Superfast Broadband: Rural Communities — [Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 21st February 2017.

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[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:30 pm, 21st February 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the rollout of superfast broadband to rural communities.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. Anyone wondering why broadband should be of concern to me and my constituents could do no better than to look at the briefing paper prepared by the House of Commons Library for today’s debate. If anyone is looking for Orkney and Shetland in just about any of the various league tables in that paper, do not bother looking for us at the top of most of them because we are generally at or around the bottom. We are the sixth lowest UK constituency for superfast broadband availability, and in the table for average speeds, the situation is even worse—we are fourth lowest. The only table where we feature near the top—fourth from the top—is unfortunately the one showing the percentage of households in constituencies that are unable to get connection speeds of 10 megabits per second or more.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. When we look at the maps, it is quite obvious who is in or near the relegation zone, and his constituency is indeed there or thereabouts, but does he agree that, within the confines of those maps and that assessment, there are smaller areas within larger constituencies that are also very badly affected in terms of not having superfast broadband access?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Indeed. Breaking the picture down to ward level gives a much better idea of what is happening on the ground, but even when one looks at the statistics that are provided, one does not have the full story. I know from engaging regularly with BT in my constituency that it will say that x number of people within an area now have broadband access—it is doing that within postcode areas, essentially—but one will find that, even within the specified area, the people who can actually get superfast broadband will not be the same as those included in the headline figure.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Only last week I received a response from BT in relation to the superfast extension programme. It informs me that

“even when improvement work is complete, there is no guarantee that everyone will access faster broadband” speeds in rural areas. Has the right hon. Gentleman any comment to make about that?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I could make many comments about that sort of thing, but I fear that you would rule me out of order, Mr Brady. It does, however, illustrate the frustration that many people in rural communities feel, and it is becoming more acute. The evidence is growing that the disparity between the densely populated urban areas and rural areas is becoming ever wider.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If I can just make a second or two of progress, I will take as many interventions as I can later.

The problem is acute for people in rural areas and it is particularly serious for people in island areas—it strikes at the heart of everything that we seek to do in maintaining island populations. A critical mass of population is essential to maintaining the economy and the social viability of any island community. In a rural area that is close to an urban area, if someone loses their job or their business goes into administration or receivership, they can move or they can drive for another half-hour or hour to get another job. However, if someone in an island community loses their job and another one is not available locally, they leave the island, which means that another salary is taken out of the local economy, another school has a smaller roll and fewer people are using the local post offices—the list goes on. That is why connectivity is essential for us.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I suspect that I am going to get willing agreement first from the hon. Gentleman and then the hon. Lady.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee

The right hon. Gentleman is correct—it is willing agreement—but it does not have to be like this. To his west and my north-west, everyone in the Faroe Islands is connected with at least 2 megabits. In fact, that was the situation three or four years ago and speeds are probably faster now. Everyone has 4G phone and there are undersea tunnels with a 4G signal. We cannot go between Gatwick airport and London and get a phone signal going through the tunnels. His point about population is absolutely right. The Faroese population will hit 50,000 for the first time in history this month or next.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman and I both know the Faroe Islands quite well and we both know that they have been able to achieve the things that our island communities have struggled to achieve because they start from the presumption of a service that is provided for the people on the islands first. It is not something that is driven from, as it is for his community and mine, people in Edinburgh or even Inverness, which is frankly not an awful lot better. It is community and island-centric provision. That is what matters.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem exists not just at the end of the country where his constituency is, but in Cornwall? I cannot attribute this to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Superfast Cornwall, which is a partnership between the EU, the Liberal Democrat-led Cornwall Council and BT, is failing to roll out broadband in a satisfactory way for a lot of my constituents. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a problem there as well?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Lady has the advantage of me. I was mildly and pleasantly surprised to hear that we still have a controlling interest in Cornwall. I am sure that my colleagues there are doing their best in very difficult circumstances. I am sure equally, from the tone of her intervention, that the hon. Lady will be doing everything she can, in a non-partisan way, to work with them.

Let me make progress for a minute or two. Ofcom’s “Connected Nations” report in December 2016 gave us a good snapshot of the overall picture. Average download speeds across the UK as a whole are now running at 37 megabits per second. However, 5% of premises, which is about 1.4 million, are unable to receive speeds faster than 10 megabits per second. Superfast broadband—that means speeds greater than 30 megabits per second—is now available in 89% of premises, which is more than 25 million, across the whole of the United Kingdom. However, those high-level, headline statistics actually illustrate the acuteness of the divide—the growing divide—between urban and rural communities. In Scotland, 43.9% of people living in large urban areas, as opposed to 7.9% in remote urban areas, are able to receive speeds classed as superfast. Those unable to reach the 10-megabits-per-second threshold constitute 1.6% in large urban areas, as opposed to 54.3% in very rural areas. That is a good illustration of the gap between the digital haves and have-nots—the rural and the urban.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Scottish Parliament/Scottish Government Liaison), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations)

First, I must make it clear that I fully support the roll-out of rural broadband. It is crucial for the highlands, the islands and, indeed, the borders of Scotland—if I did not say that, my mother-in-law in the highlands would kill me. The right hon. Gentleman might not be aware that many households and businesses in urban areas and particularly in areas of commercial deployment are also being missed and left with very slow speeds.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The position will never be uniform across any community but—I think that this distinction is material—there is a range of opportunities available in urban areas that are simply not available to those of us in more rural areas. It is invidious to play one side off against the other—in making the comparison between urban and rural, I am merely highlighting the difference and not trying to set one community against another.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells

Does the right hon. Gentleman share my view that it must be just a coincidence that, in many of the areas selected for commercial roll-out, which Deidre Brock talks about, BT seems not to have connected with fibre some of the small business parks and light industrial estates? I am sure he will agree that there is no way that that can be because BT is trying to make some money out of leased fibre lines to those premises.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I do not want to turn this into a whinge-fest about British Telecom, because that is just too easy. Our role in this debate is to look at a more strategic picture. The fact is that where there is provision, business and economic development follow. That is why it needs strategic, political and regulatory intervention. It is in all our interests that we maintain the widest possible spread of economic development. If the political will and regulatory effort is put into getting the roll-out, we will find that the economic opportunities follow.

The final illustration I have on the difference between rural and urban broadband is that I asked my staff to run broadband speed tests on their own machines. I asked my caseworker in Shetland to run the broadband speed checker first of all. On broadband.co.uk, she recorded a 0.3 megabits download speed. My researcher based in the House of Commons, who has an address in Surrey, did the same test and came up with 184.12 megabits per second. If that is not a digital divide, I really do not know what is.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

Is it not right to note—as Deidre Brock did—that there can be premises in an urban area sitting cheek by jowl with others where there are enormous disparities? Does the right hon. Gentleman also recognise, and share my intense frustration, that millions of pounds of public money is sitting in bank accounts ready to hook up homes and premises, but all too often excessive caution, or the terror of being found in breach of state aid rules, prevents that money from being spent?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I confess that of the many difficulties I have encountered in the years I have been dealing with this issue as a Member of Parliament, that is one I have not come across. However, what the hon. Gentleman describes would frustrate us all. The difficulty is that this problem is now beginning to undermine Government policy across the board. The Government as a whole have an interest in the Minister’s Department taking a lead in driving it out.

