Broadband in Wales — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:12 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Calum Kerr Calum Kerr Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Digital) 3:12 pm, 6th July 2016

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?