Broadband in Wales — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:26 pm on 6th July 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:26 pm, 6th July 2016

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.