We are forever encouraging our farmers to diversify, saying that they should be setting up holiday accommodation and finding different ways to bring people into the countryside and add value to their product. Bluntly, however, that requires good connectivity—without that it will not happen.

I recently had contact with a postmistress in Shetland who tells me that her business as a postmistress is now being adversely affected by the intermittent service and extremely slow broadband speeds that she has to deal with. She says customers at the post office are being seriously affected by long waits because of the internet cutting out. As well as the difficulties that slow broadband speed causes her personally, it is considerably affecting her ability to provide a reliable post office service to that community in Shetland. There is a broad measure of political consensus in the House on the provision of post office services, but again, in the areas where it is most challenging it is being undermined by poor connectivity.

I will offer another couple of examples of how this problem affects my constituents. I recently had contact with one constituent in North Roe, right at the north of Shetland, who told me that in one week he had missed out on approximately £800 of potential grant funding for marine equipment as he was unable to open emails and download attachments. He says that he cannot submit fisheries or crofting forms online and that after 5.30 pm he need not even bother trying the internet, such is the quality of service he gets. The best example I got was also from a resident of North Roe, who told me that he tried to load the BT speed tester on his machine but did not have sufficient connectivity to load the page for the test.

The most interesting example came just this week in a piece of correspondence from a constituent in Westray. For the benefit of younger or newer Members in the House that was a letter, which is what we used to get from constituents. He tells me:

“Access to broadband is not a luxury these days. We do banking and shopping and book flights to the Scottish mainland on the internet, and we communicate by email. Information that used to be on paper is on webpages now. I wrote to Ofcom about BT’s service and their reply referred me to web pages where I could learn about how to escalate my complaint and seek compensation”.

To load those pages, however, he would be required to go to the library in Kirkwall, which is a nine-hour round trip from his home in Pierowall in Westray.

The difficulty is that broadband roll-out, whether south of the border in England and Wales, or in Scotland through the Scottish Government—in partnership with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and BT in my area—is driven by targets. Indeed, the targets themselves may often be misleading. The next generation of roll-out, however, is not just going to be confined to broadband. For us the opportunities come from the availability of 4G and 5G—whenever that becomes a feature of our daily lives.

The Minister should perhaps be talking to his colleagues in the Home Office about the roll-out of the emergency services network. The contract has been given to EE, and that is going to give it an obvious advantage in having control of infrastructure across the whole country. The opportunity is there for much improved 4G coverage through EE. I give EE credit for the way in which it has engaged with communities, certainly in my constituency, but I hear increasing complaint about its willingness to engage with other mobile companies. It tells me that it does not know what features are going to be found in the design of this roll-out, and that it does not know what the mast heights and positions are going to be. This generational opportunity to improve the service is an opportunity for Government Departments to work together instead of in their own individual silos, to ensure that when that provision is ultimately rolled out it brings the maximum benefit to communities across the whole of the United Kingdom and companies across the whole of industry.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

The right hon. Gentleman is making a constructive point about the roll-out of mobile telecommunications. Are not the industrial strategy and the Digital Economy Bill an opportunity for the Government to look at this 5% of areas, which will predominantly be rural, that are not included in the target of 95% by 2017? A pilot scheme in the Shetland and Orkney Islands and Ynys Môn would be a great example for that going forward.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Indeed; I can think of few areas that would be more suitable. I say that not entirely with my tongue in my cheek, because I suspect that anything that can be made to work in the constituencies and communities that the hon. Gentleman and I represent could be made to work anywhere else.

The understanding I want the Minister to take from today’s debate is that the days of centrally driven, top-down roll-outs are over. They have achieved a significant amount in getting targets met and getting out to the low-hanging fruit, as it were; however, for that remaining 5% of areas there will have to be a different approach altogether.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again—he is being very generous with his time. I absolutely agree with him on that point. Devon and Somerset are the last areas to get their phase 2 contract awarded, but once that phase 2 contract is awarded and the premises within the 91st to 95th percentiles are known, why would we wait to deliver the universal service obligation sequentially? If we know what the final 5% is, let us get on with delivering the USO concurrently and employing whatever technology suits rather than a central solution from above.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I think that will be the answer to filling the last 5%, but there will not be a single solution. I am frustrated by the way in which the fibre roll-out is now holding some things up. We know that the last 5%—or whatever it will be—in Scotland will be delivered by Community Broadband Scotland, which can only come in when we know what is left. However, those responsible for the fibre roll-out wanting to sweat the asset, effectively, is leaving communities waiting at the end of the queue.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee

Does the right hon. Gentleman find the ad hoc nature of much of this strange? I happened to come across some people from EE once who said, “If only we could get the Northern Lighthouse Board sites, that would help,” so I wrote to the Northern Lighthouse Board, which said, “Yes, no problem at all.” However, nobody is co-ordinating things centrally. It is similar with Vodafone and EE at the moment—opportunities are constantly being missed. Sometimes a bit of central thinking is needed, and I do not think that has been happening at all; it is far too ad hoc.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That is a good illustration, though I will not, on the one hand, make a plea for decentralised thinking and then on the other berate Ministers for not taking control of everything. There is a strategic role for Ministers at the centre, but those who are charged with broadband delivery in the hon. Gentleman’s area and mine—Highlands and Islands Enterprise, for example—need to be much more focused on community engagement and taking communities along with them than they have been hitherto. That will be absolutely essential when it comes to finishing the last 5%, or whatever the margin will be.

For some years now I have organised a series of digital forums in Shetland and Orkney. The last one we took out to Skeld in west Shetland—one of the most poorly served mainland Shetland communities for broadband coverage and mobile phone connectivity. During the forum I got an explanation of the inadequacies of the roll-out that, frankly, I do not ever expect to be able to improve on. A constituent who had worked for 30 years in the NHS said she suspected that if the NHS had left all the difficult cases till last in those 30 years, most of the difficult cases would have died. Right hon. and hon. Members can probably join the dots on the analogy being drawn. It is one that the Minister would do well to listen to.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

Order. Seven Members have risen to speak and we have less than 40 minutes before the wind-ups are due to begin, so I propose a time limit of six minutes on contributions.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall 2:53 pm, 21st February 2017

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, Mr Brady. As a former parliamentary private secretary to the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey, I have an active interest in this issue, both from a policy and constituency perspective. Active, fast, reliable, affordable broadband is vital for families, communities, businesses and public services across my rural constituency. In South East Cornwall and across the UK, superfast broadband is now as essential a utility as water and energy. Indeed, I consider it to be the fourth utility.

Our economy, whether urban or rural, is now increasingly dependent on high-quality broadband. I welcome the Government’s commitment to introducing a broadband universal service and the good progress that has been made locally under the superfast project, but it is not good enough. We must strive for 100% connectivity, particularly in isolated rural areas where good internet access is the lifeblood of successful local economies and thriving communities.

