Superfast Broadband — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 24th June 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions) 3:30 pm, 24th June 2015

I was going to come on to that, because there is clearly an issue, particularly in rural areas, with the distances from cabinets, which result in the degradation of broadband speeds. We talk about the delivery of superfast broadband, but the reality is that it is not superfast, so nodes, satellites and other such things must be considered in rural areas if we are determined to get it right.

Time is marching on, so I will omit many of the remarks that I was going to make. John Swinney, a colleague of mine in the Scottish Parliament, wrote to the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy in March 2015 calling for the introduction of a universal service obligation for broadband that would ensure that everyone in Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK, can access affordable high-speed broadband. The UK currently has a telecoms universal service obligation, which entitles every property in the UK to a telephone line, but it contains no meaningful provision for broadband, which it should. A broadband universal service obligation, working alongside significant Scottish Government investment, would help to address the digital divide and ensure that everyone in Scotland can access broadband services, regardless of where they live.

All, regardless of location, deserve to benefit from the opportunities of connectivity. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group stated that internet-related activity in the UK accounted for 8.3% of GDP in 2010, and it forecasts that that will increase to 12.4% by 2016. Data traffic is exploding worldwide, growing at a compound rate of 23%. To be able to compete, it is clear that our connectivity infrastructure has to be fit for purpose. Many UK cities such as Peterborough, York and Coventry, and Aberdeen and Edinburgh in Scotland, are seeing the development of fibre rings that will deliver speeds of up to 1 gigabit. The leader of Peterborough City Council stated that the development is the most important event in Peterborough since the arrival of the railway. I tend to agree, and I welcome the opportunity of superfast broadband from which businesses and consumers will benefit in those cities, but it raises the challenge of ensuring that we deliver appropriate connectivity in rural areas.

My SNP colleagues from rural constituencies and I are looking forward to working with hon. Members from other parties who face the same challenges as we do. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on rural broadband and digital-only services, which was published in January 2015, graphically pointed to the challenges and opportunities to be met. The last sentence of the summary states:

“It is vital that the last premises in the UK to have access to basic and superfast broadband are treated just as well as the first premises and are not left behind or forgotten.”

There are particular challenges with the incumbent technology of fibre to the cabinet, in which the ultimate connection is by copper wire, and consequently we have the degradation of broadband speeds. As the report states:

“The fact that Fibre to the Cabinet is not a suitable solution in every circumstance or every community means that alternative solutions, such as wider satellite coverage or Fibre to the Remote

Node, are necessary. Alternative solutions are required not only to ensure that the current commitments of basic and superfast broadband are met but also to ensure that the infrastructure being deployed is future proof and able to meet demands for increasing broadband speeds.”

It is in that context that the plans for next-generation capabilities, particularly 5G, are critical. We need to debate how effective mobile coverage in rural areas, and technologies such as 5G, could allow us to deliver efficient and effective broadband capabilities. The opportunities that the connected cities will have mean that the Government have to consider how we create competitive opportunities in rural areas. My party and I welcome many of the improvements.