Broadband in Wales — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:06 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Labour, Llanelli 3:06 pm, 6th July 2016

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.