I, like many other hon. Members, continue to receive numerous complaints from constituents about poor broadband availability. Unfortunately, many of my constituents do not understand that Superfast Cornwall and, as I alluded to earlier, a partnership between the Lib Dem-led Cornwall Council, the EU and BT are responsible for delivering broadband in my constituency. I will highlight several cases in South East Cornwall that demonstrate the urgent need to provide universal access to superfast broadband.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

On a point of clarification, what is the EU’s role? When it works with the Welsh Government all it does is provide funds.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

There was a partnership between the European Union, Cornwall Council and BT. Cornwall was one of the first areas in the country to roll out broadband before the Government undertook their programme, and it was leading on this at one time. Unfortunately, however, the service now being provided to little villages is absolutely dire; they cannot even get a broadband speed of 2 megabits per second.

Cornwall and tourism go together like jam, scones and clotted cream. However, superfast broadband and good internet access is a vital ingredient for running a successful holiday business and retaining and attracting clients. I know at least one small holiday letting business that cannot secure bookings or market effectively due to poor connectivity. That is unacceptable.

Another example of the negative impact of failing communications infrastructure was highlighted to me last week by a local business that is based in Liskeard, although the owners live near the village of Duloe. They are in a notorious broadband notspot and their company operates 24/7 using robotic technology. If the owners had a decent broadband connection, they would be able to look remotely to make sure that the machines are running. Instead, they have to undertake a round trip of an hour and a half to check the machines over the weekend, which is a waste of money and time. The impact on productivity and on the company’s balance sheet should not be underestimated.

Finally, the affordability of high-quality broadband must be addressed. Although I acknowledge that the UK has one of the most competitive communications markets in the world, the cost of business broadband remains too high. An established scrap metal business in my constituency suffers from poor connectivity, meaning that the legally required reporting of vehicles to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency online is virtually impossible. The firm was offered an expensive corporate ethernet solution by BT and Superfast Cornwall. Surely more affordable consumer-style alternatives should be available for small businesses, which work on very tight financial margins. I ask the Minister to consider that carefully and please, please look at how we can ensure that Superfast Cornwall is improving the situation in South East Cornwall and addressing the real notspots.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn 2:59 pm, 21st February 2017

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady, and to follow Mrs Murray. I congratulate Mr Carmichael on how he set out the concerns that many rural communities have across the United Kingdom. There are notspots in urban areas but, as somebody who lives in an urban area during my working week but who goes home to a periphery area, I notice the difference. I can use 4G very comfortably in my London flat but it is difficult to get it in rural areas.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

It comes down to where people are. If they are in a bad area, whether in an urban or rural part of the country, the fact is that they do not have broadband. That is really what matters, not whether they are in a rural or an urban area. It affects people just the same.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

I am grateful for that intervention, but I was on the hon. Gentleman’s side when I said that there are notspots in urban areas. However, people there have alternatives. In rural and periphery areas, people rely totally on the roll-out scheme, which has reached 75% in my area. Like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I hold regular broadband hubs with communities across my island constituency. We are looking for solutions. We know the problems and issues. On the last occasion, I got the CEO of BT Openreach there to come with his team. He went with the engineers to check the difficult terrains and gave a commitment that there would be 95% coverage by the end of the year.

I have asked the Minister these questions a number of times. Given the Digital Economy Bill and the talk of a universal service obligation by 2020, who will deliver that extra 5%? We in the House of Commons need to join to work together for the 5% club—those not covered by the 95% roll-out, whether in Scotland, Cornwall and other parts of England, Northern Ireland or Wales.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

The hon. Gentleman might like to know that the roll-out in my constituency is just over 80% at the moment.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

The hon. Lady is contradicting herself. She was saying how poor it was earlier. She is almost leading the way with the Liberal council and the European Union. The Welsh Government work in partnership with the European Union, which specifies certain criteria, including number of households, which work against some rural communities. However, the Welsh Government have their own policies for those rural communities.

My point is that we need to work together and take a strategic approach. I support the Digital Economy Bill, and I believe that this is a golden opportunity for the Government to work towards helping the last 5% to get broadband at a decent level that can then be improved in future.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells

The point that the hon. Gentleman is making is exactly right. We are talking about the roll-out of superfast broadband, but before the Government race off and start delivering ultrafast, let us make it a priority to ensure that a minimum service of at least 10 megabits per second is available everywhere. We can start doing that now, rather than waiting until the end of the second phase of the Broadband Delivery UK roll-out.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman has now reinforced that point, and I agree totally. This is the second debate on the trot in which we have agreed. I want the Minister to know that there is no partisanship. I give the Welsh Government the same concerns that I give the UK Government, because we need to work together. I am not knocking BT Openreach, either, because I have been out with their staff and seen some of the engineering difficulties they have to deal with.

The people suffering in the 5% are often not on the gas mains and pay more for their fuel. They pay exactly the same price for their broadband and mobile communications as people in inner cities, and they deserve Governments’—plural—time and effort on their behalf. That is the plea I make to the Minister, who is checking my constituency ratings as we speak. If they are high, I will take credit; if they are low, I will blame others. The 5% need to be considered as a priority. The Government and the Prime Minister have talked about an industrial strategy. Broadband should be part of it. We should be talking about giving businesses across the United Kingdom 21st-century communications to allow them to compete on a level playing field with those in other parts of the country.

I did not intend to speak because I thought that this debate would be over-subscribed. I have pushed my luck in coming here and speaking, but I speak for different parts of the United Kingdom, which are coming together to join me in the 5% club so that we can deliver 100% broadband coverage and better mobile telecommunications across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Antoinette Sandbach Antoinette Sandbach Conservative, Eddisbury 3:04 pm, 21st February 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing the debate.

The Minister will well know the problems in my constituency. He will know that if he drives across my constituency, he will struggle to get a 3G signal, let alone 4G. Most of my constituency is covered by 2G signal, despite the fact that its inhabitants are relatively affluent and that many run their own small businesses. We are, or would be, a thriving rural community, but sadly we are poorly served by our broadband connection. In Eddisbury, not 5% but a far greater percentage are missing out. I will highlight an example. One of my constituents is trying to set up a new business in a rural area: a pub, which will also be an invaluable community hub. I have a lot of thriving public houses in my area. I will not list them, but I encourage hon. Members to come visit.

My constituent wants to encourage and support other small businesses nearby, but he has no sufficient broadband connection. He is considering getting an uncontended leased line to guarantee that he can reach speeds of at least 20 megabits per second. He has been quoted £9,120 per annum for the line and an initial £13,000 in start-up costs. That is not untypical in my constituency. It highlights the problems that rural businesses face.

Another business has a multimillion turnover, but it had to move out of its small business park—my hon. Friend James Heappey mentioned the small rural business parks not connected by BT—and over the border into Wales to the Wrexham industrial estate in order to access the broadband speeds that it needs. That is not acceptable for the rural communities in my area, which struggle to grow their businesses. It is perhaps typical of what is happening in Eddisbury.

