“Duty to provide free wi-fi on rail services

Digital Economy Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 1st November 2016.

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‘(1) The Railways Act 1993 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 26 insert—

“(26D) In deciding whether to select the person who is to be the franchisee under a franchise agreement by means of an invitation to tender and whom so to select, the appropriate franchising authority must stipulate a requirement for franchisees to provide free wi-fi for passengers.”

This new clause requires the Secretary of State to stipulate in the “franchise agreement” a requirement for franchisees to provide free wi-fi for passengers.—(Louise Haigh.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a second time. We have reached our final new clause, which was tabled in frustration at the amount of time I spend on trains every week and how shockingly poor the quality and consistency of wi-fi is, even when one has paid for the privilege of accessing it, in addition to not inconsiderable rail fares. To make things worse, the Sheffield to London line has appalling mobile network coverage; I can make a call on about 15% of the journey, just when we are in the stations. That is why our new clause on the mobile strategic review is absolutely necessary to ensure that network coverage is extended across the UK and to keep those mobile network operators on target. We need decent quality wi-fi on all our public transport and in all our public spaces. We now have a record high of 1.65 billion rail passenger journeys every year. Without decent network and internet coverage, they are essentially unproductive journeys that could be used to boost our economy. Indeed, many of our cities outside London lose out on investment precisely because the connecting transport has such poor mobile and internet coverage.

I have spoken to several London-based tech companies that have chosen to invest in cities other than Sheffield, because they would essentially lose the time travelling from London through being unable to work. You would be forgiven for thinking that this was deepest, darkest Peru rather than one of the biggest cities in the UK, just two hours’ train journey from London; but I was in Peru earlier this year and they have free wi-fi on their buses and in public spaces. In fact, of the top 10 most wi-fi-friendly cities in the world, the UK does not even feature. From Taipei to Florence and Tel Aviv to Hong Kong, the rest of the world is far ahead of us on access to free public wi-fi, which is boosting their tourism industries and domestic industries. There is benefit to be had for the train operating companies as well. In some US states, people recognise that they can deliver passenger-oriented services as part of wider, often safety-related, communications projects that they need to undertake, and harvest passengers’ use of social media as a valuable data source for plugging gaps in their travel information services, as well as for monitoring reactions to network performance and being able to take remedial steps.

I am sure that the Minister is going to tell the Committee about the Government’s superconnected cities programme, which got off to a shaky start—though they are to be congratulated on the progress that has already been made in delivering free wi-fi to trains and buses across Leeds, Bradford, Edinburgh, Newport, Cardiff, Greater Manchester, York and Oxford. As ever, though, we will push the Government and the Minister to be more ambitious and achieve everything they are capable of achieving, investing in the digital infrastructure that we need to ensure that our digital economy can continue to thrive across the whole country. Alongside roads and rail, it is the Government’s job to ensure that our country is fully equipped with the digital infrastructure necessary for the digital revolution. As has been said many times, I am afraid that this Bill, unamended, does not cut it.

Our proposal would not require a single penny of public money. It would simply chip into the tens of millions of pounds of profit that the train companies make off the back of publicly-funded infrastructure. It would simply put into franchise agreements a requirement for all trains to provide free wi-fi and we have been very flexible and reasonable about the level at which that should be provided. Ultimately, we need to see free wi-fi on all our public transport. Sheffield’s longer bus journeys already offer free wi-fi, while York and Newcastle have opened up their public spaces. It will mean that people and businesses can be more productive and we can all spend less on our data packages.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Transport)

In a progressive spirit, we join in the support for this measure. As someone who travels regularly, having taken my position in this House, on some of the train services, I note that the difference between the contract that the Scottish Government have organised through the franchise with ScotRail with intercity wi-fi, and what is available here is quite stark. In fact, all new electrical multiple units of 318s, 320s, 334s and 380s in Scotland come with wi-fi and power sockets. I urge the Minister to consider including that and to ensure that customers in England and Wales get the same sort of service as those in Scotland.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy) 11:15 am, 1st November 2016

It is highly appropriate to end this sitting with the new clause because the intent behind it has cross-party support from both parts of the Opposition represented here. Government Members not only recognise, but are enthusiastic and passionate about getting better wi-fi on trains. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, as a Transport Minister and more specifically a Rail Minister, was instrumental in getting Britain to where we are with wi-fi on trains. It is something all MPs understand as we travel around the country. Our frustration is shared by the great British travelling public and the demands for better and faster free wi-fi on trains will continue until they are sated.

