £30,000 a year to £200. Have the Government considered the other side of the coin, by which I mean the lost income to site providers—the local authorities, hospitals, water-tower owners, sports club charities, and even clubs like Lincoln City in football whose floodlights on football stands host the infrastructure? These amendments put the challenge to mobile network operators and give real incentive to the Government’s backing. If the costs are so significant and constraining to investment, let us see the savings spent on extending and improving that coverage.
I also speak to Amendment 24 in this group. There is great concern at the concentration of ownership of wireless infrastructure in the hands of huge vertically integrated mobile operators. To encourage an independent network of sites under integrated management, this amendment proposes a threshold of 10 as a minimum size to encourage investment in independent infrastructure. Many of these investments are in alternative structures such as water towers and pylons and often improve connectivity across mainly rural areas. The challenge is whether the rents and returns can support this investment. By clarifying the situation regarding using site provider investments to become ECC beneficiaries, this probing amendment challenges the Minister to say whether he sees this as a further incentive to the sector, and to aggregated site rights in particular, to bring forward efficiencies such as multiple properties on standard terms. I beg to move.
“to interfere with or obstruct a means of access to or from the land (whether or not any electronic communications apparatus is on, under or over the land)”.
As I declared earlier, at the moment we have no such masts on any of our land.
This is a probing amendment intended to ascertain what is meant here. How can it be reasonable, necessary or practicable to interfere with or obstruct access to land—any land as it currently stands, as is stated in the preamble—even when there is no apparatus on, under or over that land? Will this, as the noble Lord suggested, include children’s play areas? Will private citizens return home to find they cannot access their property because there is an unmoving Openreach van across their drive? Will farm animals be denied welfare services because they cannot be removed from their fields? Will emergency services, including air ambulances, be barred from using land where access has been obstructed? Will any obstruction be time limited to, for example, not more than half an hour? Indeed, have the Government given thought to this particular issue?
Amendment 39 deals with the height and clearance requirements of overhead lines. I am not sure why Amendment 40 has been removed from this group but I will speak to it at the same time, if I may. These are probing amendments, though the alternative heights they suggest are not to be regarded as frivolous. Three metres is only 10 feet. Modern agricultural machinery is large and growing larger. Three metres above the ground is likely to mean that combining a cereal crop will be difficult, more costly than strictly necessary and probably more dangerous. Have the Government consulted, for example, the NFU, the Health and Safety Executive and the CLA; and if so, what were their comments?
Two metres is only 6.5 feet. Wires hung in mid-air tend to stretch over time. It is likely that 2 metres will become, in places, 1.6 or 1.7 metres—less than the height of the average man. How will roof repairs, chimney repointing and the installation of solar panels be carried out safely with a wire at head height? Ladders and other apparatus will have to be positioned and lifted over the roof ridge. Who will carry the can and bear the cost if a wire set at 2 metres has lengthened and is damaged? Who will be held responsible if a wire moves suddenly and sharply in a gust of wind and hurts or kills somebody working on the roof? I believe that the height envisaged in this section of the code is from a time when agricultural machinery was much smaller and we did not, of course, have the whole question of electronic communications as we do now. As I said, this is a probing amendment. However, if we are not careful, this section of the code has the possibility to cause difficulty in the future.
My Lords, the issues relating to valuation seem to span this and the next group. In a sense, we have not yet examined the horse to which Amendment 23 is the cart. However, I will follow the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in covering the area as a whole.
The no-scheme valuation methodology proposed in the Bill is designed to promote greater investment in the development of much-needed communications infrastructure. In doing so, it needs to maintain a fair and workable balance between the range of different interests involved, including that of landowners, infrastructure providers, network operators and, of course, users. Briefings from the CLA, representing landowners, and from APWireless, a land aggregator, argue that this is a market that already works well and has done so for 30 years. They express serious concern that the proposed change could in fact reduce the availability of land for wireless infrastructure development, thereby slowing the rollout of extra capacity. They point out that the Law Commission report on the ECC some years ago, which the noble Lord mentioned, warned that changes along the lines proposed in the Bill would,
“generate an extremely difficult transition, and a consequent overload of litigation; more importantly, the market in sites benefits the economy—not only small businesses in the countryside but also some larger concerns”.
A subsequent report by Nordicity made similar statements.
I am not aware of any evidence that so-called ransom rents are a significant issue under the existing regime. Independent infrastructure providers, such as VVIG and Arqiva, see it as essential that these new powers are used responsibly and only as a measure of last resort. They stress the importance of seeking voluntary agreements first, to retain the support of the landowner community. The undertakings given in the Minister’s helpful letter to Peers after Second Reading, relating to wholesale infrastructure providers and to the treatment of alternative structures such as water towers and pylons, are encouraging in this respect.
A possible effect of the proposed change to a no-scheme valuation may be to generate windfall savings for large mobile network operators whose costs of acquiring access to land will fall. For that reason I support Amendment 23, which seeks to ensure that such savings are at least reinvested in increasing coverage, rather than just disappearing into the coffers of the MNOs. However, I remain concerned that the change, particularly if applied to existing agreements or their renewal, could introduce uncertainty, risk and tension between ECC beneficiaries and landlords—and of course landlord co-operation and good will is key to a sustainable, efficient and well-maintained network. It also seems to represent a fundamental change in the rules surrounding private ownership in this country.
