Broadband (Rural Areas)

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 15th March 2006.

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Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury 2:30 pm, 15th March 2006

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones. It is also a pleasure, for which I am grateful, to have the opportunity to introduce this debate on broadband in rural areas.

On 8 March last year the Minister with us today—then the Minister for Rural Affairs—and the Minister for Energy and E-Commerce wrote a letter to all parish and town councils, headed "Partnership in rolling out broadband to rural communities". The letter said, rightly, that broadband can reduce dependence on big population centres and increase investment, employment opportunities and choice without undermining the character of rural Britain.

"Broadband Britain is becoming a reality" it said, and it urged parish and town councils to communicate the benefits of broadband to the communities that they serve.

The letter was greeted with raised eyebrows by a group of constituents who live in the Hambleden valley area, most of which is within my constituency. I shall not waste words describing the area, other than to say that it is rural and beautiful, and that despite its prosperity it contains pockets of exclusion and isolation. Like other rural areas it is, of course, going through a process of change.

The group was aware that almost 300 households and almost 60 businesses in the area cannot get broadband, so the Ministers' letter would in that sense have been rather wasted. Hambleden Valley Ltd was formed by the group in 2003 to obtain broadband services for the whole area. The company was intended as a procurement vehicle and was set up to meet the South East England Development Agency's requirements for broadband service procurement. Its website address, which is of course available both to those who have broadband and those who unfortunately do not, is www.hambledenvalley.net.

Hambleden Valley Ltd. wrote to SEEDA to ask for assistance in February last year. By August, no response had been forthcoming. Today, there has been no formal response, apart from a phone conversation, which I am told did not address longer-term issues and limitations associated with using anything other than landlines. In October, the group came to see me to discuss the difficulties that some of my constituents were having in getting access to broadband. It soon became evident to me that the local difficulty had a national dimension.

I was told, and British Telecom has confirmed, that 0.2 per cent. of all telephone lines in the country cannot get broadband, but that may not be a definitive figure. Hambleden Valley Ltd referred me to a study in Kent, which the Minister may have seen, and which was carried out by Kent county council. The figure that it produced for such lines was not 0.2 per cent. In fact 2.4 per cent. of businesses and 2.2 per cent. of households in the county could not get broadband, so the figure in rural areas is likely to be higher.

I should explain to those hon. Members who have difficulty in following the technical details—I must confess that I am one of them—that areas that cannot get broadband coverage are sometimes referred to as "not spots", as opposed, I presume, to "hot spots". I was intrigued by this matter, so I asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in a written question whether he would list each constituency that contains a proportion of the relevant 0.2 per cent. of lines. The answer was that the information was not available in the form requested. I decided to drop the request for constituency information and ask the Secretary of State in another written question where the lines were located. The answer was that the information was not available in the form requested.

At that point I gave up trying to second-guess the form in which the information might be available and decided instead to do a little investigation on a non-party political basis. I duly discovered that approximately 15 parliamentary colleagues reported their constituents to be in the same situation as mine. Since not all parliamentary colleagues from across the House will necessarily respond to inquiries from me, it must be assumed that the definitive figure is higher.

I had clearly stumbled across a national problem, which is why I balloted for this debate, which I am grateful to have obtained. In the time remaining to me I want to discuss possible solutions to the problem, to describe what appear to be present obstacles to those solutions, and to ask the Minister a few questions, which I hope he will be able to deal with.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (State (Industry and the Regions)), Department of Trade and Industry

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a dispersed national issue to be dealt with. I look forward to responding to the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the 0.2 per cent. of lines to which he referred—or even 2 per cent., if that is the correct figure—for which there are obstacles is a small proportion, given that only a couple of years ago we thought large swathes of rural Britain would not have access to broadband, yet now they do?

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury

The Minister anticipates a complimentary remark that I was going to make later about BT. He evidently thought that I might not get there. I cannot, of course, be definitive about the figures and say whether the percentage is 0.2 per cent., 2.0 per cent. or 2.4 per cent. The Minister is more likely than I am to have access to the figures. I want now to discuss possible solutions and present obstacles to them, before asking the Minister a few questions.

Broadband services are provided by one of three means: through satellite or wireless means, by cable operators using the cable TV network, or by BT and others over BT's phone lines. Hambleden Valley Ltd claims that the problems facing the valley are typical of unserved areas as a whole. It says that satellite broadband will not support new uses of the internet, including cheap video and teleconferencing, telephony and video games, and that in intensely wooded areas such as the valley, where mobile phone reception is poor, the installation of the necessary infrastructure may be neither practical nor effective. The question of cost also arises.

Hambleden Valley Ltd also says that cable companies, as competitive and profit-conscious operators, are unlikely to try to expand their coverage in rural areas because of the potential expense and lack of return. Hambleden Valley Ltd maintains that ultimately a solution from BT is needed—that, indeed, a solution can come only from BT. The argument falls into two parts, one of which is practical and one moral.

The practical argument is that in the area in question, and elsewhere, BT is technically capable of installing a fibre-optic cable, which in this case would run from the Henley exchange to local distribution points, where equipment would be installed in roadside cabinets. That equipment, in turn, would be able to distribute the broadband service to individual homes and businesses in the area.

The moral argument, if that is the right word, is that no near-monopoly supplier of electricity would readily ignore the need for electricity of 0.2 per cent. of homes and businesses, and that no near-monopoly supplier of water would readily ignore their need for water, just because they were in remote locations. As for electricity and water, the argument runs, so should it be for phones, and therefore for broadband.

Perhaps BT itself is a witness for that point of view. In the brief prepared for the debate BT states:

"BT's ultimate goal is to make broadband available to anyone who wants it but, clearly, this has to be commercially viable."

There is the rub, and there are the obstacles to possible solutions.

I am coming to the part of my remarks that the Minister did not think I would make. Hambleden Valley Ltd. acknowledges that BT has done a good job in rolling out broadband, and that the British record compares well to that of other countries. It acknowledges that it is the very success of the British record that puts the minority of people and businesses without broadband at a significant disadvantage. This is an appearance of an old friend, which used to be cited by Peter Walker when he was active in politics, which is the problem of success. If one has success, it leaves the area or the people not covered by that success at a disadvantage that they feel acutely. BT suggested in its brief for this debate that workable solutions for the 2 per cent. or so of lines in rural areas that cannot get broadband do not yet exist. My constituents argue that BT has not yet proved that case, as it has not disclosed what the cost would be, and would obviously be unwilling to do so.

Furthermore, there is controversy about subsidising loss-making lines. In effect, BT argues that it would be breaching EU competition rules if it subsidised non-profitable broadband services in some rural areas by means of its profitable operations in others. Again, a key question is what BT's costs would be.

