My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, for bringing forward this amendment. I suspect that other Peers did not realise that this amendment had been re-tabled, hence the short speakers’ list.
During the Covid-19 lockdown it became painfully apparent how inadequate the broadband system is, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has said. It is vital that all areas of the country have good, fast and resilient broadband, especially those in our agricultural sector. Many Peers attempting to take part in virtual proceedings have struggled with connections suddenly dropping off or being unable to log on in the first place. In 2018, the average broadband speed in rural hamlets and isolated dwellings in a sparse setting was half that of major conurbations. Can the Minister say whether this has improved in the intervening two years?
In the aftermath of the Huawei fiasco, the Secretary of State was clear on the consequences of the Government’s decision to pull out. Operators charged with delivering 5G will now, without compensation, have £2 billion less to spend on rolling it out, at the same time bearing the cost of ripping out high-risk vendor 5G equipment by 2027. This is a huge proportion of the investment which was to be committed by the operators towards 5G rollout. Can the Minister say whether, in the intervening months since this decision was made, the Government have now reconsidered providing compensation to providers and consumers? The change in provider will delay the rollout of 5G by two to three years. Rural communities are already extremely disadvantaged in their connectivity. Many rural businesses have had to relocate to more urban areas to continue operating. Those in the farming community, like others, must fill in all their forms online. This now appears to be the Government’s only way of communicating with those residents to whom they attempt to provide services.
As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, during the lockdown children were dependent on Zoom connectivity to take part in sessions with their teachers. Although this meant that they received some tuition, for many the connection was so poor that it was hopeless. If the Government are true to their word in wanting to support rural communities, it is vital that broadband connectivity and digital literacy are taken seriously. This is not a “nice to have” for the agricultural industry, but an “absolute must”. I look forward to the Minister’s response.