The map helpfully provided by the House of Commons Library indicates that vast tracts of my constituency receive less than 28 megabits per second. Although the Minister’s figures indicate that superfast roll-out is at 78%, I argue that, in reality, signal is simply not being delivered to people at the end of a copper line 2.5 miles from the exchange. That is the problem. BT says to those people, “You can have a community fibre partnership and link up your home.” That is fine for those who have a spare thousand pounds or two to top up, but sometimes it costs £5,000 or more to connect a single premises.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

My hon. Friend has hit on an important point that affects many of my constituents. Although we are getting fibre to the cabinet, there are lots of areas, especially in rural communities, that are well over 2 km from the cabinet on copper, which means that they lose the superfast broadband speed. Although they are technically connected to a cabinet with fibre, they are not getting superfast broadband.

Photo of Antoinette Sandbach Antoinette Sandbach Conservative, Eddisbury

That is certainly the experience of my constituents. They find it deeply frustrating and are at a loss for what they can do. It is important that those communities and premises are addressed before we start megafast roll-out elsewhere in the country.

I welcome the fact that there will be a universal service obligation of 10 megabits per second. I ask the Minister not to let the telecoms companies wriggle out of that obligation. Often, in order to deliver that speed in rural communities, they may well need to lay more fibre. The universal service obligation seems absolutely critical to the last 5% or, in the case of my constituency, to the last 22% or more.

I urge the Minister to look at how he can strengthen and support the universal service obligation, and I encourage constituents to download the Actual Experience software, which sends data about the appalling connections directly to Ofcom. The more information we get in real time, the more the lack of service delivered from the roll-out will be clear to the Minister. I therefore encourage him to take action to strengthen the USO and to put what pressure he can on connecting Cheshire and rolling out to the remaining premises in Eddisbury.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Scottish National Party, North Ayrshire and Arran 3:10 pm, 21st February 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I am delighted to speak in this important debate and I extend my thanks to Mr Carmichael for securing it. This issue causes me and too many of my constituents too much frustration. Whole swathes of my constituency are excluded from the so-called digital revolution. Superfast broadband remains a pipedream. It is something we hear about and may even dream of, but we have yet to partake of its delights.

The situation has been improving across Scotland, not least due to the concerted and determined efforts of the Scottish Government. Statistics that say that 83%—modest as that is—of Scotland has superfast broadband mean nothing to those who do not have that luxury. It is certainly viewed as a luxury by those living in more remote areas. Indeed, if someone lives in a remote area, such statistics make their own lack of access to superfast broadband all the worse, as though they and their community’s challenges are being mocked by the progress elsewhere.

It is true that 83% of Scotland does now have access to superfast broadband, but Scotland is being left behind, as the figure for the UK is 89%. This gap is narrowing, but make no mistake: there is an unmistakable and identifiable gap. In my own constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran, the Scottish Government’s commitment to 100% superfast broadband coverage by 2021 is welcomed, and rural Scotland is impatient for it.

There was a great missed opportunity when the UK Government rejected Scottish National party amendments to the Digital Economy Bill that would have required the Secretary of State to introduce a broadband voucher scheme to allow an end user to access broadband, other than that supplied by the provider of the universal service order under part 2 of the Communications Act 2003. A consultation by the UK Government has been announced, which I welcome wholeheartedly, but our proposals would provide a replacement for the previous UK Government broadband connection voucher scheme, which ran from 2013 to 2015 and encouraged small and medium-sized businesses to take up superfast broadband, helping more than 40,000 such enterprises.

Our businesses in rural areas rely on good, reliable broadband connections, and there is still much to be done. We have made progress, but, as many of my constituents would testify, we are not there yet. Digital connectivity is an integral part of economic development. For a modern, thriving, successful economic future, we need first-class digital infrastructure. Superfast broadband is about growing our economy and economic opportunities. It is about connecting people, about social inclusion, about empowering our young people and the next generation. First-class digital infrastructure is required to keep all parts of our economy competitive and thriving in a global market. That must include our rural areas.

I am tempted at this juncture to speak about mobile signals, but time forbids me. Suffice it to say that on the island of Arran there are huge notspots, which is simply not good enough.

I want to turn for a moment to what I believe is the UK Government’s lack of foresight in this matter. Rural mobile connectivity is suffering and struggling because successive UK Westminster Governments have seen the licensing of mobile spectrum as a cash cow rather than as critical infrastructure and something that is absolutely essential for our communities and our whole country. It seems that the only criteria that were considered when the 3G and 4G spectrum was auctioned were raising large sums of money.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Scottish National Party, North Ayrshire and Arran

I will finish my point and then take the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

It seems that little consideration was given to how great the coverage could and should be. How is it that the German Government required 98% coverage, but the UK settled for 95%? Greater funds were traded for lesser coverage, and that has had the effect that whole swathes of the country and my constituency are missing out. It is simply not good enough.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Conservative, Wantage

It is a simple matter of fact that the Ofcom auction was conducted on the basis that it would not be based on how much money could be raised. It was solely based on conducting the most efficient auction. Raising money was specifically excluded.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Scottish National Party, North Ayrshire and Arran

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will explain, if he gets an opportunity to speak later, why the German Government succeeded, whereas the UK Government appeared to fail.

Scots have access to a 4G signal only 50.4% of the time, suffering some of the lowest access to mobile data in general, and as of December 2015 nearly half of Scotland’s land mass had no data coverage whatever, compared with only 13% of the UK as a whole. That is simply not on, and I am keen to hear what the Minister thinks of those statistics. I want to hear what reassurances the Minister can give to my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, who are so poorly served in this so-called digital revolution. What reassurances can he give to all the people across Scotland who are so poorly served that it affects their ability to connect with people, their ability to study and their ability to run their businesses as effectively and completely as they would like?

Scotland lives and competes in a global environment, and all parts of Scotland need to be part of the digital revolution to compete properly. I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say today to my constituents to show that he understands that.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 3:16 pm, 21st February 2017

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Brady. I thank Mr Carmichael for setting the scene so well. I have a great deal of interest in this issue. As the figures and the stats will show, in my constituency of Strangford we lag behind on accessibility. To someone of my generation, a megabyte would have meant a really large bite of some kind of food. That was certainly the perception. I never dreamed of the day when it would be a part of everyday speech. More than that, I never dreamed that it could play a real part in the ability of a business to compete and thrive. This is the case, however. We live in an age when online provision is almost considered a human right and our businesses do not have a chance without it. For that reason, in December last year I tabled a written question:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, what assessment she has made of the level of investment required to bring broadband access in rural communities in (a) the UK and (b) Northern Ireland up to the average level in all communities.”

The answer was simple and also stark:

“95% of UK premises are expected to be covered by superfast broadband by December 2017. The 95% figure is a UK average and individual areas, including rural parts of Northern Ireland and other areas of the UK, will have different coverage levels.”

We are one of those.

“All premises which do not have a speed of at least 10Mbps will be able to request an upgrade to at least this speed under the Universal Service Obligation.”

The Minister told us that.

“Furthermore providers and local bodies will also be able to access funding for full fibre connectivity as announced at the Autumn Statement 2016, once those proposals have been finalised in early 2017.”