Last month, my hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), and for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones)—both of whom are present—and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and I wrote jointly seeking a round-table discussion with Openreach, the service arm of BT that delivers broadband, and Ofcom, at which those issues might be explored. Openreach was happy to have such a round-table meeting; Ofcom suggested that we first meet Openreach to discuss the technology side of the issue, and then meet Ofcom.

I concede at once that I am not an expert on the technology side, but the vital problem for those in rural areas, whether in my constituency or elsewhere, is not technological. That is, the problem is not their elected representative's grasp, or lack of grasp, of technology. It is political; it is the difficulty of getting all the parties concerned around one table, and of getting the necessary political impetus.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. In the provision of all utility services, is there not a distinction between the infrastructure—the lines between the customer and the provider—and the supplier of a particular function? Surely a difference should be made between laying the fibre-optic cable—the broadband cable, as it were—and the provider of the service, who allows use of that line. If the Government were to emphasise the importance of infrastructure, they might be able to persuade BT to get around the problem.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury

When the Minister replies, I expect that he will emphasise the importance of infrastructure. My hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone is right to distinguish between what my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West, refers to as the platform—that is, the platform on which BT provides the service—and the lines that might take the services to isolated people and relatively isolated businesses.

I want to ask the Minister five questions. First, to pursue the issue that I tried to explore in my written questions, what analysis has the Minister's Department made of where the 0.2 per cent. of lines that cannot get broadband are concentrated? Perhaps that form of words will help; we shall see. Secondly, what part, if any, does he think he can play in getting the main players around one table?

Thirdly, what analysis has he made of the role that public bodies, such as his Department, regional development agencies and local authorities, play in supporting publicly funded broadband projects in rural areas, as opposed to non-rural areas? It has been put to me that some RDAs are proving more effective than others. To cite a good example rather than a bad one, I was told that Advantage West Midlands is doing especially well. I ask because there is a perception that in urban areas private-sector providers—new entrepreneurs—are jostling for space with publicly funded broadband projects. Hambleden Valley Ltd cites as a recent example a project in Milton Keynes using infrastructure from Pipex. The point is that urban areas are getting the new entrepreneurs and the public money; there is a risk that rural areas will not get the entrepreneurs, as they cannot yet make a profit there, or the exploratory funds from public bodies that might enable those rural areas to get a better service.

Fourthly, what part can the Minister play in galvanising his Department, RDAs and local authorities into assisting publicly funded broadband projects in rural areas? My fifth question struck me when I was reading Countryside Alliance's brief for this debate: is it correct to assert that only 3 per cent. of rural businesses connect to the internet via broadband? I wondered whether that figure related to those who cannot get broadband, or to those who have access to it but simply do not use it.

I want to step back from the detail and look at the big picture. People in rural areas, especially farmers, are rightly being asked to diversify. Diversification often means business, and business means being e-enabled, to use a jargon word. Being e-enabled surely means getting broadband sooner or later. About 50 businesses in my constituency are affected; that is a lot of businesses. The concern of my constituents is that when, in due course, BT or others roll out super-broadband elsewhere, they will still not even have broadband. This is in a country where, according to Hambleden Valley Ltd, one has to apply for public-service work by e-mail, and in a world that, as we all acknowledge, is moving ever faster.

Parts of our rural areas are already isolated and socially excluded in many ways, including through transport, lack of access to health, social services and employment, and lack of access to what this Government, like the Conservative Government that preceded them, describe as opportunity for all. None of us wants to add lack of access to technology to that list. We look to the Minister to point to a way forward.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire 2:46 pm, 15th March 2006

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman on securing time to discuss the matter. He outlined the problems in his usual incisive and succinct way.

In the 10 short months in which I have been a Member, I have received numerous e-mails, phone calls and letters from constituents who have had disappointing and frustrating experiences when trying to access broadband internet in Pembrokeshire. In those 10 months, I have built up a considerable file of cases, which I have been working on with BT. Some concern families or elderly couples. Several small businesses have contacted me, saying that they rely on e-mail and web access to be viable in such a remote, peripheral part of the United Kingdom.

For example, on 14 February I received a rather sad e-mail from a local business man, entitled "Pulling out of Wales". One reason that he cited for quitting the Principality was the fact that his wife's start-up venture—an advanced post-production centre for TV and films—was simply not viable at their home location, because they have been told that they simply cannot get broadband.

I shall not go into too much detail about the cases that I am working on, but a typical scenario is that someone interested in accessing broadband, logs on to BT's website, or that of another internet service provider, and taps in their postcode. They are informed that their local exchange is enabled, and that they can receive broadband. They place an order for the broadband kit, but an engineer comes round later to test the line and tells the customer that they cannot receive broadband after all. It is left to the customer to try to claim a refund on the order and, understandably, they are left feeling rather unhappy. That experience, in which the customer is initially under the impression that they can receive broadband and places an order on that understanding, is leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many of my constituents.

Another local business man wrote me a letter, which I received last May. He said that a large part of his business is net-based. He says:

"Broadband is integral to the success of my business".

He goes on to outline his difficulties in trying to access broadband with a particular internet service provider. He says:

"If they could not supply broadband then they should have told me so when I first applied and given me their reasons . . . Instead all I get is a fog of misinformation".

Despite all the attention devoted to local exchange enabling, my constituents have not appreciated that, at the end of the day, it is not a question of whether the local exchange is enabled; it is the quality of the line from the exchange to the household that counts, and that line quality is not good enough.

I am told that in Pembrokeshire some problems with broadband availability are due to the amount of aluminium wiring used. Apparently, it is not suitable for carrying digital information in the way that copper wiring is. Another reason that I have been given is the distance between a house and the local exchange. However, we have had a scenario where some villagers in a small village can get broadband but their immediate neighbours cannot, so even that reason has been questioned by some of my constituents. In not one of the cases with which I have dealt in the past year has local exchange enabling been the central issue.

One major cause of frustration and disappointment is that my constituents have heard the public relations line from BT about 99.8 per cent. of households being able to receive broadband, which they believe is now nearly universally available. However, the number of e-mails and letters that I have received in Pembrokeshire alone suggests that nothing like 99.8 per cent. of households can get broadband.

I suspect that the figure of 99.8 per cent. is a rather imprecise estimate based on averaging an estimated number of enabled exchanges across the total UK population. Getting a more definite figure has proved problematic. I have asked BT for an estimate of the number of households in my county or my constituency that cannot access broadband owing to technical constraints, but it has not been able to provide such a figure:

"at present BT cannot accurately estimate the actual number of homes where it is not feasible to provide broadband access."

If BT cannot accurately estimate the number of homes that can access broadband, where on earth does the figure of 99.8 per cent. come from? BT states only that the "vast majority" of households in Pembrokeshire can access broadband.

A local telecoms engineer informed me that he believes that only around 40 per cent. of an exchange area in Pembrokeshire can receive good quality broadband, which includes any speeds down to about 256 kilobits—a very low figure indeed. I have also heard another engineer comment that BT's figure of 99 per cent. should probably be nearer 65 per cent. nationwide. Some clarification is required, and BT needs to be more careful about some of its public relations.

