It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Lamont on securing this important debate. He and I share a passion for ensuring that rural communities such as his, mine in Banff and Buchan and those represented in the Chamber are not left behind in the roll-out of superfast broadband. I welcome the comments from Martin Whitfield on the increasingly essential nature of broadband access. It is no longer a “nice to have”; it is becoming a more and more essential part of everyday life.
Rural broadband is a major priority for the Scottish Conservatives, as it should be. As of 2016, only 83% of Scottish premises had access to superfast broadband. Admittedly that was an increase from 73% the previous year, but it compared with the UK average of 89%. Only one Scottish constituency is in the top 100 for access to superfast broadband speeds, while 23, including my own constituency, are in the bottom 100. What makes the situation particularly frustrating for Scottish Conservative Members of Parliament is that despite the SNP’s claims to the contrary, improving the situation is the responsibility of the Scottish Government in Holyrood. While broadband is a reserved matter and broadband roll-out is a UK-wide policy funded by the UK Government, in Scotland the Scottish Government are responsible for leading the delivery of the roll-out. The House of Commons briefing paper—it is number CBP06643, if anyone is interested—of
“Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) is responsible for managing the Government’s broadband funding. Individual projects are the responsibility of local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as set out in BDUK’s delivery model.”
Incidentally, I found it interesting that, as far as I could tell, nobody from the SNP appeared to be present at yesterday’s Parliament and internet conference—I apologise if they were and I did not notice—which was hosted in part by the Minister. It had a significant session in the afternoon specifically on connectivity. With their constant grievance that the internet is reserved, I would have thought that SNP Members would have been all over it, putting pressure on the Minister. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, certainly did not seem to think that the matter was reserved last year when she pledged that the Scottish Government would
“ensure that 100 per cent of homes and businesses across Scotland have access to superfast (30Mbps) broadband by 2021.”
That is an interesting promise to make if the matter is indeed reserved and thus out of her hands.
I am told that Banff and Buchan has an average download speed of about 6 megabits per second. Having conducted similar surveys to some of my colleagues, I have never heard of anyone who actually has anything like 6 megabits per second. They either have reasonably good coverage if they are reasonably close to a cabinet, with a speed somewhere between 10 and 24 megabits, or they have next to nothing. If I understand the arithmetic, it suggests that far more people have less than 2 megabits per second than have more than 10 megabits.
Many of my constituents can only dream of speeds as high as 6 megabits, never mind the USO of 10 megabits. My hometown of Turriff, which is the third largest town in the constituency, only recently got fibre to cabinet. In my case, being less than a kilometre from the cabinet brings me up to 10 megabits per second on average, but most of my constituents in the rural areas struggle to get speeds of even close to 2 megabits per second, assuming that they can get online at all. It is also worth noting that while the Scottish Government expect 95% of premises to have access to superfast broadband by the end of 2017, in Aberdeenshire, which takes in my constituency, Gordon and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, it is predicted that around 11% will still not have access to superfast by that time.
The world is becoming more and more connected. If our communities and premises are not adequately connected, communities will fall further and further behind the rest of the country—indeed, the world, as has already been mentioned. An increasing number of important services, including Government and local government services, are moving online, sometimes exclusively, and with each such service the situation for my constituents gets worse.
Relatively recently, we talked about something called the internet of things. That is rapidly becoming more like the internet of everyone and everything, but sadly not for everyone: only for those with a decent connection. There is simply too much acceptance of the problem.