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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered broadband in Wales.
It is good to see the Minister here fresh from Colchester. He has had a busy day; he was in this Chamber first thing this morning. It is also good to see the shadow Minister, Chi Onwurah, in her place. We were looking forward to a contribution from Paul Flynn in his elevated role as shadow Secretary of State, but it is genuinely good to see the hon. Lady here in his stead.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter in the House. Today is a very important day in this House, not least given the events in the main Chamber. It is also a very important day for Wales, with the football this evening. We have the best of Wales—and, I am sure, of Scotland—in this Chamber to debate this important issue.
As many hon. Members know, the issue of broadband and internet connectivity is a recurring problem. Not a week goes by without concerned constituents contacting us. It is not unique to my constituency. Despite genuine improvements—some would say vast improvements—and the Government’s genuine attempts to meet their targets, there is a feeling that we are falling behind in many rural communities and in Wales more widely.
I welcome the Government’s intention to introduce a broadband universal service obligation and their ambition to give people the legal right to a 10 megabits per second connection, no matter where they live, by the end of this Parliament. The Prime Minister said:
“Access to the Internet shouldn’t be a luxury;
it should be a right—absolutely fundamental to life in 21st century Britain.”
I could not agree more, and I am glad that that was put into the tentative stages of legislation with the introduction of the Digital Economy Bill yesterday. I look forward to that principle being put into law, but targets have come and gone before, and the proof of the pudding will be in the proverbial eating.
I also welcome the Government’s recent target to connect 97% of premises by the end of 2019. The many communities that are currently underserved with bad or non-existent broadband connections are enthusiastically waiting to hear whether that target will be met, and whether they will benefit or will be among the 3% left out. My constituents are certainly hoping for good news. I will hear of the challenge in the contents of my inbox—or, more precisely, given the subject matter, in the representations I get from constituents who use more old-fashioned means of communicating their disquiet.
There is a feeling—I think this will be endorsed by other hon. Members—that the peripheral parts of the United Kingdom are often left out and forgotten. The principles of entitlement do not always seem to extend to all parts of the United Kingdom. That is the basis of many of our concerns. None the less, it is welcome that successive Governments have talked about the importance of connectivity and have recognised that it cannot simply be left to the market to decide where we have access. Although in urban areas it is possible to rely on commercial businesses to fill the demand for high-speed broadband, the internet has become a necessity for everyone, including individuals trying to fill out Government forms online and business people such as farmers trying to do their taxes and apply for funding, some of which is an existential need. I have previously cited the example of the farmer in southern Ceredigion who had no broadband at all. He was forced to send a paper tax return to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and got fined for doing so. We managed to get the fine back for him, but he was told that next year he should pop down to the local library to submit his return online. There are not many libraries left in rural Ceredigion, and those that there are do not have sufficiently safe, secure or reliable broadband connections. That is the reality for many of our constituents.
We need only look at the comments made by figures in the technology industry and note our own experiences as constituency MPs to see how hugely the internet has changed our lives and how far we have to go to ensure that everyone has adequate access. The chief executive of Cisco, Phil Smith, said of Wales:
“I’m very surprised that broadband hasn’t got to the level of penetration it should. To be honest, it’s like saying you don’t have a road now, or you don’t have water. Companies, countries and individuals can’t survive without broadband;
it’s not some optional nice thing to have;
this is the way business is done.”
In Wales, where our physical infrastructure is challenging, broadband is even more necessary. Its importance cannot be overstated. That view is shared by organisations as diverse as the Countryside Alliance, the Federation of Small Businesses, Ofcom, the National Union of Farmers and the Farmers’ Union of Wales.
There have been improvements and substantial investment to improve the number of individuals and businesses able to access fast broadband speeds. Millions have been spent on improving the low figure of 55% superfast broadband coverage in Wales in 2014. Although we have failed to meet the aim of 96% coverage, I welcome the increase to 87%. The availability of superfast in rural areas of Wales increased to 50% last year thanks to the Superfast Cymru programme; yet, as a Member with a rural seat, I cannot help but be concerned that rural areas are still losing out most. Improvements are a good thing, but many of the 11% of premises in Wales that cannot receive the proposed USO broadband speed of 10 megabits per second are in my area. How can we improve the situation to ensure that those areas are not left behind? Surely areas that not only have some of the lowest speeds but contain some of the highest percentages of those without a connection altogether need to be prioritised.
The FUW noted recently, after its Meirionnydd branch visited a farm in Machynlleth—for those who are not geographers, Machynlleth is a town settled between the three historic counties of Montgomeryshire, Ceredigion and Meirionnydd—that the highest proportion of those with no broadband access are farm businesses. For farmers who have attempted to diversify their businesses by letting self-catering cottages and converting buildings into offices for use by others, connectivity is critical, yet many are at a significant disadvantage. Those who have children at home—increasingly, more online homework is required—are struggling. As I said earlier, almost all of them have to keep up with changing agricultural rules and apply for services online. It can be costly, if not impossible. More and more services are going online, so digital inclusion is vital.
According to Ofcom, in June 2015, more than 67% of my constituents had slow internet connections of less than 10 megabits per second, and almost 20% had connections of less than 2 megabits per second. That situation was replicated in other rural constituencies throughout Wales. Carmarthen East and Dinefwr—it is good to see Jonathan Edwards here—Montgomeryshire, and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire join Ceredigion in the top 10 constituencies with the slowest broadband connections anywhere in the United Kingdom.
The issue of inadequate broadband connections affects not simply an isolated house here or there—the stereotypical cottage in a valley with roses around the front door. Whole communities lack adequate, or even usable, internet connections. For years, these issues have been plaguing Llangrannog in my constituency, which is a significant tourist community; the sizeable community of Llanfair Clydogau near Lampeter; and Synod Inn, down our main road between Aberystwyth and Cardigan—the most significant road in our constituency. There has been little progress. In Llanfair Clydogau, I am specifically dealing with broadband casework on behalf of not just individuals who write with concerns, but an entire community.
At this point, I want to place on record my appreciation for BT’s parliamentary unit, who I think were in the Members’ Dining Room earlier today. I was not there, but Clova Fyfe and her team in particular have been assiduous in responding to the individual concerns of Members of Parliament, and I genuinely thank the unit for that.
There we are. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will shed some light on some of those unanswered questions a little later. I thank him for that intervention.