Judging from the interest in this afternoon's debate, I suspect that Pembrokeshire is not an isolated example. There are issues to do with broadband access in rural areas throughout the country.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Wales)

The hon. Gentleman has articulated very well the concerns of many households and small businesses. Does he share the frustration of the many charities that are affected? For instance, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People Cymru has run an excellent project called "Hear to help", which covers Ceredigion and Powys but has been severely hampered by its lack of access to broadband. RNID Cymru relies on access to the internet for shared drives among its volunteers but its work has been seriously hampered by the lack of progress on the issue.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. He is a good champion for the charity and voluntary sector in Wales and has illustrated a key concern for that sector.

The Minister will be aware that BT has received substantial sums of public money in recent years to extend broadband availability throughout the UK. In November he informed me in an answer to a written question that since 1997 BT has received approximately £500,000 from the East of England Development Agency, nearly £1 million from the south-west regional development agency, £16.5 million in Scotland and £3.6 million of European structural funding in Wales, which does not include yesterday's announcement. In the north-east region, BT was paid £1.8 million and there have been other, more localised subsidies; for example, £360,000 was awarded to BT through a contract with the Cheshire digital development agency.

All that adds up to more than £23 million of public money that BT has received since 1997. Given the information that the Minister has available, does he think that the taxpayer has received value from those subsidies to BT?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (State (Industry and the Regions)), Department of Trade and Industry

The expectation of cost at any earlier stage, before market-based responses started to deliver broadband, was far higher than the figures that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Initiatives such as the "Act Now" project in Cornwall have demonstrated that once we get the provision of broadband a market develops and people start to respond and look for broadband outside the area of a direct project. There are an awful lot of lessons to be learned. The sums to which the hon. Gentleman referred assisted in building the broadband market over quite an extended period.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

I look forward to hearing more detail in the Minister's reply and learning what he thinks the money has bought this country that would not have been provided in the marketplace.

I have heard it said by a very senior BT executive that BT would like to "move on" from discussing broadband access in Wales to discussing what is called next generation technology. I am afraid that BT needs to be pulled back to the discussion about broadband access because, as I hope the evidence that I have provided in the last 10 minutes and the speeches that we shall hear in the remainder of this debate will show, the lack of broadband availability in a lot of rural areas is causing severe problems for businesses, households and charities.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (State (Industry and the Regions)), Department of Trade and Industry

I would ask colleagues throughout the Chamber to be careful about one thing. Having spent four years as Minister for Rural Affairs, I know that talking down rural affairs does not help, although I do not think that that is the hon. Gentleman's intention. There are problems in some locations in some rural areas. That is not to say that there problems in all rural areas. If the impression is given that there are problems in all rural areas, the danger is that the rural economy will get talked down. Broadband is accessible and is being used effectively by many businesses in many rural areas throughout the country. The focus of today's debate is the small but important number of gaps in the infrastructure.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

I take the Minister's point on board. I do not think that it is the intention of any of the participants here to talk down their rural areas. During the short time in which I have been a Member of this place, I have come to recognise a number of the hon. Members present as champions for their rural constituencies.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Childcare), Treasury

Although the Minister is correct to urge those present not to run down rural areas, as he put it, is it not hard to be sure how many people and businesses in rural areas are not connected to broadband while we do not have a definitive figure? It is therefore hard to be sure of the scale of the problem, and we hope that the Minister can assist us in that respect.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

I finish by echoing my hon. Friend's point. Crucial to this debate is a better understanding of the number of households that cannot get access to broadband.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones Labour, Clwyd South

Order. Four hon. Members wish to speak and we have about half an hour before the wind-ups. I hope that hon. Members can keep their speeches short in order to get everybody in.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow 2:58 pm, 15th March 2006

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman on securing this debate. Like others who wish to speak, I represent a rural area where broadband access is a problem, but we are not here to run down such areas—far from it.

Like my hon. Friend Mr. Crabb, I have struggled to reconcile the claim of virtually universal coverage of access to broadband with the experience of many of my constituents. Like him, I have a raft of correspondence—he will be relieved to hear that I shall not detain the Chamber with it—with people who have difficulty gaining access to broadband. I am here to argue their cause.

That cause is not only my constituents' but the Government's, as the Minister has been at pains to tell us and as he will, I am sure, tell us again when he winds up. The Government's priority is to provide universal access to broadband, which is a noble and entirely honourable aspiration. As the Minister wrote to me in a letter on 24 January:

"Stimulating broadband availability across the whole of the UK is a Government priority. We want to see all communities, irrespective of location, having access to an affordable broadband service from a competitive market."

I should like to dwell on some of the issues raised by that aspiration.

The significance of broadband in Shropshire is enormous. Last year Shropshire was declared to have the highest proportion of home-working of anywhere in the country. Because of even more remote access to the services than one might normally find in a constituency such as Wycombe, my constituents have great distances to travel and few job opportunities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, internet access is the one thing that provides the farming community with an opportunity for diversification, and a large proportion of the working age population, plus many who are beyond working age but have not had such opportunities before, with a way in to work. It is of great significance.

Shropshire county council has recognised that, and I commend the work that it has done through Switch on Shropshire, an initiative that has been running for three years in conjunction with Advantage West Midlands to deliver broadband to communities. They have done well. I do not often congratulate my regional development agency in the House, but it has done a good job. Indeed it was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe as being particularly successful in that regard. It has achieved that with relatively modest resources—some £4.9 million has been allocated to broadband, about half of which has been spent. A number of initiatives are being taken to bring broadband to communities that currently lack it.

Let me address some challenges of delivering broadband in my constituency. Some are technological, which means that I may stray into areas that are a little beyond my pay grade or competence. It seems that a significant problem arises from the use by BT of digital access carrier systems as the delivery mechanism for telephony. It is clear that DACS cannot be shared with broadband access. Therefore, there is a requirement on BT to replace such systems with a hard wire or wireless system that will allow high-speed broadband delivery. Most of my constituents' problems occur when they apply for broadband modems. They are signed up by their internet service providers or by BT Retail, which takes their money and installs modems but then discovers that BT Wholesale is not able to deliver the service because they are on DACS. The cost of replacing the DACS technology is a commercial decision, not one that the ISP is able to force BT to implement. BT has made that very clear. On 13 January it told me that

"whereas BT has a universal service obligation to provide telephony service, the provision of broadband is based on a commercial model."

There is nothing wrong with that, provided that the commercial model can deliver access to broadband. There is an inherent conflict if it is uncommercial for BT to deliver to a remote individual household because of the cost that would be involved in replacing the line. How does the Minister intend to square the circle of dealing with BT's commercial priorities and the Government's priority to deliver universal access?