That gave me lots of information, but unfortunately it did not give me the information that I needed. That is what has been done to provide support to rural communities. What co-operation is taking place with the devolved Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly to see better connection for all of Northern Ireland, but most especially the rural communities?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford, my constituency neighbour, for his contribution and for giving way. Does he agree that the previous voucher scheme brought much benefit to our constituents, particularly those who live in higher altitudes, and particularly businesses? Does he think that the reintroduction of a voucher scheme would provide a necessary financial incentive to people who try to conduct business in rural communities?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree with her point, which she made very well. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that in a positive fashion. I am going to ask for such things as well.

For us in Northern Ireland the issue is clear. I understand that the Northern Ireland project has been allocated more than £11.5 million of Government funding for phases 1 and 2 of the superfast broadband programme.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Just before the hon. Gentleman gets on to the Northern Ireland context, I want to nail the issue of notspots in urban areas. He mentioned the figure of 95% for overall superfast coverage by the end of 2017. Superfast coverage for rural areas is 59%, which shows the difference between urban and rural.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

The Minister clearly said 95%, and the hon. Gentleman has pointed out that that falls to 59% in rural areas. In my area, the figure would be similar to that.

To relate things to my constituency, the BDUK scheme has made superfast broadband available to 1,871 more premises than previously, which must be good news. I welcome the progress. The average take-up of superfast broadband under the BDUK Northern Ireland project area is 27.3% and, more broadly, the total Government and commercially-funded superfast coverage in Strangford is 79.1%. I know that the Minister probably has all the figures written down; statistics are no doubt regularly handed to him. These points are all great soundbites, but the difficulty, for me, lies in the fact that the estimate from the available supplier data is that coverage will be around 84.5% by the end of December 2017. That is a massive distance away from the 95% expectation that the Minister has indicated. It translates to a 10% disparity in my rural community. Therefore, I again ask the Minister what can be done, and, indeed, what will be done to bridge the gap between target and reality in my constituency.

A member of my local council is not able to get broadband in his home. His neighbour three doors along can get it, but anyone living in the other direction is stuck in the dark ages. There is something wrong if that happens. Businesses in rural areas struggle to keep up with competition that can sell online, which is the rage these days. I received a standardised email from my constituents—I call it a round-robin; it is the sort of thing MPs get regularly—containing an interesting request that we will all have heard, to end the franchise of Openreach. That is one opinion that has been put forward, and perhaps consideration will be given to how best to go about it. I am sure the Minister will respond.

I do not know whether that is the answer. Perhaps the competition would be an encouragement to stretch further for customers. However, I do know that it is grossly unfair that my constituents are unable to gain the coverage that they deserve. Today I want simply and firmly to put the question back with the Minister—to bat the ball right to his feet: what is to be done for the rural communities of Strangford? What is being done to help schoolchildren with access to homework resources, and to enable businesses to stretch further and achieve more and parents to multi-task and shop online? All those things are part of day-to-day life—but not for too many of my constituents. That is why I ask for more to be done. When will that happen for Strangford, and the rest of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Scottish National Party, Inverclyde 3:23 pm, 21st February 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank Mr Carmichael for securing today’s debate. Although the content of my email inbox varies, the issue of broadband always remains one of the most important issues affecting my constituency. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson is here today. Our constituencies share a border and sometimes I feel that, as we are on the fringe of what is known as the central belt, people believe that the benefits of the big cities fall to us too; I assure the House that they do not. Like other Members, I am regularly contacted by constituents who are frustrated by slow internet speeds and the way in which broadband infrastructure is being implemented in their area.

As has been discussed in previous debates, constituents are frustrated because they do not consider broadband to be a luxury. It is seen as the fourth utility, essential for business, entertainment and education. If we accept that view, we must give constituents the same right to it as they have to gas, electricity and water. We would never consider telling our constituents, “We know that your water only comes on during certain parts of the day, but we hope to have full water supply rolled out to all properties by 2020.” Constituents would not find that acceptable. Equally, we cannot expect them quietly to tolerate an inadequate fourth utility. I understand that there is no technological magic wand that we can wave over areas with poor connectivity. However, we need to ensure that all tiers of government, including local authorities, are provided with the necessary funding for roll-out to be undertaken as quickly as possible.

In some instances, companies have indicated that it is not commercially viable for them to build the infrastructure that would deliver superfast broadband to certain areas. In my own constituency, Wemyss Bay, Inverkip and Kilmacolm have been particularly affected by that commercial gap. By the way, Kilmacolm got piped clean water only in 1878. Some may be surprised to know that Inverclyde, just 40 minutes from Glasgow, is relevant to a debate on rural broadband. My constituency is, in fact, Scotland in microcosm. Most of the population lives on a relatively thin strip of land, where we have densely populated towns with large housing estates. That area is hemmed in by the coast and undeveloped hills. Surrounding the most populated areas we have farmland, which includes sheep and llama farms. We have sustainable forestry providing fuel for biomass heating, and rural villages, along with smallholdings and isolated farm houses. The sort of obstacles that inhibit full roll-out of superfast broadband all exist in Inverclyde, and include the river, hills, flooding and sparsely populated areas. However, Inverclyde’s diverse geography, along with its limited size, actually makes it an ideal location for pilot schemes or for testing more effective ways in which to roll out superfast broadband; so I urge broadband providers to come to Inverclyde and prove how good they are. Ultimately, if we cannot meet the challenges of getting superfast broadband to Kilmacolm or Inverkip, those of providing an equivalent service in Argyll or Sutherland will be insurmountable.

What other potential solutions are there, and, more importantly, are they economically viable? Virgin Media’s Project Lightning includes the village of Kilmacolm, and I am looking forward to seeing how well that progresses. Recently Vodafone, in conjunction with Telefonica UK Limited, announced that a new base station is planned in the Wemyss Bay area. I am hoping that that is a step towards providing 21st century coverage to the surrounding area. Satellite solutions undoubtedly have their place, and I have recently brought the National Farmers Union of Scotland together with satellite solution providers.

Inverclyde is much like many other constituencies. We have many suppliers, not necessarily working together, fighting for the most profitable section of the market, while the more rural areas are neglected. When the day comes that Inverclyde has 99.9% coverage, I shall be knocking at the Minister’s door and speaking up for the 0.1%: no household left behind. We have a fragmented approach when we need a joined-up solution. MPs are grappling with the technology and trying to find bespoke solutions for their constituency, when the UK Government, instead of abdicating responsibility, should be overseeing the roll-out, defining best practice and funding the less commercial areas.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee 3:27 pm, 21st February 2017

I congratulate Mr Carmichael on obtaining the debate. The constituency he represents and the Outer Hebrides are partner islands, so to speak. It is time that the UK upped its game because island groups are showing the way. Unfortunately, it is not the Hebrides, nor is it Orkney and Shetland, unfortunately for him; it is the Faroe Islands. During the debate, I could confidently text the Faroe Islands and get a response. Regardless of what someone is doing there—fishing, looking after sheep or, more likely, working in the office on a high-tech job—they will be able to respond.