Communication with individual constituents is sometimes less satisfactory. Too many of my constituents have had template responses from BT and Openreach saying that they have absolutely no plans for the foreseeable future to improve the state of the broadband connection. That seems to be the case for large parts of the county. Even in some of our larger communities, such as Lampeter, which is an important university town, connections are at best poor. For many of the small businesses that I have visited there, the No. 1 request is for something to be done to improve broadband speeds and provision. Options for businesses, although an improvement over those for some of my rural communities, are sometimes limited.
For struggling small businesses, the quality of the broadband connection can often be the difference between keeping afloat and going under. That seems like a dramatic statement, but our reliance on broadband and communication, and—this is where that rural point comes in again—the fragility of the rural economy and some of our rural businesses mean that it is very important that they get their marketing right and, for some, their internet booking systems right. I have in mind specifically some of our tourism businesses. For many growing businesses, the inability to invest in a fast and more reliable connection that is not extortionately priced can be a stumbling block. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the opportunities for our economy of getting broadband right are immeasurable. For the rural economy, that would mean a great deal more potential being realised.
I hesitate to cut the hon. Gentleman off mid-flow: he is making a passionate and informative speech, as usual. He is totally right to note that broadband provision is an opportunity for economic salvation for rural areas, where our greatest assets are the beautiful landscapes and the social and leisure facilities that are available to people. In a world where leisure time is being compressed, adequate broadband infrastructure creates a huge economic opportunity. People who love horse riding, mountain climbing, mountain biking, rambling, surfing, coasteering and other such great activities are far better off living in areas like the constituencies that we represent than in the centre of London.
I must say that I have not been on a horse for some time, I do not think I have ever been on a surfboard and I have a mountain bike that has remained in my porch for some time, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. He is right: there is huge potential in the area of outdoor pursuits and tourism. We have to face the reality that connectivity, whether we get it through broadband or our mobile phones, is now an integral part of all that. We cannot separate the two.
It has also been brought to my attention that many commercial internet providers and individuals have concerns about the role that Openreach has played in providing the infrastructure and in some of the specifics of the national broadband scheme, such as how funding is spent. Some of us here have been concerned for some years about the conflict of interest in a commercial provider such as BT holding a near monopoly of the country’s physical broadband infrastructure. I certainly welcome Ofcom’s proposals, which it set out in its initial conclusions from its strategic review of digital communications, to open BT’s ducts and telegraph poles to its rivals and for Openreach to be reformed to ensure a better service for customers and businesses. That should help to improve competition and the development of new technologies—something that those of us in rural areas, and indeed urban areas, would very much welcome. That is positive news, but issues still need to be addressed and many are concerned that BT has a limited incentive to invest in a fibre network and ensure improved speeds for people in Wales, due to the huge revenue that it continues to make from the legacy copper Openreach network.
However, although there is little hope that broadband connections will be provided by commercial deployment in my constituency—the Minister made the point at a briefing that I attended two or three months ago that absolutely no premises in Ceredigion could be viewed as economic and covered in that way—there is rightly concern that some areas are being needlessly subsidised at the expense of those that really need subsidy. It will come as no surprise that my assertion is that my constituency, other parts of Wales and other rural areas are the communities that need that.
According to Virgin Media, the 90% rule that underpins the national broadband scheme defines an area as eligible for state funding where 90% or fewer households currently have access to superfast broadband. Virgin Media believes that that threshold is set too high. As an MP for a rural area in which that threshold is nowhere near reached, I think that that is probably correct. I believe strongly that where there is a genuine market failure, the Government need to intervene to help to ensure that everyone has access to something that I would argue is a necessity. What research have the Government done to ensure that areas where up to 90% of households receive superfast broadband are indeed unable to achieve the final 10% or more via commercial deployment rather than Government subsidy? I ask that because I recognise, as I think we all do, that the pot for ensuring adequate broadband for all is not unlimited and it is vital that it is used as effectively as possible. If there are areas with high levels of superfast broadband that can fill the gap through commercial deployment, so that the subsidy can instead be used for rural areas where provision cannot come in any other way, it is important that that happens.
I welcome the fact that much of the money from the UK Government is given to Cardiff Bay to spend as they feel necessary. I welcome a number of their schemes, which are focused on helping some of the hardest to reach areas. Access Broadband Cymru provides grants of between £400 and £800 to fund the installation of new fibre broadband connections for those who would not be covered by commercial roll-out or who have connections of less than 2 megabits per second and also funds satellite technology as an alternative in some areas. Although I am by no means uncritical of the Welsh Government for missing targets and failing to ensure that rural areas are prioritised, I would also say, as an MP representing a Welsh constituency, that the existence of this Assembly scheme has not always been very clear. If that is not clear to me as a Member of Parliament, it is certainly not clear to many of my constituents. The first time that I heard of that scheme was at the Minister’s briefing in Portcullis House a few months ago. That speaks volumes about communication. He talked at that meeting about the millions of pounds that have been made available to the Assembly Government. It was alarming that many of us had not heard of that scheme.
That matter was brought up with BT today. The fact that there are so many schemes available really is one of Wales’s best-kept secrets. Perhaps the British Government could play a part in pushing the Welsh Government and working closely with them to ensure that where there are gaps, the public and our constituents know that those schemes are available. They are there to help people and they can improve broadband accessibility if people are told about them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. That is very true: hot off his meeting with BT, he brings useful information to the Chamber. I suggest that the point about collaboration between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Assembly Government in Wales is important—all the more so as we proceed with the Digital Economy Bill. I have not yet looked in great detail at the Bill, which was introduced yesterday, but I wanted to ask the Minister about the relationship in meeting targets between setting them in London and delivery on the ground in Cardiff, which is really important.
I will conclude now. Thank you, Mr McCabe, for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I will not lambast DCMS for inaction because that is simply not the case. Significant progress has been made and the Government’s intention—[Interruption.] I detect that Albert Owen may usefully put on his boxing gloves in a moment or two. Where I will voice my deep concern, as befits the Member of Parliament for Ceredigion, is about the fact that many of my constituents are not realising the entitlements they are promised.
The National Farmers Union has spoken clearly—it also produced an excellent report, “NFU Spotlight on Farm Broadband & Mobile Networks”, which I commend—and campaigned energetically for the rights not just of its farmers but of the broader community. Those considerations need to be taken on board. Many constituents in rural areas across the country are feeling let down and they expect a response from the Assembly Government and from the UK Government as well.