I hope the Minister will be able to explain why this proposed new valuation methodology was introduced into the Bill so apparently unexpectedly, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, said, and contrary to what had previously seemed to be the Government’s intention. What provisions does the Minister have in mind to ensure that any savings made on rents are indeed reinvested in communications infrastructure? I apologise if I have jumped the gun in talking about some of the amendments in the next group.
My Lords, this is an important part of the Bill. The Electronic Communications Code is the regulatory framework underpinning agreements between site providers and electronic communications operators that wish to install and maintain digital communications infrastructure. The existing code was introduced in 1984 and has been subject to persistent criticism. It is widely perceived as unclear and outdated. The reforms before noble Lords today are the result of extensive research, consultation and collaboration with a diverse range of stakeholders and other government departments. This has included review by the Law Commission in 2012, followed by full government consultation in 2015, as well as the commissioning of independent economic research. We believe the reforms will ensure that communications operators are able to deliver the coverage and connectivity that UK consumers need.
Without making a Second Reading speech, I think we should bear in mind when considering the amendments and the Electronic Communications Code the views expressed in previous debates. Noble Lords have roundly condemned the speed and availability of mobile communications. We do want to reduce costs but we do not want to tear up existing arrangements. That is why they are prospective. It is important to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, mentioned, that we expect most of the contracts to be consensual.
Amendment 23 seeks to introduce a statutory obligation on mobile network operators to invest any savings in improving geographical coverage. The reformed code introduces an essential package of reforms that will give rise to significant savings for industry. Our impact assessment estimates that the industry stands to save around £1 billion over a 20-year period. The Government agree that if reforms are to have real impact, savings must be invested in expanding network infrastructure. Mobile network operators have already made commitments to improve coverage and connectivity. These include the 2014 joint agreement to provide voice and text coverage across 90% of the UK’s geographical area by 2017. There is also a wide-scale industry rollout of 4G technology, led by Telefonica’s licence obligation to deliver to 98% of indoor premises 4G coverage by the end of 2017. This will amount to investment of close to £5 billion in UK infrastructure. However, that is just the beginning. We are confident that the revised code creates the right market incentives to secure real investment in digital communications infrastructure. As such, regulatory intervention to direct industry savings is not necessary.
Amendment 24 seeks to expand the category of persons who can be designated by Ofcom as a code operator under Section 106 of the Communications Act 2003. The amendment would allow a new category of specified persons to use the code to compulsorily acquire land and then offer it back to the market for digital communications use. The code’s purpose is to confer code rights on operators to install apparatus on land. A person whose purpose is only to acquire land to provide to other operators is, in effect, a statutory middleman and an unnecessary addition to the code. We believe that the amendment could reduce the availability of land in the market.
Amendment 25, in the name of my noble friend Lady Byford, seeks to remove the code right to obstruct or interfere with access to land. Naturally, when rolling out or maintaining physical infrastructure, it is sometimes necessary to temporarily interfere with access to land. However, the code makes it clear that an operator cannot obstruct access to land unless the occupier of that land agrees to it or the court so orders. This is a fundamental right to protect landowners’ rights of access, long established in the current code. Its retention was recommended by the Law Commission. To confirm, the previous code provided for a right to obstruct access to the site provider’s land, but not to obstruct other land without the written agreement of the occupier of the other land. The revised code continues this provision, but as with the rest of the revised code, more clearly sets out the code rights applicable to code operators.
My noble friend spoke to Amendments 39 and 40. I do not regard them as frivolous. Clearly a £250,000 combine, which is the sort of thing that will be driving around now, is not frivolous. Her amendments deal with the right to install overhead lines. The right to install overhead lines is subject to paragraph 74(3) of the code, which stipulates that the right to fly overhead lines will not apply if it,
“interferes with the carrying on of any business carried on on that land”.
As such, the Government consider that the code provides sufficient protection for landowners who may be affected by overhead lines, and therefore these amendments are not necessary. In answer to my noble friend’s question, the Law Commission’s consultation considered whether any changes were necessary, and it concluded that they were not. The Government have not received any evidence to suggest that they are.
I hope that in light of these explanations and reassurances, the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am well aware of the areas he spoke to in terms of the objectives in the code. However, I am somewhat sceptical that the MNOs have a real case that costs are prohibitive. That has been the draconian whip behind a lot of the code’s provisions. I am even more sceptical that these cost savings will be spent on improvements to the geographical coverage of the rural and more remote areas of the UK. However, we understand what the Minister said.
On Amendment 24, it is somewhat puzzling that the Minister mentioned middlemen in the system. I understand that they are already present in the system in that they have often bought sites from rural landowners, to give them an up-front payment, in order to receive rents when they lease them out to the telecommunications industry. The middlemen in the system have real concerns. They provide a service to the mobile networks in some of their activities congregating sites so that they can introduce an agreed package rather than dealing with each site individually. We will look at the overall thrust of the Minister’s reply on that and, more pertinently, on the big group which is to come because it will all knit together in a more comprehensive package by the time we have finished our deliberations.
It may be helpful if I say that these are fairly technical amendments, particularly those in the next very big group. It may help the noble Lord if we agree to allow him to think about some of my answers. He can read what I have said, and we can possibly meet before Report to discuss some of the technical aspects of things so that he does not feel it necessary to go through every single scintilla of difference in the Chamber.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.24 pm.