My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for once again raising this important issue. He is right to draw attention to the alarming lack of progress in rolling out broadband to rural areas. This is hindering the ability of British farmers to do their job, and it will become even more of a crisis when new farming techniques requiring regular digital applications become mainstream.
The latest Ofcom report identifies 677,000 homes and offices without decent broadband, but the vast majority—496,000—are in rural areas. Ofcom also reports that many rural areas are left with patchy and unreliable mobile reception, with less than half having 4G coverage. Sadly, it is all too common to hear stories of farmers driving around the countryside to try to get a signal to carry out even the basic business connections that they need for their work.
The lack of broadband is also having a wider impact on rural economies and is preventing the development of start-up businesses and the capacity for people to work at home. As work and training provision are increasingly focused on home working, where strong digital connectivity is key, a whole new generation in rural areas is being excluded from good employment opportunities.
It is hugely frustrating that it is taking so long to get this right. Since this Government have been in office, promises about broadband have come and gone, so forgive us if we are cynical about the latest announcements. Of course we welcome the latest government promise to invest £5 billion in rolling out full fibre broadband across the country, and we welcome the money set aside to specifically target vouchers at rural homes. We very much hope that these initiatives are successful and able to reach into the hard-to-reach rural settings which have been shunned by the private sector up until now. The £20 million set aside for the rural gigabit connectivity programme does not seem a lot of money, given the costs involved in rolling this access out. Nevertheless, it is a start.
Perhaps when the Minister replies, she could clarify by what date we can expect to achieve access for all rural properties to full fibre broadband and say whether she is confident that this programme is on track and will meet that deadline. I look forward to her response.