I heard with wonder the remarks about urban notspots from the hon. Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Wells (James Heappey). The idea seems to be unknown in the Faroe Islands. All of Tórshavn gets 100 megabits broadband. That is equivalent to Lerwick, Kirkwall or Stornoway getting 100 megabits—smaller towns are also getting that. In the Faroe Islands, 20 megabits is normal and 5 megabits is a minimum. A few minutes ago, I asked two diplomats in the Faroes whether any houses there are without broadband. Apparently 100% of houses have it. That is all the more remarkable given the islands’ size and topography. I asked them whether they ever auction spectrum. They never do. They decided to spend that money on investment in the ground.

Jan Ziskasen, the head of Føroya Tele, came to London with me to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and basically offered 4G coverage for the two island groups. He is ready to do it with the flick of a pen—he has already scoped it—but it has still not happened. The Faroese are ready to come in and do what the UK has been unable to do for island groups. Interestingly, when he left the Faroe Islands, he noticed that his 4G speed was 210 megabits, but on the steps of the DCMS in Whitehall he was getting only 20 megabits. Once again, a small island group is shaming the UK. He also tells me that his undersea tunnels have strong 4G coverage. Perhaps he might even throw in connectivity on the Gatwick tunnels for the Londoners while he is fixing the problems that so clearly need to be fixed on the islands.

The island group has seen an improvement of 310% connectivity in the last year or so. On the face of it, that is tremendous, but we still find ourselves bottom of the league at 36% connectivity. When we start at such a low base, percentage increases seem impressive. As I said to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, we need centralised and strategic thinking, and not just ad hoc stuff, such as MPs who happen to be proactive writing to the Northern Lighthouse Board or making Vodafone and EE talk to each other. There is a huge role for the Government, but there is also a role further down. In the village of Ardmhòr, at the north end of Barra, one house has a cabinet quite near was getting 50 megabits. Closer houses were told by BT that they would not get any connectivity at all. Luckily, the local engineer, Donald Campbell, came in, and knew what to do to fix the problem, and it was fixed.

I wonder whether the leased fibre lines are part of the money-making scheme described by James Heappey. In Ardveenish—the peninsula next to Ardmhòr and the industrial zone of Barra, my native island—there is no broadband at all. Barratlantic told me last week that BT has offered to provide it with broadband at the cost of £26,000 for a line. I hope BT will prove me and the hon. Gentleman wrong, and that that this is not a cynical scheme.

We have to realise that these are not technical problems. As my hon. Friend Ronnie Cowan pointed out, Kilmacolm had water connectivity in the 1880s. If the Faroese have broadband and mobile phone connectivity, it could happen now for us if the will were there. The Faroese are certainly willing to come into the most difficult areas in the UK—our island groups—and do it. They are talking about speeds of 20 megabits. In this Chamber at the moment, there is only 15.5 megabits. The UK should be ashamed of what is happening. The 4G speed down here is 27 megabits.

A lot can be done, but where is the will and where is the way? Politicians surely have to take the lead. The strategic thinking that should have happened needs to happen at a Government level. We also need to start thinking about who knows best on the ground. Hopefully, by the end of this, if we listen to the Faroe Islands and follow what they are doing, I will be able to Skype Mrs Murray. We could have scones. By the end of the afternoon we could be getting on very well without having to spend the cost in carbon of meeting each other in London on a weekly basis.

I did not mean to go on for so long. I might have to leave before the end of the debate, because I have a constituent who wants to talk about broadband this afternoon and I am half an hour late for my meeting.

Photo of Calum Kerr Calum Kerr Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Digital) 3:33 pm, 21st February 2017

I am not sure whether these broadband debates are cathartic. There is certainly an unleashing of frustration from every MP, but for a number of reasons I am always more frustrated by the end than I was at the start.

I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing this debate. Such debates are challenging to sit through because we do not focus enough on the reality of the problem and the challenges of fixing it, but every time we discuss it is beneficial. It is undoubtedly one of the biggest issues for our constituencies.

We should level-set where we are at. Our frustration about lack of coverage stems from the understandable pragmatism behind the Broadband Delivery UK contracts, which stretched the money as far as possible, and from the target to reach 95% of premises, which leaves people behind. We should have foreseen that earlier and made attempts to fill the gap. We all get frustrated with BT, but a lot of the time unjustifiably so, because it will deliver on its overarching contracts.

I should like to focus on some of the specifics of what the Government are doing and the questions that remain outstanding. We know the strategy is the BDUK scheme and then the universal service obligation. I will address the USO and fibre investment and quickly touch on rates and vouchers.

The USO is meant to be the catch-all to fill the gap for the 5%, but one thing that has not been discussed today is the fact that Ofcom’s last report in December put forward three scenarios to the Government, to which, to my knowledge, we have yet to hear an official response—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. Scenario one said that the USO would be 10 megabits simple downloads; scenario two was for 10 megabits, but with more latency specifications and an upload speed of 1 megabit; and scenario three was a 30 megabits download speed. The regulator is at pains to point out that a decision rests with the Government. There are political decisions to be made about the infrastructure that we want.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee

Does my hon. Friend share my frustration about not knowing who to blame? Just when we think we have got our finger on it, and we go to the Government, they blame Ofcom. When we run to Ofcom, it blames the Government or the companies. There is a Bermuda triangle of blame and we just cannot get all three corners together.

Photo of Calum Kerr Calum Kerr Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Digital)

In a future debate, we should address the fact that there is too much outsourcing of policy decisions to Ofcom. A lot of these decisions are political. I sometimes joke with my hon. Friend that he is the MP for the Faroe Islands, but the reality is that the Faroe Islands have that coverage because they took a political decision. They wanted that level of coverage and they took the policy decisions to deliver it. We could do the same, but we do not. We tend to pragmatism and say, “It’s going to cost a lot of money. How important is it? We’ll ask Ofcom and then shape the answer. Ofcom suggested this and recommended that.”

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes 10 megabits sound like a dream that we aspire to, but given the rapid change in usage, will we be back here in five years having an argument about it? The Government will have fulfilled their obligations and ticked the box but will not actually have cured any of the problems we face.

Photo of Calum Kerr Calum Kerr Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Digital)

That is an excellent point.

Let me explain why 10 megabits would be the wrong decision. Ofcom states:

“In designing any intervention, Government may want to consider the extent it should be designed to take into account further future growth in broadband usage. Doing so could help to ensure that consumers and business that rely on the USO are not left behind…Such an approach could support both better value for money by intervening once, and ensure that there is not a continual state of review, advice and reinvestment as requirements grow over time.”

If we go for 10 megabits now, we will be storing up more trouble for ourselves down the line. Let me jump ahead to a point that backs that up. There has been a lot of discussion about who will deliver the USO and about the high probability that it will be given lock, stock and barrel to BT—I think we need to be careful about that. BT’s response said:

“Existing technologies such as Fibre to the Cabinet and new technologies like long reach VDSL can offer cost-effective solutions for a 10M service but would require further investment if the requirement increased significantly, e.g. to 30M.”