The impact of lack of broadband is clear. I should like to use as an example one of my constituents who might be known to racing enthusiasts in the Chamber. He is the racehorse trainer, Henry Daly, who happens to be one of the largest employers on the outskirts of Ludlow, one of the main towns in my constituency. He employs some 65 people and, despite living within three or four miles of a relatively large exchange, does not have access to broadband and has been trying to get it for the past two years.

All entries and declarations for races are available on the internet, which means that Mr Daly is unable to compete with trainers up and down the country to secure nominations for his horses, because he gets access to that information after everybody else. As a result, his horses do not always get high enough up the list to be able to be entered in the races for which they are best suited. That is a small example, but I think that will strike a chord with those who have an interest in racing. There is a clear competitiveness issue for people who are trying to do business in the countryside. There are also issues for people who wish to undertake adult learning from home. Schools have been connected, but we also need domestic connections.

Finally, I should like to touch on some of the solutions being proposed, particularly by Advantage West Midlands, and to urge the Minister to find one that he favours. There is something called Rabit—the remote area broadband inclusion trial. I am not sure whether it is peculiar to Advantage West Midlands or a national solution. For businesses only, the regional development agency is funding grants to provide satellite delivery—up to the 512 kilobyte service—to qualifying businesses. For faster speeds, the grant has to be matched. In most cases, that means that a small business will have to find £1,000 to secure the speed necessary for a proper, interactive service.

I urge the Minister to tell us when he will extend a scheme such as Rabit to cover domestic premises, given the priority that he has given to enabling the entire country to have access to the service.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West 3:06 pm, 15th March 2006

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman on having secured this important debate. I especially pleased to participate because, as you know, Mr. Jones, I come from a particularly rural area, and one that is known to the Minister as well.

I have not had the experience that my hon. Friend Mr. Crabb has had. Wales has been well served in terms of the extension of broadband—BT has worked hard with the Welsh Assembly. I was delighted to hear only this morning that the two telephone exchanges in my constituency that are not broadband enabled, Cyfylliog and Llannewydd, will be broadband enabled this year. The Assembly has done a good job in working with BT to extend broadband. I say that as a former member of the Assembly committee that pushed forward the broadband strategy for Wales.

However, my concern, which I think will be shared by many rural Members, is that the broadband that will be enabled in Wales will be first generation broadband. That is broadband at a far lower speed—from 512 kilobits per second to about 2 megabits per second—than will be available to the urban parts of the country that are being enabled with second generation broadband. That is the standard that is required if broadband is to have any meaningful application in the rural areas. Home Choice, a well known broadband television provider, has a minimum requirement of 4.3 megabits per second for TV drama, and as much as 5.6 megabits per second for sport, which will be well beyond the reach of those in rural areas.

The Minister may be able to comment on the matter, but it will be a considerable time before rural areas in Wales and elsewhere will be able to enjoy such speeds. Consequently, rural areas will be victims of the success that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe mentioned. There will be a disparity between the quality of broadband enjoyed in urban areas and that in country areas; what might be called broadband poverty will be experienced in rural parts of the country.

Broadband is exciting; its potential is almost limitless. In fact, it is limited only by the imagination of those who seek to use it. However, without second generation access, people in rural areas will not be in a position to enjoy it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe touched on a further problem: urban areas that are enabled to a higher degree of broadband far earlier, as they will be, and have the critical mass that will attract broadband operators will reap those rewards at the expense of rural areas whose populations are far too sparse to attract the operators of the new technology, which will inevitably be built on the broadband platform.

None of us is talking down rural areas; quite the opposite, in fact. What we are doing—I think that all hon. Members present represent rural constituencies—is calling for the Minister and the Government to come up with some imaginative solutions that will ensure that rural areas enjoy the same quality and diversity of broadband that urban areas will shortly enjoy. I am concerned that if that is not done and we do not get second generation broadband sooner, and if something is not done to attract independent operators, rural areas will fall further behind.

Broadband could revolutionise life in the countryside: it could provide educational facilities; its use in medical diagnosis could be invaluable; and, of course, its entertainment possibilities are well known. I believe that people in rural areas should be able to enjoy those facilities just as people in urban areas do, and I hope that the Government will come forward with imaginative solutions that will ensure that people in rural areas can enjoy the same degree of broadband that those in urban areas will shortly enjoy.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:11 pm, 15th March 2006

I, too, congratulate Mr. Goodman on securing the debate. Obviously, this is an important issue for a number of us who represent rural areas.

I shall start on an upbeat note, to please the Minister if I possibly can, by telling hon. Members that the Welsh Assembly announced today that, working with BT, it intends to invest nearly £100 million to ensure that the 35 exchanges in Wales not currently upgraded are upgraded in the near future. Nine of those exchanges—more than a quarter—are in my constituency. However, as Mr. Crabb said, the simple fact that an exchange is upgraded does not necessarily mean that any number of the people served by it will benefit from broadband.

At the beginning of the IT revolution, the general opinion was that broadband would be a real advantage for rural areas, which could be part of the economic breakthrough, as businesses could be located in the deep countryside and bring strength to those communities. Instead, those areas are now even more disadvantaged than they were in the past. Not only have they had difficulty in getting broadband, or any degree of it, but a new generation of broadband is coming that will further disadvantage them.

Can the Minister give us the definition of broadband? Is a minimum speed required to qualify? I think that BT sometimes plays fast and loose on this matter. A constituent of mine, David Barwick in Gladestry, had the mishap of being DACSed, which sounds quite painful. He explained to me that he was able to get broadband at 46 kilobits a second, which does not seem very broad to me, but that as a result of DACS—the digital access carrier system—his speed has gone down to 28 kilobits per second, which is almost useless. In that little community several energetic entrepreneurs could, if they had the right facilities, expand their businesses and be able to stay there and continue to operate.

Broadband is only part of the communications problem for rural areas. A number of my constituents—I am sure that this applies in the constituencies of other hon. Members present—do not have mobile phone reception, and some do not have television reception. Some did not even have mains electricity until recently and had to use generators. They managed to get it at a cost of £20,000 or £30,000 per household. So, facilities that many people take for granted are not universally available to rural people.

I am worried about the commitment of the communications industry, and BT in particular, to keeping up the infrastructure in rural areas. One problem is that copper wires, and in some cases aluminium wires, which are of even less use, are falling into disrepair. BT seems loth to renew them and bring them up to standard.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (State (Industry and the Regions)), Department of Trade and Industry

Like the hon. Gentleman, I was given the impression that aluminium is a complete blockage and that it must be stripped out if it is an obstruction, but it is not an inhibitor in itself, although it has different characteristics from copper. There is a degree of confusion, and people need to go into detail where there is a problem with aluminium; it is not the complete problem that we believed it to be a few years ago.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the Minister for that. I am no expert on the technical aspects of this issue, but although I lack technical knowledge, even I can understand that it is not a good idea for BT to take its wires down off poles and put them on the tops of hedges. When the farmers come along in the autumn and cut the hedges, they do not do the cables much good. Constituents of mine in certain parts of Wales have been out of order for up to two weeks. For them, broadband seems a luxury beyond all aspiration compared with just having a telephone.