Requiring free wi-fi on trains has been undertaken through new franchises and implemented also in existing franchises. The obligation to provide free wi-fi is now secured in 10 of the 15 franchises and we forecast that more than 90% of passenger journeys will have access to wi-fi by the end of 2018 and almost 100% by 2020. There have been further programmes, such as the superconnected cities programme. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley says she wants to press us to achieve all we can, and we accept the challenge.

For all new franchises, the current specifications will require a minimum of 1 megabit per second per passenger, which allows for web browsing, basic email and social media activity. Crucially, this is set to increase by 25% every year with a focus on ensuring that it is reliable and consistent because dropped calls or frequent breaks in ability to access wi-fi are seriously frustrating.

There are even stronger bids in some competitions. For example, the East Anglia franchise, which I use a lot, will provide up to 100 megabits per second to the train by 2019, then 500 megabits per second by 2021 and 1 gigabit per second by the end of 2021 on key intercity routes, not least the Norwich in 90 and Ipswich in 60 plans. That is totally brilliant and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes for making it happen.

Wi-fi was previously dependent on mobile coverage that trains went through, but train operators have started to innovate and have done deals with mobile operators to make sure they have enough 4G coverage down the track. Chiltern is an example. It agreed a deal with EE to provide 100% coverage from London to Birmingham. This is happening. Specifying a particular technology in legislation is likely to provide more problems than solutions. Our changes in driving wi-fi through contracts with operators is more likely to be successful in getting more connectivity faster. That is the approach I propose.

In a moment, I will ask the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley to withdraw the motion, but first I want to pay tribute to all the people who have helped to make this Committee happen, including the Opposition. We have had cheerful and sometimes forthright debates, but in the best spirit of improving the digital economy for all the citizens we serve. I pay tribute particularly to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley who, in her first performance in her new position, has shown the rest of us how to do it. She has been charming and brilliant. I can only say, thank goodness for Jeremy Corbyn.

I thank you, Mr Stringer, and Mr Streeter for chairing the Committee so effectively and efficiently, and for ensuring that I made fewer mistakes than I otherwise would. I thank the Clerk and the staff of the Public Bill Office, who have helped enormously to keep us on the straight and narrow. I thank the Doorkeepers for holding the doors open long enough for my Whip to ensure that we had all our people here when necessary. I thank the Hansard reporters for no doubt capturing us accurately, in sometimes quite complicated language. I thank the police, my officials in DCMS—in particular the Bill team—and also those from across Government, because the Bill has measures in it from many different Departments. There has been great cross-Government collaboration and I put on record my thanks to my policy officials, the Bill team and my private office team. I thank all those who have given oral or written evidence to the Committee, which has improved our ability to scrutinise the Bill. With that, I hope that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley will withdraw this final new clause and we can report to the House a well-scrutinised Bill.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

It is very welcome to hear that all new franchise agreements—the Minister is nodding—will contain a requirement for wi-fi. I am happy to withdraw the motion.

Before I do, I add my thanks to you, Mr Stringer, and to Mr Streeter. You have both kept us in order and guided us through, particularly me in my first time on the Front Bench in a Bill Committee. I was put in this job two days before the Committee proceedings began, when I had not yet read the Bill. To say that this was being thrown in at the deep end is something of an understatement. I add particular thanks to the Clerk, who has been incredibly helpful in getting our last-minute amendments together, to the Hansard writers, to the police and Doorkeepers, and of course to all the civil servants who have been in and out of here through a revolving door as we have cantered through the various clauses. I also thank all my hon. Friends who have contributed, SNP Committee members and Government Committee members. I thank both Whips who have kept us to time—we are going to get there eventually.

It has been unsettling to agree with the Minister on so many things but I have been very relieved to find that he still manages to infuriate me. I believe we have stress-tested the Bill pretty roundly. We have found it wanting in several areas and I am confident that it will receive amendments in the other place. I am disappointed to see it emerge relatively unscathed from Committee, but I am confident that it will return from the other place in better shape. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Schedule 1