That is a big “but”. If we specify a USO at 10 megabits, but what happens when we want to change it to 30 megabits? A USO does not entitle a user to free broadband. A telephony USO means that if someone does not have a telephony service, BT will provide it up to a cost of £3,400. We should imagine that in the broadband world. I do not have time to go into it today, but the detail of the Ofcom paper spells out different thresholds. Some hon. Members may think that the USO will fix everything for our constituents. It might mean that they are entitled to claim it, but it may give them a bill for thousands of pounds. What if it gives them a 10 megabits service? If they want 30 megabits in the future, they might have to pay for it again. We have to be so careful in how we implement this.

I am not going to address how much bandwidth we should use, but I will say that we need to raise our ambition. The Government need to put money into this, instead of trying to do it on the cheap. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland should rest assured that the Scottish Government are committed, with R100, to 100% superfast, meaning 30 megabits. The Minister has great ambition around fibre, and the UK Government should step up and show the same ambition.

I am not sure how much time I have left, Mr Brady—

Photo of Calum Kerr Calum Kerr Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Digital)

It is always a pleasure when the former Minister is here.

Let me make one final point, if I may. As we consider fibre deployment and the idea of vouchers, I will say that I am fully behind vouchers, but it is important that they do not lead to a trap whereby rural schemes such as Broadband 4 the Rural North, or B4RN, or the scheme on North Skye and in the Borders, are opened, so that any network can go on top, because it kills their business model. That must not happen. I know that is a big point of contention at the moment, so can we have vouchers and can we have them open? Let us ensure that the digital divide is closed and not cemented through bad policy.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy) 3:40 pm, 21st February 2017

I, too, congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing the debate and allowing us all to get these frustrations off our chest.

This debate is welcome, because the last time the House discussed broadband was prior to the publication of Ofcom’s “Connected Nations” report, which has been referred to today and which offered a progress report on the Government’s delayed roll-out of broadband. The debate has clearly indicated the continued frustration of hon. Members throughout the House, and I feel their frustration. The Ofcom report showed that Sheffield is the major city with the lowest superfast broadband coverage in the country. That is a useful reminder of a point that has been played out today—that although this problem predominantly affects rural areas and particularly island communities, as has been so passionately expressed, it is also a truly national issue, encompassing all nations, regions, cities, towns and villages of the UK, and so requires a national strategy.

The “Connected Nations” report found that although Scotland performed worst in the UK and England best, the headline data masked internal variations that cut across the traditional boundaries of rural versus urban. Indeed, of the 3.5 million homes that cannot receive superfast speeds, 1.7 million of them are in urban areas. In total, 36% of rural Scotland is in the slowest of slow lanes, and 25% of rural England, while 400,000 small and medium-sized enterprises in town and country do not have access to superfast broadband, with 200,000 being unable to access even the basic speed of 10 megabits per second. Almost a quarter of a million UK premises cannot get even the pitiful download speed of 2 megabits per second, and more than 600,000 premises cannot get 5 megabits per second.

There is little secret that we are facing a slow-moving productivity crisis, and little wonder when 75% of our small businesses report that broadband is critical to their needs and yet nearly half of small businesses have complaints about internet service as it currently stands. Some 33% of the business parks that were designed to be a test bed for innovation productivity are still unable to access superfast broadband, as Antoinette Sandbach set out. She also highlighted the important distinction between technical access and availability, and the take-up of broadband speeds in our communities. It is not yet clear to me that Broadband Delivery UK, whatever its future iteration with relation to the universal service obligation, will take those issues into account and properly measure them.

We are failing our businesses and, even more importantly, our potential businesses if we do not keep pace with them and provide the digital infrastructure that they require. Businesses rely increasingly on substantial download and upload speeds—although the USO does not take upload speeds into consideration—in order to store information on cloud systems and conduct multi-user calls while transferring and processing data, with multiple employees online all the time.

The sheer scale of data transferred over fixed-line broadband is detailed in “Connected Nations”, and it has grown as broadband speed has increased. The average monthly data consumed per household jumped by 36% over the past year to 132 gigabytes, and the total volume of data transferred was a staggering 2,750 petabytes. That all clearly adds up to a need that will become more and more stark by the end of the decade. With the need so obvious, it is surprising that Ministers continue to pursue the pitiful designation of 10 megabits per second by 2020.

I perfectly understand the frustration of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that 37% of his constituents still cannot access the bare minimum speed that Ofcom defines as being necessary for participation in a digital society. Moreover, the Government are offering his constituents that bare minimum only by 2020. Half the properties in Orkney and Shetland do not have access to superfast broadband, so as it stands it will be the same old story, repeated again and again: rural communities are an afterthought, and those with poor coverage are always playing catch-up, as technological advances require a faster and faster internet service.

As Calum Kerr, the Scottish National party Front-Bench spokesman, said, Ofcom agrees with that. In its technical response to the USO, it said that

“government may want to consider the extent it”—

Government intervention

“should be designed to take into account further future growth”.

Ofcom made it clear that the Government would get better value for money by intervening once and ensuring that there is not a continual state of review, advice and reinvestment as requirements grow over time.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Conservative, Wantage

For the past six years, it has been Labour party policy to provide 2 megabits per second to 100% of the UK. In the short period that she occupies her current post, does she know whether it is planned that Labour party policy will change?

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

I can inform the right hon. Gentleman that Labour’s policy did indeed change last year, and for the past seven years Labour has not been in power; that might have escaped his notice. The Government have had plenty of time to address this issue. It is quite clear that their current “wait and see” strategy is exactly the wrong choice to provide value for money and other benefits for our consumers. Broadband and data usage is only going one way.

When we last debated this issue in the House, the Minister argued that the relevant legislation provides for the USO to be revised upwards. However, following a series of parliamentary questions, it would appear that the entire basis for the claim that 10 megabits per second is sufficient to participate in a digital society is drawn from research conducted by Ofcom in 2013. In 2012, 31% of UK premises had no take-up of fixed broadband services at all and 10% of all UK premises had take-up of speeds of less than 2 megabits per second. In that context, 10 megabits per second would represent a quantum leap, but not any more.

We should also look at how quickly the designated minimum speed has changed in previous years. From 2010 to 2013, it jumped from 2 megabits per second to 10 megabits per second, as Ofcom and the Government recognised the expanding demand and need. It is therefore very likely that the Minister intends to introduce secondary legislation that is already outdated.

To truly future-proof the legislation on the USO and properly serve communities that have been stuck in the slow lane since the advent of the technological age, Ministers will have to be much more ambitious. If the roll-out began at the end of 2017, that would benefit 1.9 million residents and businesses. It would benefit residents in Lewisham, who still cannot access superfast broadband, and those in the East Riding of Yorkshire, which has the lowest superfast take-up in the country.

Ofcom itself has referred in its technical report to the “clear benefits” of a more highly specified USO of 30 megabits per second and a 10 megabits per second upload speed. It is time that the Government’s ambitions matched those of millions of consumers and small businesses. The UK simply cannot afford to stay at the back of the queue.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy) 3:47 pm, 21st February 2017

I thank Mr Carmichael for securing the debate and for allowing time both for many Members to set out their frustrations and for me to provide an update on progress. The roll-out that we have achieved so far, which is on track to reach 95% superfast coverage of UK premises by the end of this year, is in part a testament to the coalition Government of which he was such a critically important member.