Unless one has a decent line, one cannot get broadband. A number of my constituents who live quite close to upgraded exchanges have had the experience that was described earlier of ordering equipment and finding that they could not use it. Ministers in Wales have given a commitment to a roll-out right across Wales—I have the press release here—but even if every exchange were upgraded, that would not mean that broadband would become a universal facility for my constituents.

I shall conclude with a short account of a couple of my constituents' experiences. James Tenant in Ystradfellte is an able young man who wants to set up as a music producer, but he needs a large broadband capacity to do so. He has had grants from the local authority and the Assembly, but unless the new cable to Ystradfellte is optic fibre, he will have to move out of that community.

Mary Myaya works as a freelance world health consultant in Colva, which is the centre of Radnorshire—almost the centre of the universe, as far as I am concerned. She cannot get broadband and tells me that she gets better access to it when she is working in Mozambique, which is the sixth poorest country in the world, than she does in Wales.

To top things off, I tell hon. Members about Julian Salmon, who is the director of the Country Land and Business Association in Wales. He operates out of his farm in my constituency, and told me, of his attempts to access a service at home last Tuesday:

"After fifty-six minutes and losing the connection three times I abandoned the attempt."

He then came to London and was able to complete the process in three or four minutes. That is the difference: some people have to try to operate businesses and conduct their lives in rural areas without broadband, and others have that facility.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Conservative, North East Milton Keynes 3:20 pm, 15th March 2006

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman on securing this valuable debate. I apologise for missing part of his opening speech.

I was fascinated by the question asked by Mr. Williams, which was, "How do we define broadband?" It is a key question, to which I shall return shortly. I realise that when people think of Milton Keynes they think of a city, but I am sure that many hon. Members realise that it is both a city and a rural community. As Milton Keynes expanded sideways, it isolated a large rural tip of what was Buckinghamshire and is now part of the unitary authority of Milton Keynes.

In the short time available, I want to do three things. First, I want to explain the unique problems that Milton Keynes faces in accessing broadband. Secondly, I want to look at the options and why they seem to be failing to deliver the solution. Finally, I want to consider what is required to deliver broadband throughout Milton Keynes.

High-speed internet access and digital TV are two vital aspects of the information age and are directly linked. People who have access to such services will be better informed, better entertained and better employed. People who are left behind by the information age will be left behind, to an increasing extent, in modern life. Broadband is not just about game playing and video downloading; it is vital for the economic growth of Milton Keynes.

Some residents and businesses in Milton Keynes still cannot get broadband at all. Some can get only an entry-level speed of 512 kilobits per second. It is particularly important for Milton Keynes to have an adequate data communications facility, because of the impact that it has on jobs. Both those who work in offices and professionals who work from home in the city and the rural community depend on data speeds that do not seem quaint and primitive to the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

In Milton Keynes, we have a TV cable network that was the envy of the UK when it was built in the '60s and '70s. TV signals received on a big aerial were wired into every new home in the new city and in the rural community, together with some pioneering community TV channels. Although the original local channels were sadly short lived, I am delighted that the situation looks to be resolved when the much-wanted and much-needed MKTV is launched later this year.

The original technology was modern for its time, but not future-proofed. The original cabling is old and incapable of providing internet. BT's telephone lines, the most popular way of accessing the internet, are now either too long or too narrow to support the technology. That problem is made worse by their routing around the grid squares in the city.

A new digital TV distribution network, providing digital TV to every home that receives TV on a communal analogue cable, would also be able to carry high-speed broadband. A digital network does not care what the content is. One member of the household could be watching a documentary on BBC 9, while another could be surfing the web. Another could be buying a video from a streaming video provider to watch over the weekend, or making a video-conference webcast to another head office in another country. Those are all data that can educate, inform, entertain and help Milton Keynes's residents in both the city and the rural community.

When the area was first developed, in recognition of the fact that houses did not need aerials and that aerials are pretty unsightly if they are not necessary, areas of the then rural community were developed with covenants and restrictions so that most homes are not allowed to put an aerial on the roof. The special problem for Milton Keynes is that if home owners are not allowed to put up their own aerials and the TV cabling throughout the city cannot transmit digital TV, local people will have a problem if and when analogue TV stops being transmitted. If the Government are committed to the digital information age being made available to all citizens, not just those with the finances to buy their own solution, that problem could be used to everybody's advantage.

That is the problem that we face in Milton Keynes. It is appalling for a dynamic, prosperous, high-tech rural and city community. I want now to turn to some of the proposals and explain why, regrettably, there is concern that they may not provide the solution. To its credit, BT has done a good job of getting entry-level broadband to many parts of the unitary authority that two years ago could not get it, although some areas cannot get any broadband. However, most areas cannot get the speed that most people are clamouring for.

BT is focusing on its 21st century network—21CN—programme, which replaces the old telephone wire infrastructure with fibre-optic technology. Understandably, BT does not want to invest any more in the old telephone cabling, but 21CN is a long-term programme that will not be rolled out in Milton Keynes until at least 2010. That is where the link to digital TV returns.

If a digital community TV service were to be wired to every home in the city, it would resolve the problems that BT is struggling with, replacing the '60s technology with modern technology. That is much the same for the rural community, which will of course soon become city in Milton Keynes. We have the grid-road cabling ducts and, largely, the right technology in the exchanges. The link into each home seems to be solvable. However, what is missing, from BT's point of view, is any public money to rewire the main trunking networks across the unitary authority.

Perhaps the residents should look to other providers. One of the frustrations locally is the plethora of advertisements from other companies offering broadband to residents. Seeing a potential solution, residents ring, only to be disappointed. In that process, called local loop unbundling, a third party company takes over a phone line from BT. In practice, they use the same telephone wires that BT used, so we are still stuck with no or slow broadband.

Milton Keynes council has no direct responsibility to provide facilities for broadband, but it has been proactive in trying to find a wireless solution. I commend the council for that. However, the problem is that that technology, WiMAX, is still unproven. It is still being evaluated by the internet service providers. Although it is widely believed that wireless technology would be suited to the rural areas of Milton Keynes, it might not prove to be a Milton Keynes-wide solution and might not be appropriate for servicing large numbers of residents in higher-density areas.

Before I look to the future, I want to mention Ofcom's involvement. There have been efforts to interest Ofcom in Milton Keynes's problems. However, the telecommunications regulator's remit for internet access is unimpressive. It simply has to ensure that all UK residents can get dial-up access at a speed of 28.8 kilobits per second—20 times slower than the slowest broadband. It seems incredible in 2006 that BT is not obliged to provide anything faster.