The Minister may be able to help us with this final, slightly more topical, point: the funding we have received from the European Union. Following the referendum decision to leave the European Union, I hope the Minister can tell us what impact it will have on Government schemes to provide broadband to rural parts of Wales. Since £90 million of the funding for the Superfast Cymru contract came from the European regional development fund, there is concern that areas such as mine in Wales will suffer unless funding is found from elsewhere. Has he considered that? Has he looked into that? Will he confirm that Wales will not lose out? Because the need is very much there.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate Mr Williams on securing the debate, and I once again welcome again the Minister, who has become an expert on rural Wales over the years from the broadband debates he has attended. I am sure that as all Members are doing, he will please the House by wishing the Welsh football team all the very best today. They are not just carrying the red dragon for Wales but carrying the flag for the whole of the British Isles.
I will not give the Minister a hard time, because he has moved towards many things that, when we used to argue about them, he said could never happen. I will not give a spin on that this time; instead, I will start by giving the Welsh dimension, which is what we are talking about. We had a timely meeting with BT today at which we were updated on many of its schemes. I will come on to how that links into the universal service obligation, because it is important that the gaps are plugged properly and that there is a co-ordinated plan. Although the Bill was published only yesterday, I will ask the Minister some questions about how the roll-out will be carried out.
In my north-west Wales constituency, 73% of properties have been connected through a scheme that, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, was funded by the Welsh Government, the United Kingdom Government and the European Union. As someone who believed, and still believes, in that partnership and has argued that the interests of Wales will be best served as part of both the United Kingdom and the European Union—[Interruption.] I see the Scottish National party representative nodding his head.
I think I had a false sense of security there. But seriously, that money was targeted and redistributed by the European Union to the areas of greatest need, and we in Wales, particularly rural Wales, were some of the main beneficiaries of that money. It was identified at Brussels level that that funding was needed in certain areas that met the criteria set out, and it helped the scheme to be rolled out as effectively in Wales as anywhere in the United Kingdom. That is down to the partnership between, and moneys from, different levels of government.
Some 73% of properties in Wales have been covered by the roll-out of a 30 megabits per second superfast broadband initiative, and 76% of Anglesey has been covered by the scheme. The average speeds are in excess of those in some other parts of Wales, so there is a good news story there. However, as with all good news stories, there are people who are not benefiting. The date for 95% roll-out has slipped from July 2016 to 2017. To be fair, there have been negotiations under the contract between the Government and BT Openreach, leading to the Access Broadband Cymru scheme providing grants of up to £800, which have helped individuals get fibre to their hard-to-reach homes directly. That is good news, but we need to see that happening more quickly.
As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, many of the areas in the last 5% are rural areas that rely on tourism. They are beautiful areas, and people want to locate there. I will give an example—I am sure the Minister will be interested in this. I travelled on a train a couple of years ago, and a businessman who lived in Rhoscolyn on Anglesey told me that he worked in three places: in Canary Wharf, here in London; in Hawaii; and in Rhoscolyn. If he had a choice and the broadband speed was there, he would stay in Rhoscolyn to do his work. Unfortunately, he has to go to Hawaii and suffer out there or come here to London to work. There is a serious point there: in many cases people want to locate their business in the area in which they live, which helps the local economy. We need to have a level playing field when it comes to digital technology.
It is interesting to hear that the hon. Gentleman is a great fan of the link between the Welsh Government, the British Government and the European Union, because the two of us were at the meeting earlier with BT at which it clearly stated that rural Wales is behind in dishing out and receiving broadband. It was told by Europe that there needed to be a lot of chimney pots to allow it to tick the boxes and “draw the money down” from Europe—that was its phrase. It is because of our connection with Europe that rural Wales is behind. I hope the Minister will now ensure that we go forward quickly and catch up from the mistakes made in the last few years.
The hon. Gentleman and I were on different sides of the debate—I was a strong remainer and he was not—and I think he has misunderstood what BT said. It said that the Welsh Government wanted greater coverage in the contract, and that was the reason for the slow-up. Coverage was needed, so BT needed to get to as many properties as possible in urban areas. That was why the rural areas were left behind. Even with his anti-European ways, he is stretching it a little bit to blame the EU on this occasion. I am quite happy to lay blame, and on this occasion it lay with the contract between BT and the Welsh Government.
BT would have liked to roll the scheme out across the whole country. It advertised it by telling many people in rural areas of Wales that broadband would be rolled out to them by 2015 and 2016, but for a commercial reason that has not happened. They have been left at the back of the queue, and I do not think that is fair, because rural areas are already suffering in many ways. I keep saying, because it is true, that the areas where there are poor broadband services and speeds are those where there is poor mobile signal as well. In London, if someone cannot get broadband or is without it for a few days or weeks, they can rely on 4G. In many rural areas in Wales that is not possible. We want to get BT linked up with EE, and I know the Minister has been involved in that. There is the possibility of homes getting a TV, landline and mobile phone package, and such packages will improve in the future.
The issue I most want to raise with the Minister is the new Digital Economy Bill. I very much welcome it, as I did when I spoke in the Queen’s Speech debate. In many arguments with me, the Minister used to say that a slow-speed universal obligation was a ridiculous idea and would not be needed, and that the Government were going for top-speed. All of a sudden that is now the Prime Minister’s flagship policy, and to secure his legacy in history we are at last going to have a universal service obligation. Because he is a professional, the Minister has gone from arguing with me to taking full credit for that—he says that it was his idea all along. He was listening to us in those debates, arguing with us and then going away and putting pressure on the Prime Minister to ensure that we got a universal service obligation.
I am not going to take credit for it, otherwise I would be as guilty as the Minister of saying that I influence things on my own. It was the idea of the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah, and it was in our 2015 manifesto, that we would have a universal service obligation. The Government said it was a silly idea and that they would concentrate on getting even faster service in some areas and then other areas could catch up later, but I am pleased to say that we are now at the same place. It is very good that we are, but I want to ask some questions about that.
The Minister made a speech and quite rightly stuck to his words that we would have a Bill in June or July. He is as good as his word. A draft Bill has come out, and we have had a consultation. It talks about 10 megabits per second, which he rubbished earlier as being too slow. That was what the consultation said, but he was not encouraging that; he wanted twice, three times or four times that. How is that going to be delivered in Wales? What kind of roll-out programme does he envisage? It is true we have not had the Bill yet and have not debated it at different levels, but I would like to know.
