Broadband in Wales — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 2:30 pm, 6th July 2016

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.