I want to consider what might work in future. There is a strong belief that Milton Keynes's problems with broadband and digital TV can be resolved together. We need a credible, proven and sustainable alternative to BT in the form of a decent cable infrastructure. That would introduce real competition for the first time, spurring BT to raise its game. Such an infrastructure would require investment funding. The technology is nothing horrendous, merely an upgraded cable in an underground duct system that allows for technology changes. If it is replaceable, that will ensure that it is future-proof. If we make the ducts big enough, they can contain digital cable this year, optical fibre for the next 10 years and a future cable system beyond that.

I have campaigned long and hard for "I before E", or infrastructure before expansion, for Milton Keynes. Access to high-speed broadband is absolutely essential for a young, prosperous growing community that is the focus of the Government's sustainable communities project. I ask the Government to reconsider the specific issues faced by the community of Milton Keynes.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 3:28 pm, 15th March 2006

I congratulate Mr. Goodman on securing the debate and on clearly outlining the problems faced by many rural areas, as well as their possible solutions. I recognise many of the problems that hon. Members have raised. I represent a large rural constituency, and BT has enabled all the exchanges for broadband—some of the bigger exchanges with its own money, and some of the smaller exchanges with money from the Scottish Executive. However, despite the exchanges being enabled for broadband, many people in the constituency face problems similar to those raised by other hon. Members, mainly because they are too far from the telephone exchange.

Broadband opens up tremendous opportunities for those who are fortunate enough to be able to access it. The internet opens up opportunities for businesses, for education and for entertainment. However, many websites these days seem to have been designed on the assumption that most users have access to broadband at a fairly high data transfer rate. That means that users without broadband are often faced with a frustrating wait for websites to appear on their screen, or to download material from the internet. Many functions, such as accessing music or film clips, are simply impossible. The consequence is that many people in businesses who do not have broadband access are put at a tremendous disadvantage.

Surveys reveal two big divides. One is between rich and poor; the other is between urban and rural areas. All 10 local authorities with the highest broadband take-up rate are in or just outside Greater London, whereas the authorities with the lowest take-up rate are in rural areas. Take-up rates vary between 25 broadband lines per 100 of population in Wandsworth and fewer than five in Na h-Eileanan an Iar. The discrepancy between urban and rural areas can be seen throughout Britain. Studies show that pupils with internet access tend to perform better than those without, so the discrepancy clearly has worrying implications for the education of children in remote areas who cannot access broadband from their home.

The inability to access broadband from remote areas is also building up economic difficulties for rural areas. These days, access to broadband is vital to running a business from a rural area. A few years ago, there was a vision and a hope that, with the internet, it would be just as easy to run a business from a remote rural area as it was from a city centre. Sadly, we have found that that applies only to businesses that are close enough to a telephone exchange to be able to access broadband.

The European Union and the Government are telling farmers that they must diversify. However, farms are, by their very nature, usually many miles from the nearest telephone exchange, so broadband access via a telephone line is simply not possible.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (State (Industry and the Regions)), Department of Trade and Industry

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there are farming businesses that have been very enterprising and which are now running businesses in rural areas that probably could have been run only in the centre of London as recently as three or four years ago?

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

The Minister is right that many farmers have been enterprising and have diversified, but I am sure that he would agree that there is a problem if farmers are too far from a telephone exchange to be able to access broadband. Satellite is one option, but it tends to be more expensive to run than working via a terrestrial line. Also, as we have heard, some functions are simply not possible via satellite.

The Government, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly have, to their credit, invested large amounts of money, and I pay tribute to them for that. The money has mostly been given to BT and has meant that the vast majority of people in the country and the vast majority of businesses are able to access broadband. However, some businesses and people have missed out. As was pointed out, the success for the vast majority of people in the country does mean problems for the small number of people in remote areas who cannot access broadband.

According to the official statistics, 99.6 to 99.7 per cent. of households could access broadband using some form of terrestrial technology available on the mass market. However, that leaves some 200,000 people behind and, as we have heard—I think that Mr. Crabb was the first to raise this—the anecdotal evidence is that far more people than that cannot access broadband. Hon. Members have raised another important question: what exactly is the official definition of broadband? As I said, the anecdotal evidence is that more than 200,000 people have problems when trying to access broadband.

I did some research. In November 2003, a representative of the regulator, which at that time was Oftel, appeared before the Trade and Industry Committee. At that time, Oftel defined broadband as

"an always-on service with a minimum downstream capacity in excess of 128 kbit/s".

Committee members expressed concern, as I am sure hon. Members will today, that 128 kilobits per second was far too low a transfer rate for a sensible definition of broadband. Research on the Ofcom website did not turn up a revision of the 128 definition. I shall therefore ask the Minister a question that other hon. Members have asked. Can he advise us what definition his Department uses to define broadband when it publishes its statistics showing that 99.7 per cent. of households can access broadband?

People who cannot access broadband because they live too far away from a telephone exchange, whether there are 200,000 such people or more, should not be excluded from the modern digital age. Clearly, the market alone will not provide them with access. Without Government, Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly intervention, there would not be as many enabled telephone exchanges as there are today. I think that, in Scotland, only one telephone exchange has still to be enabled. Despite that, at least 200,000 people do not have access. As I said, the market alone will not provide, so Government intervention is required.

Previous generations brought roads, public transport, electricity and telephones to remote rural areas. Broadband, because of the education and employment opportunities that it brings, is not a luxury but an essential tool for the 21st century. I therefore look forward to the Minister's reply. I hope that he will say that the Government will sit down with the telecoms industry—obviously, that is mainly BT, but there are other telecoms providers—and the regulator to try to come up with a solution that will make broadband available to all in Britain, no matter where they live.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) 3:36 pm, 15th March 2006

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman on securing the debate and on the extremely thoughtful and thorough way in which he introduced it. We would all agree that it has been wide ranging. We have dealt with issues facing some of the most rural parts of these islands and have discussed how similar issues affect even the outskirts of some of our major new cities, such as Milton Keynes. We have even touched on broadband access in Mozambique, so we have covered global matters in a rural affairs debate.

More importantly, the debate has been well informed. I hope that the Minister will accept that my hon. Friends' comments do not in any way seek to undermine the villages or rural communities in their constituencies. Rather, those comments arise from a passion to ensure that those communities are well represented. I believe that my hon. Friends won their seats—gained them, in many cases—because they had shown themselves to be doughty champions of those rural communities, standing up for and promoting them when they were doing good things, but not shying away from issues when they saw things that needed to be improved.

The 2006 UK broadband report, covering April to September 2005, stated that broadband is available to 99.7 per cent. of the UK, covering both residential and business users. That percentage means that one and a half constituencies in this country are not covered at all, which puts the issue in context. Listening to my hon. Friend Mr. Crabb, I wondered whether his was the one. Overall, however, we recognise how much has been done, although a quite significant element remains to be covered.