For 95% of Wales, the Welsh Government are rolling coverage out in a contractual arrangement with BT, which seems to be working, albeit not as fast as we want it to. It is patchy in England, with different levels of roll-out and take-up in different counties. Is the Minister clear in his mind that there will be the same delivery plan as for the local authorities in England, or will the Welsh Government roll it out? It would be interesting to know that, because my constituents in areas that are now far behind feel that they could catch up.
I again offer the Minister my island constituency to be a pilot for the scheme. We could plug the 5% gap and then roll out that ideal Anglesey model to the rest of the United Kingdom. Hard-to-reach areas, semi-rural, rural and urban areas could be connected up. We could be the pioneers, as we were with comprehensive education, which the Minister will be aware of. The isle of Anglesey was the first county in the whole United Kingdom to have comprehensive education, and I would like to see it as the pioneer of the digital economy with a universal service obligation across the island.
I make that serious point because I want to work with the Government and the Minister to ensure the Bill goes through smoothly, that we get the planning issues sorted and that we get the outdated telecommunications stuff up to date, which will be in the regulations of the Bill and the enhanced electronic communications code, so that we have seamless roll-out of a universal service obligation. I am sure the technology is there, and it may be that the minimum is 10 megabits per second and we will have extra capacity on stream very soon.
In pilot schemes in other areas of the United Kingdom, speeds of thousands of megabits are being talked about. We do not want to be that far behind and playing catch-up for the future. I hope the Minister will say how he intends to roll the scheme out and how it is going to be paid for. That is interesting—will the Welsh Government be making a contribution, or will it come from local authorities? We are unclear how that is going to work. Hopefully we will be able to get some European money during the Brexit negotiation period for areas that currently benefit from it. My constituents and industries in rural Wales want those certainties.
There are areas in my constituency that are without bus services, are seeing post office and bank closures and now have slow, almost non-existent broadband. That is not right in the United Kingdom. I am sure the Minister is a one nation Conservative and will want to see all parts of the United Kingdom benefit from this technology. I want that, and I know that colleagues who are here want to see rural areas become first-class areas. That is why I support what the hon. Member for Ceredigion says.
I know the Minister wants to achieve that and wants the notoriety of rolling it out. He has longevity in his job already; I am sure he is going to be the longest-serving Digital Economy Minister of all time. In doing that he will be doing a good service not just to his Government but to the country and the area I represent. We need assurances from the Government that they will work with the Welsh Government, BT Openreach and other providers to ensure we get 21st-century digital communications in rural areas of Wales, which deserve it. I hope the Minister is listening and that when he gets to his feet and congratulates the Wales football team he will be able to give us some answers as well.
I listened very carefully to the remarks of Mr Williams and of my hon. Friend Albert Owen and will not repeat many of the excellent things they have said. I will concentrate on three aspects of the problem. First, I will talk about funding. Secondly, I will talk about the issues of Ofcom and, thirdly, I will talk about the electronic communications code.
First, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Ceredigion, £90 million of European regional development fund money goes towards the superfast broadband programme in Wales. That is out of £231 million, so it is a large proportion. There have already been delays in that programme and, were there to be any more delays, the worry is that that source of money could be cut off before the programme is finished. Can the Minister give us an absolute guarantee that that money will be there? Clearly, that is money from the ERDF and, according to the Brexiteers, as that money originally comes from the UK Government it should be used for the same items as it was designated for before Brexit. That is over and above any funding the Welsh Government get. We need a guarantee that that is going to be the case.
Secondly, I refer to the issue of the opening up of what they call the BT dark fibre. Many of us have experienced the frustration of BT Openreach effectively being a monopoly, which has led to significant problems for some of our constituents. There seem to be enormous problems and delays in communicating with it and getting things done. I have spent many hours trying to chase things up on behalf of constituents when they are not able to get through.
I am pleased that, in its strategic review, Ofcom has set out plans to reduce the UK’s reliance on Openreach by further opening up the network and that it has confirmed its plans to require BT to provide access to its optical fibre network for providers of high-speed lines for businesses. BT will have to give physical access to those fibre optic cables and there will therefore be an opportunity for competitors to link in to those fibres and provide the services we want to see for our constituents—but hopefully providing a much better service. I hope that will in turn encourage BT to provide a better service as well.
Will the Minister tell us how effective he expects Ofcom to be in forcing BT to do this? We have seen in the past that Ofcom sometimes has not moved as quickly as it might to chase up on things, and I would like a clear indication from the Minister as to when he expects all this to happen and what he expects BT to find coming its way if it does not comply with Ofcom’s requirements. So we really want a very firm Minister keeping a very strong watching brief on what happens there, so that we can be absolutely certain that the new opportunities for access are made available and that there is a better service provided to our constituents, many of whom have been waiting a very long time to see improvements to the facilities that they have.
I should like to turn to the electronic communications code, about which I wrote to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in November 2005. The code matters because in Wales mobile coverage is also important in helping to provide internet access, but unfortunately disputes between landowners and mobile operators can lead to significant disruption. Now that the Government are planning to introduce a Bill to reform the code, I should like to ask the Minister what exactly the timetable is for that Bill and how long it will take before its measures are implemented and people begin to see a difference. What guarantees can he give about the precise content of that Bill?
In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, the Minister reiterated the Government’s intention that the reformed code should be clear, fit for purpose and promote choice for consumers. It is essential that the code covers wholesale infrastructure providers, which make up a significant proportion of mobile networks. The draft code published last year excluded such providers and was therefore not fit for purpose. The issue of retroactivity should also be considered as mobile operators have expressed concern that unless the code applies to leases that have already been signed, its effect will be limited.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and the hon. Member for Ceredigion have said. Nowadays broadband is as essential, if not more essential, than roads, water and electricity. We expect it to be universally provided and we want everything to be done to speed up the rollout of the Superfast Cymru programme.
It is a pleasure to have a fellow Scottish voice in the Chamber this afternoon, Mr McCabe. I congratulate Mr Williams on an excellent introduction in a balanced and measured speech. Quite often when we debate broadband in this House people are understandably emotive because, as he recognised, one of the biggest single items that hits our mailbags is poor broadband. That leads to a lot of, “Blame BT, it’s everyone’s fault, isn’t it a disaster?”, but we have to work with the Minister, who has been praised highly this afternoon. I am certainly concerned by that, but he is a fine chap and I am sure he will come back with some banter about the Scots. He has already warned me about that, although now that he has seen who is in the Chair, he might change his mind slightly.
