Rural Communities in Scotland: Broadband — [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:52 am on 22nd November 2017.

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Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian 9:52 am, 22nd November 2017

I will come back to that point later, but I agree with the sentiments behind it.

In its response to Ofcom’s wholesale local access market review, INCA talked about copper switch-off, which is coming and has to come. It needs to be considered along with the rural local loop unbundling. It needs to be addressed, and the suggestion at the moment that BT is possibly released from its LLU obligations and its sub loop unbundling obligations might not solve the problem, but might inadvertently stifle the competition to challenge this and to address the 5% that seems to be being missed.

All of these challenges will not be solved by silo thinking, with one discussion about households, one about business and one about wireless. The answer must come from joined-up thinking. Whether working from home or operating from private premises, people in rural areas of East Lothian demand solutions that provide access to fast, reliable broadband.

Behind these figures there is the real-life impact of digital exclusion, which I wish to address as I come to the end of my speech. I worry that participation and digital inequality could be two of the defining features of the near future. We must start to see connectivity more as a household utility than as a luxury. Our future generations will be fully engaged in a digitised economy, so we must ensure that they are fully prepared and no one is left behind. Location or income inequality cannot be a barrier to digital inclusion; indeed, universal credit—what would a debate be without mention of universal credit?—requires access.

I wholeheartedly agree with the aspiration of the Scottish Government to build a “world-class digital nation” by 2021—four years away—but I believe we have a long way to go to achieve that, in a very short space of time. The infrastructural weaknesses in rural connectivity will have long-term effects, and the answers are there. With the success of all sectors—the communities, the local authorities, BT Openreach, the third party sector and the leading companies such as Lothian Broadband in East Lothian—that is achievable, but we need to move from silo thinking to joined-up thinking.

Rural connectivity should be transformative for all the communities across Scotland. I reiterate my support for this Government’s commitment to provide superfast broadband, but that must move from being a commitment to a reality. The roll-out cannot be capped at certain areas. It must not cut off communities in East Lothian and in other rural parts of Scotland. Digital inclusion is not an indulgence, but a necessity.