Broadband Rollout: Devon and Somerset

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:58 pm on 2nd December 2020.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:58 pm, 2nd December 2020

The hon. Gentleman shows an understanding of network competition that I rarely find in this House. I can only agree with him that it is necessary to have effective separation. If Openreach is effectively separated and open to different over-the-top providers, having a monopoly position does not lead to monopolistic behaviours such as raising rents or offering low customer service, but it is necessary for that separation to occur. As I think has been said, it is also the case that BT responded to many of the Building Digital UK bids and ended up having a monopoly position. That was BT, not simply Openreach.

I want to focus for a couple of minutes on the economic importance of rolling out broadband. In 2018, the Conservative-run Somerset County Council highlighted the worry about regional productivity in its economic development strategy, which said:

“We are not as productive a District as we could be. Evidence shows a relative lack of dynamism in our economy with productivity levels below our potential and lower than those of the South-West and national levels.”

Across the country, only 8% to 10% of premises are connected to full-fibre broadband, compared with 97% in Japan. We are an innovative nation, but our innovation needs the digital platform to allow our small businesses to grow, particularly as our economy shifts online and we face the challenges and opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution, with its implications for everything from manufacturing to smart cities and addressing climate change.

I do not want to reiterate the Prime Minister’s sad history of flip-flopping over promises on delivering full fibre, but I will summarise it. Full fibre was supposed to be delivered by 2025, but that was then downgraded to gigabit-capable broadband to every home by 2019. As we have heard, only last week the Government sneaked out the Chancellor’s spending review plans to water down their broadband promise instead of keeping that manifesto commitment, and a smaller proportion of money has been made available.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton cited George Bernard Shaw. My recollection is that it was Oscar Wilde who wrote:

“To lose one parent…may be regarded as a misfortune;
to lose both looks like carelessness.”

That quote is absolutely appropriate in this case, because although we might understand one change in the Government’s commitment to broadband, a series of changes is either carelessness—which is negligent, given the importance of digital infrastructure to our economy—or, I am afraid, deliberately misleading.

I hope the Minister can set out how we will achieve in Devon and Somerset the digital infrastructure that is so richly deserved. I also hope he will talk a bit about the divide in digital skills, because as well as having the infrastructure, we need to ensure that everyone has access to the digital skills that mean they can use the infrastructure and reap the economic benefits. I am particularly concerned about access to infrastructure at home, which enables Zoom meetings and online education. Some 50% of rural premises have patchy and unreliable mobile reception, so I hope the Minister will say a word about 5G roll-out and the delays in coverage. We cannot allow the digital divide to exacerbate the current rural divides. I hope that the Minister will mention the universal service obligation, which the Government launched in March to great fanfare and which allows rural households to demand connectivity from BT. As I am aware from the north-east, however, an estimated 60,000 households across the country may be charged up to £100,000 for installation under that initiative. Does that count as a universal service obligation? How much does the Minister believe is too much to pay for the internet?

Digital is now at the heart of almost every policy area and online access is integral to people’s lives. I thank the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome, for East Devon, for Totnes and for North Devon—and, of course, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton—for their considered contributions to the debate, which represent their constituents’ interests now and in future. We must ensure that, as we build back better and level up, there is no rural digital divide that holds back parts of our country and a significant number of our constituencies.