It is important that we discuss the issue in a rational and sensible manner and that we also try to be constructive, and I thought the hon. Member for Ceredigion made an excellent start. His speech was balanced and measured. He recognised the progress that has been made. He also touched on some of the areas where he recognised there are further improvements being brought forward by the Government both in Wales and at the UK level. His quote from the current Prime Minister that
“access...shouldn’t be a luxury;
it should be a right” is an important one. I think there is a gap between the rhetoric and the vision of where we want to go. We need to do a lot more to realise the vision. If we do not have a plan, our vision is essentially just a dream. That is something we need to look carefully at if we really aspire to lead the world in this area.
Some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised from a Welsh perspective—businesses and farmers—are things that echo with my own constituents in the Scottish borders. He touched on BT structure. Service levels are an important aspect. We need a lot more sophistication when it comes to looking at service levels. In the internet age it is no longer a binary: it is working or it is not working. We need to look at speed. Do we get what it says on the tin? We need to look at how that is performing over time and, because it is electronic, we should be able to do that in an efficient and automatic way.
The EU funding question is an excellent one, given that we are going to be awash with money shortly, we are told. Can we at least protect the not inconsiderable sum of £90 million? That is a huge percentage. Nia Griffith pointed out that that is out of £231 million, so it is a sizable percentage.
The speech by Albert Owen was educational. He had me googling Scottish education to see whether I could challenge him on some of his claims; I might have to revisit them. He made an important point about partnership. What we are seeing in terms of the delivery projects that are out there and that will remain critical for future projects is that it is about partnership between the Welsh Government, the UK Government and the EU. In my constituency, the local authority has also put significant sums of money in. The last 5%—tourist areas—is also something that we need to be acutely aware of. There are other aspects in terms of safety and lone workers, but tourists increasingly expect to arrive in a place, use their device and decide what they are going to do and where they are going to visit. They look for offers based on connectivity, so it is critical that we have that. We should note the emergence of cars that will allegedly drive themselves, although they will not be coming near our constituencies if they cannae work.
I am slightly concerned about the constituent the hon. Member for Ynys Môn talked about, who has such a slow download speed that he flies to Hawaii. That sounds like the kind of story that I would try and tell my wife and not get away with. He also mentioned the USO. I think there will be a lot of discussion on the USO. It is an excellent idea. We need to ensure that the programme put forward has a level of agility. My concern is that it will come in a one-size-fits-all satellite offer.
I am not sure—perhaps the Minister will clarify—whether a rollout is envisaged. I think it will be something that constituents ask for. One of the things I discussed at length with Ofcom was how we can make the scheme more flexible so that it can be applied in lots of different ways.
The Wales first model is almost right—I would sign up to a rural first model, if that is okay with Members. I know that, when it comes to mobile coverage, that is something that happens elsewhere in Europe.
I loved the way in which the hon. Member for Llanelli summarised the issue in three points and gave me an easy job of summarising what she said. From a funding perspective, the £90 million is a staggering figure. She mentioned access to ducts and poles, including BT dark fibre. She asked an interesting question: how effective will this be and how effective will Ofcom be in regulating it? I am a little sceptical in all honesty about how much other providers really want to use BT ducts and poles. It feels something like a stick to hit BT with, but we must ensure that they are given a framework that enables them to do it, and then we will see whether they are really willing to.
There will have to be a lot of pressure on BT, because it is just about making thatavailable; it has to be fit for purpose. There need to be design tools that enable other providers to come in with solutions. From an electronic communications code perspective, the hon. Lady made interesting comments. Mobile clearly is used for internet access in a lot of rural areas. We have to tread carefully in some of the matters she discussed. Rather than delve into them here I look forward to revisiting them, especially in relation to some of her comments about wholesale.
I recognise many similarities between Wales and Scotland, not least sporting prowess. As the Welsh football team leads the way as the best team in these isles, and Andy Murray blazes across the courts at Wimbledon—Scotland leading the way in tennis and Wales in football—I await the Minister’s telling us where England is leading the way. Something else that Wales and Scotland share is low population density. Most of our population tends to be concentrated and centralised over a small stretch of territory. Both nations also have some of the most stunning scenery, as we have heard—but that is also challenging geography. Those two common factors of population spread and geography are at the heart of the problem of broadband coverage. That means that we need distinctive policy approaches for matters such as connectivity. If we are to make rural superfast broadband a reality, a one-size-fits-all approach will clearly not work.
The Scottish Government set out a highly ambitious vision for the country’s digital future, but a world-class digital nation requires that people living and working in Scotland, or visiting it, should be able to communicate and connect instantly using any device, anywhere and at any time. We used to call that, in networking world, the Martini network—“any time, any place, anywhere”, for those who do not know the advert. The Scottish Government have been working hard to meet the challenge. The Digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, delivered via BT, is expected to deliver superfast broadband to about 95% of the premises in Scotland by the end of 2017. That programme is delivering more than £410 million of investment. On average it is connecting 7,000 new premises every week. On top of that, Community Broadband Scotland works with a budget of about £16.5 million to develop projects targeted at some of the harder to reach areas.
The reality, however, is that we need to go further. I am proud of the Scottish National party’s manifesto commitment to go further and, during the course of the present Holyrood Parliament—up to 2021—push superfast broadband to 100% of premises in Scotland. We realise that that is a challenge, but all of us in the Chamber know that it is possible. The only thing that stops us is ambition and a willingness to look at the models that will fit and work. That is where much of my effort, and the Scottish Government’s effort, is going at the moment.
The digital communications review from Ofcom has been welcomed, but it fell short in some areas—particularly in relation to rural remedies. The Scottish Government requested that consideration should be given to the simple fact that the market does not work in rural areas; we cannot rely on competition when it is uneconomical. We need to think about differentiation of approach for rural areas, in recognition of that. The Broadband Delivery UK scheme goes some way towards that, but we need to go much further. We also need to be careful that as we seek to push broadband further we do not end up putting little sticky plasters everywhere and finding we are back here in the same position in a couple of years, having put in a solution that has no future. We need to be careful that what we do has a future; and that, of course, means fibre, as far as possible.
As to the Digital Economy Bill, I shall be interested in whether the Minister finds there is an impact from the EU vote, and whether he thinks anything has changed. He is shaking his head, which is good news, because I am keen for us to push ahead with that measure. I have already mentioned the electronic communications code, but in relation to the universal service obligation I understand there are some rules and regulations and that there was a rationale for 10 megabits. I would like to understand whether that rationale is no longer valid. If the UK is leaving the EU, do we have freedom to set the USO at whatever level we want? I also think that, with the USO, upload is an issue as well as download, and that consideration should also be given to price and any data limits. Simply talking about download speed is a bit like looking at a car on the basis of how fast it can go. There is far more to it.