Let me re-emphasise the Government’s commitment to addressing the digital needs of all parts of the UK. That is clearly a very important goal, and a lot has been achieved. I do not think that anyone here today, even if they have expressed the frustrations of those who have poor broadband, would deny that we have come a long way. In fact, that was demonstrated in the contribution by the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, Louise Haigh, who tied herself in knots while arguing that much has been done but much is left to do.

First, let me set out some of the figures. As I said, we are on track to reach 95% of the UK as a whole. Of course that figure is lower in rural areas, because of the nature of things. However, on the point about whether there is a distinction between rural and urban areas, let me say that as a matter of law there is such a distinction, because EU rules do not allow a subsidised broadband programme in urban areas. As a matter of fact, although there are still some patches of poor connectivity in urban areas, the picture is much better than in rural areas. It is understandable, therefore, that the mix of hon. Members here today is more rural than urban. Indeed, in Altrincham, 98.4% of people have access to superfast broadband, so you are probably the best off of the lot of us, Mr Brady—perhaps that is why you have said so little.

In Scotland, phase 1 of the Government’s superfast broadband programme, including reinvestment of clawback funding and project savings, is worth more than £11 million, and more than 60% of homes and businesses in Orkney and Shetland now have superfast broadband available to them. The highlands and islands project as a whole will have reached a total of 130,000 premises by spring 2018, none of which will be covered by commercial roll-out. So it is thanks only to UK Government action that there has been any connectivity at all in Orkney and Shetland.

I understand the frustration of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that things have not gone more quickly in Scotland. It has been entertaining to hear some Scottish National party Members say that things should have gone more quickly and that some of the delivery has been fragmented, because delivery in Scotland is by the Scottish Government. It is a pity and a regret, and something we have been working hard to push on, that the Scottish Government have been behind the rest of the UK in their procurement. I hope that some of the frustration that has been vented by hon. Members representing Scottish seats is directed at those who are delivering the Scottish Government contract.

Perhaps the question to ask the Scottish Government is why they have not yet managed to procure phase 2 when most of England has, and when some parts of England and Wales are moving on to phase 3. That is not a partisan point, because I will come on to Albert Owen. The Labour Government in Wales has delivered effectively and, in fact, in Ynys Môn, where there is no commercial coverage at all, overall coverage is 80%. The Welsh Government have been much more on the front foot than the Scottish Government have in delivering for rural communities right across Wales.

Photo of Calum Kerr Calum Kerr Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Digital)

It is amazing how the Minister can try to make a partisan point and claim it is non-partisan, but there we go. The Scottish Government scheme runs until the end of 2017. The Scottish Government have shown leadership with the R100 project, which is a commitment to give superfast to everyone—exactly what everyone here is asking for. Will the Minister commit to matching that ambition?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy)

I do not want to point this out, but I have just commended the Labour Government in Wales for being further forward. I will come on to the universal service obligation, because more heat than light was produced by the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. We went through this at length during the Digital Economy Bill’s passage through the House, and in the end there was cross-party agreement regarding the universal service obligation, which will bring in 100% coverage by 2020—ahead, in fact, of the Scottish Government’s proposed date of 2021.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

The Minister will be aware of some of the challenges we face in Suffolk in delivering high-speed broadband. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House can welcome the universal service obligation but, once it is in force, it must allow those who are not provided with access to broadband at the set minimum speed a simple means of seeking redress. I know that the Minister has spoken about this before, but might he make that point clear? I am sure that would help others here in their understanding of the USO.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy)

Yes. Thanks to the support of my hon. Friend and near neighbour on the Digital Economy Bill, we are now bringing in automatic redress as part of that legislation. Perhaps more important than redress is the need to get the universal service obligation through and into force within the timeframe we have set out.

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn

I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging the roll-out in Wales and other areas, but does he agree—this not a partisan point either—that take-up is low in much of the United Kingdom? What is he doing with the regulator to ensure greater take-up?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy)

That is a really important point, especially in relation to Broadband Delivery UK areas that are supported by broadband subsidised by the UK Government and delivered through either a devolved Administration or a council. The higher the take-up, the more money comes back into the contract, and that money can go towards helping more people get superfast broadband. We all have a role to play in driving take-up and ensuring awareness. That is not unreasonable, now that the availability figures are getting higher, and work is going on inside Government on how we can drive take-up higher.

There have been calls for public money to be spent. Some £1.7 billion of public money has been invested in the BDUK programme, and £440 million of funding will be returned for reinvestment, either thanks to programmes being delivered at better value and lower cost than expected—that is sometimes seen as rare in public expenditure, but it has been effective in these contracts—or because the take-up means that money is flowing back into the contracts. That will help to provide coverage for up 600,000 additional premises, and I expect that further reinvestment funding will also come forward. That has been achieved through excellent contract management, especially with local authorities, as well as strong take-up in many areas. Crucially, that has been above expectations. For instance, in Scotland nearly £38 million has been returned to date as a result of the UK Government contracts for reinvestment, and people who have really low speeds—less than 2 megabits per second—can take advantage of the Better Broadband scheme.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland set out the case of his caseworker in Shetland who has a speed of 0.3 megabits per second, in contrast with the much higher speed of his London staff. The Better Broadband scheme is a voucher-based system that allows anyone with a speed of less than 2 megabits per second to access funding for a basic broadband contract and connectivity, for instance through satellite, and I recommend that the right hon. Gentleman’s caseworker not only take that up but then email people in his constituency to let them know that the scheme is available. The grant is technology-neutral and can be spent on satellite, wireless or community fibre projects.

I fully understand the frustration of those who do not yet have a good connection. We have talked about some of the figures. Some 81% of South East Cornwall is covered by commercial contracts, but only 83% has access to superfast broadband, meaning that provision through Superfast Cornwall covers only 2% of the constituents of my hon. Friend Mrs Murray. There is clearly much more to do in Cornwall.

In Eddisbury, 82% of premises have access to superfast broadband, but that means that 805 premises have less than 10 megabits per second, including that of my parents—I hear about it all the time. Thankfully, though, a new procurement is in the pipeline in Cheshire, which I hope will cover crucial parts of the county—with no special pleading.

In the constituency of Patricia Gibson, 87% of premises currently have superfast access, according to an independent study by thinkbroadband.com, and that will rise to 93% by the end of the year. Thanks to the support of the UK Government, 14,000 premises there have already been covered, with several thousand more to come.

Jim Shannon mentioned the business voucher scheme. We have consulted, following the autumn statement, on a further full fibre business voucher scheme and will respond to that consultation at around the time of the Budget. I understand the success of the business voucher scheme of the past couple of years. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had coverage of 79.1%. I would like to put on the record that, according to my figures, it is 79.4%.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy)

One hopes. Clearly the engineers have been busy.

I met Mr MacNeil along with a Faroe Islands Minister. It was a very interesting meeting. The Faroe Islands are of course much smaller and have a monopoly provision, but there are lessons to learn.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).