The increase in coverage is largely a result of BT's commitment to increasing coverage to 99.6 per cent. of households by the summer of 2005. We all pay tribute to BT for achieving as much as it has. The comments in the debate should be seen in that context: we all recognise how much has been achieved, but attention needs to be given to what remains to be done.

Partnerships involving local government, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly dealing with British Telecom to enable all exchanges have resulted in improved coverage in sparsely populated areas, and that has been achieved quicker than might have been expected. BT reports that that leaves just 80,000 telephone lines in remote areas without broadband access.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, broadband services are provided by one of three means: satellite or wireless; cable operators using the cable television network; and BT over its telephone lines. As he also said, however, there are concerns about whether satellite-based broadband services will be able to support new uses of the internet, specifically teleconferencing, telephony and video games. Perhaps the Minister can confirm the situation in that regard and the long-term picture.

As my hon. Friend also said, cable operators in such a profit-conscious sector of the industry are unlikely to expand their coverage to 100 per cent. of rural areas owing to the lack of return available to them. It is therefore left to BT to complete the 100 per cent. coverage of UK communities, as it has committed to doing. We should recognise that the British record in rolling out broadband is certainly a good one, as the Minister reminded us. It compares extremely well with other nations, and Britain has one of the most developed broadband services anywhere in the world, probably including Mozambique, although it may lag behind some in terms of cost and speed. We have also heard that the very success of the British record puts those without broadband access at a distinct disadvantage. During the quarter ending in September 2005, broadband connections totalled 8.9 million, which marked a 12 per cent. increase in new subscriptions over the previous quarter and a 25 per cent. increase since the end of March 2005.

We all recognise that information communication technology has a vital part to play as part of the Lisbon strategy in making Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. However, for that to happen, we must ensure that rural communities are not left out.

British Telecom states that in my county of East Sussex 99.8 per cent. of households now have access to broadband. Through a public-private partnership, East Sussex county council has promoted the advantages of broadband and achieved 28.1 per cent. take-up in September. It is forecast to achieve 30 per cent. by December, which is ahead of the 28 per cent target for the end of this year. I hope that the Minister will accept that it is no wonder that that Conservative-controlled county council has received national awards for its highly successful programme, especially when the broadband take-up just 18 months ago was a mere 5 per cent. Just as we have been willing to accept what the Government have done, I hope that he will be willing to recognise what a Conservative county council has achieved. However, highly commendable as the figures are, they show that a small minority in my constituency, as in those of other hon. Members, continues to be left out.

Serious concerns have rightly been raised about rural communities that do not have access to good internet services. It is harder for rural communities that lack good internet access to attract and retain jobs. The report following the symposium on remote and rural communications was published in June 2005. The symposium found that because of their location remote and rural areas had a high demand for communications services. It also found that there was a strong perception of the digital divide between urban and rural areas. It questioned how quick the trickle-down effect of the benefits of service innovation would be to rural areas. There was concern that more remote communities would always be in catch-up mode with their urban counterparts.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs looked at broadband in rural areas, and its 2005 report, "ICT in England's Rural Economies" concluded that the

"lack of availability had been the key barrier to adoption for broadband in rural areas".

Among businesses with internet access, 60 per cent. use broadband in urban areas, whereas only 41 per cent. do so in rural areas. There is a significant disparity in usage. The report found that rural businesses are playing catch-up now that broadband is more widely available and that the perception of broadband availability appears to be lagging behind the reality in rural areas.

However, it is clear that broadband connectivity speeds are lower in rural areas, with businesses being more likely to use basic broadband services. Of urban business broadband users, 63 per cent. have connectivity rates faster than 512 kilobits per second, whereas that is the case for only 37 per cent. of rural businesses. When the Minister replies, I should be grateful if he would relate that to compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which clearly requires people to be given greater access to all services. Last weekend, I viewed the work being done by a company in my constituency. Internet Architects have been doing fantastic work for the National Trust, enabling it to comply with the legislation by providing virtual tours of some of its properties. However, if people do not have access to broadband, they cannot download virtual tours. Perhaps the Minister will explain what has happened about compliance under the disability discrimination laws.

There is clearly a different picture in different parts of the country. Northern Ireland was the first region in Europe to have 100 per cent. broadband coverage. The Northern Ireland experience resulted in tangible results on the economy and on jobs, including teleworking, and there were particular benefits for female and part-time workers and for carers.

Scotland has achieved similar success. As we have heard, the Scottish Executive undertook an open procurement exercise, which aimed to deliver affordable broadband access to every Scottish community by the end of 2005. Only one small area is outstanding. The strategy saw the Scottish population's access to affordable broadband rise from 43 per cent. at the launch to more than 93 per cent. in February 2005. We should recognise that that covers some of the most remote parts of the United Kingdom.

If Scotland and Northern Ireland have achieved 100 per cent. coverage, the coverage in England must be lower than the 99.7 per cent. achieved throughout the country as a whole. We heard about progress in Wales from Mr. Williams and from my hon. Friend Mr. Jones. We heard about the progress, but my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire stated clearly that significant improvements are needed.

I have sympathy with the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire and for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) that it is not good enough to apply for broadband with all the headache and heartache that goes with that only to be told later that it will not be possible. People want certainty and to know that when they start on the process, they will be told what the situation really is. We should all try to ensure that people have greater certainty of what is available to them.

Currently, 69 per cent. of UK firms use broadband and 30 per cent. of micro-businesses trade online. Approximately 73 per cent. of businesses provide information about products and services online. That will increase significantly when the Company Law Reform Bill comes into effect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, who opened the debate, identified the key issues. What analysis has the Minister made of where those rural communities without broadband access are concentrated, and what is his Department doing to assist broadband provision in rural areas? What role does he see for the key players—regional development authorities, Openreach, Ofcom and the Department of Trade and Industry—in addressing the issues, and what can he do to bring them together to move that forward?

The Minister will be well aware that our rural communities are going through a period of transition. Old businesses, such as pubs, shops and garages, are closing, but exciting and dynamic new businesses are opening up, including voluntary organisations. That successful transition depends on having access to the most advanced technology available. If those businesses are to compete and operate effectively, they need broadband access quickly. I hope that the Minister will explain how that can happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow quoted from a letter from the Minister on 24 January which said:

"Stimulating broadband availability across the whole of the UK is a Government priority. We want to see all communities, irrespective of location, having access to an affordable broadband service from a competitive market."

I hope that the Minister can tell us now how he plans to achieve that goal.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (State (Industry and the Regions)), Department of Trade and Industry 3:48 pm, 15th March 2006

It is a particular pleasure to sit under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Jones, but it must be frustrating for you, given your interest in science and technology and the fact that you have passionately and successfully represented a rural area for as long as I have been in Parliament. I am almost as frustrated because while I want to congratulate Mr. Goodman on raising a subject about which I am a great enthusiast, it is frustrating to find that I would need special, high-speed broadband and a new form of multi-streaming that would probably defeat even the excellence of our Hansard writers to fit in all that I want to say in response to the many points that have been raised on a highly technical issue. I undertake to write to all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate setting out my response in more detail, which may help them in responding to local issues raised by their constituents.