As we consider the new model, I thank the Minister for the level of engagement, and the approach that he has taken; I know I have done that once before. I find the Department for Culture, Media and Sport good to sit down and talk with, and to engage in proper, rational debate with. I believe that DCMS understands that the current model has limitations and was essentially a pragmatic rollout. However, now there is no excuse. We know where the limitations are. We know about the 5%-plus—I suggest that it is significantly more than that in the constituencies of Members present for the debate. We really need DCMS and Ofcom to focus on rural remedies.
I recently chanced to bump into the Minister at a certain coffee establishment here, and I fear I was slightly boastful about the Scottish Government’s commitment to superfast broadband everywhere, which I contrasted with the measly 10 megabit USO. The Minister coined a phrase that I thought was fantastic—McBroadband. Given that Wales has raised the bar and shown the way when it comes to football, may I suggest that the Minister should not be ashamed to look at Scotland as we raise the connectivity bar, and to see McBroadband deployed across all these isles?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate for the Opposition. I congratulate Mr Williams on securing this debate on an increasingly important topic. Like Calum Kerr, I also congratulate him on the tone and content of his opening remarks, which were an excellent introduction to the subject and to the situation of many of his constituents, as well as many UK citizens in other rural areas. His opening comments were complimentary to the Minister; it would be churlish to suggest that that was in any way connected with the fact that his party was in government, if not in power, when many of the important decisions that are driving our current lamentable situation were taken.
I fear that I have already changed the tone of the debate from one of mutual agreement to one of division, so let me go back to something on which we can all agree—that we wish the Welsh football team every success this evening. Indeed, if the team can defy the odds and march through to the finals of the European championships, and then triumph, perhaps it is not too much to hope that the Minister will defy expectations today and give us some satisfactory answers as to why so many people in Wales—and England and Scotland, for that matter—cannot get a decent internet connection, which I assume the Minister can do on the smartphone that he is looking at so intently. It seems that anything can happen in these extraordinary times, but I must say that concrete answers from the Minister would be an extraordinary conclusion.
We face a period of uncertainty—I am talking about Brexit rather than the football now. As we start to think about our plans for negotiating to leave the European Union, which have already been mentioned—although, astonishingly, I understand that the Government have not thought about them until now—it is time for us to get serious about our infrastructure and productivity and make sure that we have an economy that works for everyone. The economic benefits of better digital infrastructure are well known. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and I share a background in telecommunications, I believe, and we can both be proud to call ourselves technology champions.
I think everyone would agree that the UK’s productivity problem has been one of the biggest challenges for our economy in recent years. We have the second-worst productivity performance in the G7. The Government’s own broadband impact study states that
“it is now widely accepted that the availability and adoption of affordable broadband plays an important role in increasing productivity”.
It is the Government’s policy to increase productivity, and they recognise the role broadband plays in that. I hope that they recognise the importance of productivity to the Welsh rural economy, as well as throughout the United Kingdom.
Why do we find ourselves in a situation now where so many people cannot get a decent broadband connection? As well as the economic benefits, there are significant social benefits. I mean not simply online gaming but online shopping and new applications in mental healthcare that are supported through digital infrastructure to enable better engagement and improve citizens’ wellbeing. It is unacceptable that some people cannot access those services.
Some people cannot access mandatory Government services and, worse, are penalised for not being to access online services such as a mandatory job search. The internet opens up a world of education, social engagement and potential economic productivity—it is a window on the globe. All people across the United Kingdom should be able to expect that as a right, yet nearly 6 million people in the UK do not have access to decent broadband, and 130,000 businesses are struggling to make do with a connection of less than 10 megabits per second.
Wales is actually doing better than the rest of the UK for rural and business broadband—as well as in football. In Scotland, 50% of mid-sized businesses do not have access to superfast broadband, while in Wales the figure is “only” 38%. In England, 64% of rural premises are without superfast broadband, while in Wales merely—again, I use that word relatively—half of rural residents cannot access superfast connection speeds, which the European Union has said should be a universal minimum in just four years.
No doubt the Minister will tell us again of an unadulterated success, which is how he characterises the current broadband situation. As my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) have mentioned, Wales lags far behind the other nations in mobile coverage. Only 20% of Wales is covered by all mobile providers, compared with 50% in England. I find that entirely unacceptable.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Lamentable as I find the situation when it comes to fixed and universal broadband, the mobile situation shames us as a nation. I take the train from Newcastle to London twice a week, and I am lucky if I can maintain a conversation on a quarter of that journey. On the wonderful occasions when I have had the pleasure and honour of visiting Wales, I have noticed that the mobile coverage is generally unacceptable. As has been mentioned, a constituent going to Hawaii to improve their mobile coverage is testimony to a failure.
Since the Minister took office six years ago, we have seen a series of ad hoc funding announcements. The crown jewel of all of them—the mobile infrastructure project certainly was not considered a jewel by anyone—was the £790 million rural superfast broadband programme, which has been handed entirely to one company. Whatever our criticisms of British Telecom, and I agree that it is unfair to hold BT entirely responsible for the current situation, the way in which the contracts for that tender were set out meant that we would end up in the current situation of monopoly provision. I certainly know that the Minister was informed, and indeed warned, of that possibility on more than one occasion.
It is true that the Government and the Minister are now finally waking up to the need to improve digital infrastructure. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn was very clear about where blame for the current situation lies. He was more modest about taking credit for the change in the Government’s approach and tone. The broadband challenge is now becoming the issue for the Minister that it should have been in the previous Parliament. I am concerned about that, because many Tory MPs find their mailbags bulging with complaints, and he is responding belatedly to that criticism from his own side. While we have potential solutions to the problem today, there is no solution for the incompetence that preceded it. People in Wales and beyond still do not know when they can expect the much vaunted universal service obligation to cover them and what that means for them practically.
I would be grateful if the Minister addressed the many excellent questions raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn and for Llanelli, and by the hon. Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and for Ceredigion. The Digital Economy Bill, published yesterday, is a real opportunity to address these issues and get Britain on the right track when it comes to infrastructure and digital rights for digital citizens. I am afraid that it will be a missed opportunity.