I am glad that Charles Hendry acknowledged our success in delivering rural broadband. It is a new experience for me to be criticised by Conservative Members for being too successful with something, but with the new spirit of honest debate perhaps it will happen more often.

My plea about not talking down rural areas was very much in the same spirit as the response of the hon. Member for Wealden. I did not think that any hon. Members intended to do that, but it is a danger if we focus on difficulties that relate to a very small percentage of those who might want to take up broadband, and give the impression that rural areas are somehow a no-go area. During my four years as Minister for Rural Affairs, I saw an enormous burgeoning of activities carried out in rural areas by small, successful and dynamic businesses taking the initiative and taking the opportunities offered by broadband access. I want us to focus on the difficult areas that hon. Members have mentioned and on talking up the economic capacity provided and the opportunities for rural areas.

In other words, we should be ambitious for the success of rural businesses. The hon. Member for Wealden was right when he talked about take-up lagging behind, probably for reasons of perception. There has been a catching-up—the figures show that there has been an acceleration in the take-up of broadband in rural areas—but initially the fact that people did not believe it would be provided was an obstacle. Of course, the succession of events must be to allow access by enabling people to take up broadband, to get them to take it up, get them to use it and get them use the whole range of capacity available to them. Many people are using only a small percentage of the capacity of broadband or their computers, and we must expand that usage.

In passing, I have to say I was rather surprised to hear some Opposition Members seeming to call for public handouts to solve some of the problems that are actually being solved by the market and a strong partnership between business and the Government. Indeed, during the past four or five years we have seen an excellent story, which has shown the capacity of business, local communities, small businesses and social enterprises to solve problems that at one stage seemed insurmountable in order to transform totally access to broadband in this country.

As several hon. Members acknowledged, we have a great deal to be proud of in the United Kingdom. The Government set an ambitious target of having the most extensive broadband coverage in the G7 by the end of 2005 and met that target by June 2005, with 99 per cent. of households having access to at least one broadband technology solution, and with more than 50 per cent. having access to more than one. If there is time, I shall return to those figures. In addition, the UK is ranked first on regulatory environment and has one of the most competitive broadband markets in the G7.

I come to the debate with some knowledge of the history because four years ago, when I was Minister for Rural Affairs, most people regarded the likelihood of delivering widespread broadband as an unattainable dream. I am pleased to have the chance to pay tribute to those at Department of Trade and Industry who responded vigorously to the challenge. One of my predecessors, who is now the Minister for Pensions Reform, established a joint DTI and Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs rural broadband unit, running a £30 million broadband fund for the regions, and the DTI team, led by Stephen Speed, devoted significant time to persuading operators to roll out broadband to rural areas.

I was pleased when Mr. Dunne said the enabling of exchanges is no longer an issue. It certainly was an issue at that point, and I remember well some local campaigns aimed at getting enough people to sign up for broadband to get the numbers past the threshold for particular exchanges. I acknowledged the success of "Switch on Shropshire", which built on the example of my then Parliamentary Private Secretary, Peter Bradley, who joined forces with what was then the Country Landowners Association. A combination of a Labour MP and the CLA may not be what people might expect, but it was a successful partnership in getting people to want to sign up, which challenged BT to deliver as a result.

BT also responded to the challenge of providing broadband infrastructure. When I first went to DEFRA, the figures for some exchanges were not being provided, which meant that we did not know what the target was in a particular rural town or village. Fairly early after his arrival, I met Pierre Danone, the head of BT Wholesale, and it became clear very quickly that Ben Verwaayen, in taking over BT, had changed the culture to one that asked, "How do we solve the problems and provide the service?" instead of, "How do we explain to you why we cannot do what you want to do?" That change has led to some of the comments made, quite rightly, by hon. Members about the changed performance of BT in this area.

Comparisons have been made with other services, such as the electricity supply. I have to say that the last remote farmhouse in England received an electricity supply only recently. I remember the excitement 40 years ago with which Taid Mon, my grandfather in Anglesey, received an electricity supply for the first time because, at last, the electricity supply had got close enough to his small cottage for the connection to be affordable and economic.

Recent market research shows that there are more than 10 million broadband connections in the UK, which represents a 41 per cent. growth since March 2005, providing the UK with more connections than any other European country.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (State (Industry and the Regions)), Department of Trade and Industry

I have said that I will respond to any point, and to supplementary points from individuals, but I want to cover as many of the questions as I can.

A question was asked about the breakdown of the 99 per cent. figure. I understand that the BT claim refers to UK households connected to enabled exchanges. A question was raised about public money going to BT. Where that has happened, it has happened as a result of competitive tendering to upgrade facilities that BT considered not to be economically viable. It is also important to acknowledge that many factors, such as home wiring, can affect performance of digital subscriber lines, which provide DSL broadband access.

In relation to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Wycombe in his introduction, the problem is that there is no detailed analysis of the 0.2 per cent. figure to which we both referred, except in the region-by-region analysis of what is thought to be the nature of the problem. The matter only comes to light when a request for a DSL is attempted, and it is discovered that the line is one of the few that has a problem.

On the commitment of the DTI, we are leading the broadband debate. We are pursuing solutions with operators and we greatly welcome the sort of interest expressed by hon. Members today. Once we get past the national and regional issues, the matter often amounts drilling down to discover where the specific problems are—they may be in an individual line or a very small locality—and finding solutions to them.

Regional development agencies and devolved Administrations have supported a variety of projects such as Fibrespeed in Wales, Cybermoor, Digital Region and "Act Now" in Cornwall, to which I referred earlier. "Act Now" was a particular success story that received objective 1 funding and experienced another of the consequences of success, when villages just outside the defined area for the pilot project got very aerated about the fact that they were not involved and campaigned to be included. In the end, a much bigger area was enabled without additional expenditure and there was a considerable extension of take-up, which is one of the reasons why BT realised there was a bigger market than had been anticipated in some of the low-population rural areas.

RDA, devolved Administration and local government intervention requires careful consideration of the impact in relation to market failure. We should not invest money if the market is able to supply the service, but on the other hand, it is appropriate to invest where there are clear market failures. Indeed, organisations such as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have identified such places as appropriate ones in which to intervene.

Mr. Reid asked about the figures given by the Countryside Alliance. I am afraid that it is beyond my remit to answer for the Countryside Alliance, an organisation which, as we know from its public opinion surveys, is arithmetically challenged in the extreme. As far as I am aware, there are no figures that provide the answer to the question, so I have no clue where the Countryside—

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones Labour, Clwyd South

Order. We must now move on to the next subject for debate.