I would like the Minister to answer the following questions. Has he given up on hopes for competition—a word that appears only once in the Bill, in brackets—in the communications market? After the bungled attempts to reform the electronic communications code in 2015, why will this time be any different? What is his long-term vision for our digital infrastructure? We have heard about the importance of fibre. He seems to find it difficult to mention fibre, and certainly to set out when and how the UK will have universal fibre provision. How will the USO be funded? What talks is he in to ensure that that funding requirement does not fall disproportionately on rural areas?
Finally, will the Minister explain concisely exactly how the Digital Economy Bill will improve connectivity in Wales? The Bill will, I take it, be what passes for a vision for our digital society. That must include digital inclusion for rural areas in Wales and for my constituents in Newcastle who cannot afford the current superfast broadband provision. I hope he will set out his vision for ensuring that we have the digital infrastructure that we deserve and need in Wales and in the country as a whole.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your superb chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I thank Mr Williams for this important debate about broadband.
Let me echo the words that were said about tonight’s football match, which is an incredibly important game. Unfortunately, I will be at the Art Fund museum of the year dinner with the Duchess of Cambridge, but I know that her father-in-law is particularly keen on a Welsh victory tonight, as is the whole country. Gareth Bale sits firmly in midfield in my fancy league team and Sam Vokes is a striker, so we are hoping for a good result tonight.
If Calum Kerr thinks a Welsh sporting achievement and Andy Murray managing to make it to the quarter finals will rub English noses in it, let me remind him of the England rugby team and its 3:0 whitewash of Australia. It does not stop there either: perhaps we should talk about the test victory over Sri Lanka—I do not think Scotland plays cricket, but they may a bit. Of course, today Mark Cavendish won his 28th stage in the Tour de France, thus matching the record of the great cyclist, Bernard Hinault. [Interruption.] I see the Clerk leaning over to you, Mr McCabe, saying that I am out of order—that I have gone off the subject of broadband—but thousands of Welsh people tonight will be watching television and perhaps through a broadband connection, thanks to me.
I admire the way the Minister has manged to segue from football back to broadband. Does he agree that it is to be hoped that all those in Wales watching the match tonight do not stream it from broadband connections, as their pleasure is likely to be interrupted regularly by the circle of death?
No. I encourage them to watch it online. They can watch it online, on their iPads or on ITV Player.
Let me turn to the subject in hand. I have been in this job for six years and it may feel like wading through treacle, but when I hear someone as distinguished as the hon. Member for Ceredigion say those four words, “vast improvement in provision”, it makes those six years of hard labour worth it, because we have made a difference. I will come to some serious points, but I want to say that we have achieved a great deal and I will explain where we are.
I have always made the point that we had targets we wanted to achieve. We never said 100% of people would get superfast broadband under our programme. We said 90% would get it by the end of 2015 and we achieved that with 4 million additional homes and businesses, which will be 5 million by the time the programme effectively ends at the end of 2017. We have already completed 36 of the 44 phase 1 projects and we are well into phase 2, and on track to get to 95% by the end of 2017.
People seem to forget the baseline we started from when the programme was on the way. In Wales, fewer than one in three homes had access to superfast broadband in 2011, yet by the end of phase 2, which finishes this time next year, 96.7% will have been reached. This project alone will have provided access to superfast broadband for almost 750,000 homes in Wales. Half of all homes will have broadband because of this project. The figure is already almost 600,000 homes. The audited figure is 582,300, so we have probably passed 600,000 because we are always three months behind in auditing the figures.
It is worth remembering that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, for example, no superfast broadband was provided commercially—he reminded the House that I had made that point previously. Even though his figures are below the national figures and therefore look poor, it is telling that 55% of homes—20,000—in his constituency that now have access to superfast broadband have it because of this programme. Another 10,000 will be added by the middle of next year, with 85% superfast coverage in 30,000 premises that would not have been covered. Coverage in constituencies of Members across the House ranges from a lowly 79% in that of my hon. Friend Chris Davies—luckily he has left the Chamber, so I can mention that figure publicly—up to around 92% in Ynys Môn.
I know that the Minister would not want to mislead the Chamber—he would not be allowed to—but when he says “to homes”, he means to the cabinet. There is a technical difficulty in getting broadband from the cabinet to many homes. The cabinets may have been upgraded to provide a signal to homes, but it may not reach those homes.
I know that the hon. Member would not want to mislead the House, and the quotation I hope he would take from what I said was “have access to superfast broadband”. There is a lot of terminology in this debate, but basically, yes, it is called fibre to the cabinet—it goes to the big green box—and sometimes people in homes who think they will have access to superfast broadband do not get it, but it is important to stress that the numbers we use are audited and tested by Broadband Delivery UK. We do not simply say, “Here’s a cabinet and therefore any home in the vicinity is going to get broadband.” We audit the figures and we are well aware that homes may be near a cabinet but do not get access to superfast broadband, because sometimes the circuit from the cabinet is confusing. [Interruption.] I am doing this for the benefit of Hansard, to see how they record it in the Official Report—perhaps it will say, “Minister waves his finger around in an odd way.”
The other good thing is that there is more money to be spent. The hon. Member for Ceredigion asked whether areas are being needlessly subsidised, so not only do I have to contend with colleagues; I have to contend with BT’s competitors, who are always keen to get in the door and tell everyone how useless BT is because they are promoting themselves. They say BT is being needlessly subsidised. We saw that one coming and constructed the contract so that if areas effectively become quasi-commercial because more people than we expected took up broadband, we get money back.
As I am sure hon. Members are aware, we have already gained £130 million and it is important to point out that BT have made that money available now. Under the strict terms of the contract, it could have held back for another seven years. We are expecting around £250 million back when the contracts are completed.
We have had additional money committed from BT and from underspend. We believe that with the existing money we can get to 97% rather than 95% of homes, albeit not by the end of 2017, but probably a little later. The underspend is around £150 million, to add to the gain share, so we are looking at about £400 million coming through. That will make a real difference and should help us to reach 97% of homes by the end of 2020.
Another of the points made—I think by the hon. Member for Ceredigion, although the Opposition spokesperson also talked about competition—was about the monopoly aspect. As we move to phase 2 and the contracts become smaller and a smaller number of premises are in play, we are able to bring in smaller providers—for example, we have got companies such as Gigaclear—who would simply not have had the capacity for the big phase 1 roll-out. As part of our market test pilots, to work out how to get to rural areas as cheaply as possible, companies such as AB Internet in Monmouthshire, for example, have already connected 1,500 premises as part of its pilot. The smaller players are now coming into play, and we are actively engaging with a wider supplier base. In total, five different suppliers from BT now have contracts under phase 2, and we have had approval for our new state aid national broadband scheme, which means we can power forward on phase 2.
Some other points were made. I want to reassure hon. Members that the ERDF funding is secure until the end of 2020. We want to put to bed the idea that somehow the European money will disappear. The hon. Member for Ceredigion said that Wales was left behind or left out. I really want to nail that one down. It is important to stress that no part of the United Kingdom was left behind. As I think was mentioned, the total amount of funding available to Wales was in the region of £220 million, and I talked about 750,000 premises being connected—some in very hard-to-reach areas. I think there was also mention of Wales being ahead of the game, in terms of broadband roll-out, compared with the rest of the country.
I want to turn to the future. We talked about the universal service obligation and we learned an important new fact, which is that that is not Government policy; it is the policy of Albert Owen. And it is not the universal service obligation; USO actually stands for “You’ve got service from Owen.” That is how it will be known from now on. In fact, he is such a genial-looking character that I think we might use him in the adverts when the universal service obligation comes to bear. I hope he will take part in the Second Reading debate on the Digital Economy Bill because I think my second roll-out of that terrible joke might get a better reception if he is better prepared for it. The universal service obligation is there as a safety net. As I said, I think we are going to get very far with the roll-out, but just to give the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the Opposition an open goal, we have not yet worked out the detail of how the universal service obligation will work. We are working with Ofcom on a range of options, which we will consult on. There is a range of ways in which the USO can be put together.
Of course, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, who knows his onions when it comes to this subject, made a point that really only the aficionados would have picked up on, which is about how flexible it is possible to be with a USO. As he rightly notes, to have simply a demand-led USO for one individual premise, with a cost cap if it reached over a certain amount, would be potentially a very inefficient way of delivering broadband. We have to be more thoughtful and flexible about how we can deliver broadband to the lowest area.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about whether leaving the European Union might change our potential to increase the speed, but although we have left the European Union, we cannot change the laws of physics. The reason we have gone for 10 megabits is that it is the most realistic speed that we can get in a cost-effective way to the most hard-to-reach areas, but of course satellite connections, for example, could exceed that. Obviously we do not want to write the speed into the Bill, because we want to be flexible to ensure that the USO keeps pace in the future as average broadband speeds increase.
We are also bringing in the electronic communications code. I heard what Nia Griffith said about whether it should cover wholesale providers. We have rejected that because the wholesale providers are really on a par with the communication providers, with the mobile network operators, and we think it would be quite wrong to give the mobile network operators a commercial advantage over the wholesale providers that have built a business based on supplying the marketplace. We want the electronic communications code to be—a bit like the USO—a fall-back position whereby, in relation to an individual landlord who is not in the telecoms business but is providing land either for a wayleave or a mobile mast, there is a forum and a tribunal where any dispute can be worked out and worked out quickly. We want to bring the roll-out of broadband infrastructure into line with the roll-out of all other kinds of infrastructure, such as electricity, to try to bring down the costs.
I will make a serious point here. This may well prove to be controversial with some landowners, but we have dealt with a lot of the stakeholder groups in the landowning community, who are realistic and know that you can’t have your cake and eat it. People cannot charge relatively high rents and at the same time complain about rural coverage. I hope that hon. Members will see the bigger picture and support these important changes, because, as the hon. Member for Llanelli said, we have taken a pretty tortuous route to get here.
Those are the two main changes that will come forward in the Digital Economy Bill. Going back to where we are on broadband roll-out, I have been looking at some interesting international comparisons. For example, if someone says that France has 25% coverage for fibre to the premises, people think, “Well, that’s terrible; we’ve been left behind because we only have 2% coverage for fibre to the premises,” but what we should be looking at is the outcome. Then we discover that cable, fibre to the cabinet and fibre to the premises are all in effect in the same geographic areas in France, so actually about 75% of the country does not have access to superfast broadband, whereas 90% of the UK does have access to it.
In fact, we have been very British about this. We have been incremental in how we have rolled out technology; and now, as we come to the end of phase 1 and phase 2, we are about to introduce G.fast, for example. Virgin Media, as hon. Members know, is investing £3 billion or £4 billion for 4 million more homes. We are starting to bring forward what one could call the ultrafast speeds just at the point when the public are ready, as consumers and businesses, to invest in them.
Again, we need to look at the outcomes. I was struck by another figure: how much data do people use in different countries? The average amount of data used in the UK is twice as much as the French use. In fact, the amount of data used by UK consumers has doubled in the last year while prices have remained the same, so arguably data for the consumer—the stuff we watch on the telly or the documents that we download—have halved in price. The UK consumer is actually getting a very good deal.
Obviously I do not want to underestimate the concerns of hon. Members, who have spoken very knowledgeably in the debate. As they rightly point out, broadband is a very big issue. It is a major issue in the rural MP’s postbag, and every MP who has spoken has shown their extensive knowledge not just of the situation in their own constituency but of the situation with national broadband roll-out. We are coming through to the end of this phase and people are now beginning to see the tangible benefits of the programme, but of course there is more to do.
I will not quote the Minister directly, but he said that he has not thought through how the universal service obligation will work—he has not worked out the details—but is he looking at geographical areas? If we have not spots of 1% or 2%, it is easier to concentrate on that than to have a hit and miss across the country. That is the first point. Secondly, when will we see the consultation, and how will Members of Parliament be able to feed into that?
We have already consulted once overall about this, but we will consult during the passage of the Bill or shortly after it is passed, because we want to pass the principle into law. The hon. Gentleman is right: there are a number of ways of looking at this. We could have, for example, regional providers. If we wanted a USO in Ynys Môn, we might have two or three local providers rather than simply having one or two or three national USO providers. To pick up again on the point made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, we may want communities themselves to get a USO, rather than an individual. But as I said, I think the corner has been turned in terms of rural broadband roll-out. We are now looking forward to the publication of our digital strategy and the passage of the Digital Economy Bill, which will set out our plans to help the last 5%, but also be more ambitious for the whole country in terms of achieving a gigabit Britain.
I thank all hon. Members for their speeches and interventions. We have reiterated the concerns that many of us in rural communities have. I am not going to defend anything I said, other than to say that I think it would be churlish not to acknowledge the improvements that have been made in broadband provision over the last six years during the Minister’s tenure in office. However, expectations remain incredibly high. Those expectations to date have not been met fully, and they must be.
Motion lapsed (