I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Project Gigabit and community-led internet service providers.
It is a massive pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I also offer a massive welcome to the Minister. I am hugely grateful for the opportunity to raise a massively important issue to rural communities. This is a half-hour debate, yet it is great to see friends and colleagues from Cumbria and beyond who share my concerns.
We want to talk about the extremely urgent issue of Project Gigabit. The deadline for applications for the broadband voucher scheme is in three days. After that, the Government plan to cancel, or at least park, the scheme for now. Every day we become increasingly dependent on digital technology, not only for leisure but for work. The covid pandemic has led to more of us working from home, so access to quick, reliable and affordable broadband has never been more important than it is today.
In my community, one in four people in the workforce works for themselves. The impact on small businesses, particularly start-ups, of a very high quality broadband connection is utterly transformational—or something that can delay their access to the world of commerce. I welcome the Government’s Project Gigabit on paper, with its promise to deliver at least 85% gigabit-capable coverage across the UK by 2025. However, I am alarmed that this well-intentioned scheme will, in practice, result in thousands of rural homes, many of which were on the verge of being connected to hyperfast fibre-optic broadband, missing out altogether.
I am talking about towns and villages that have been working with the community-led internet service provider, Broadband for the Rural North or B4RN—known to most of us as “barn”. I am delighted that Michael Lee, the chief executive of B4RN, is with us today in the Gallery. B4RN has brought hyperfast broadband to more than 9,000 properties across Cumbria, Lancashire and Northumberland. It offers 100% of properties in a community a fibre connection to the premises, no matter how hard they are to reach, and with no additional cost passed on to the individual. It even offers free connections to schools, churches and village halls.
It has been able to do all of that through the Government’s various voucher schemes. In the last quarter alone, B4RN has connected 587 more properties to the network, though its plans for the next few years have been put into serious doubt because of Project Gigabit’s procurement process. B4RN’s business model gathers vouchers from households in a rural area and then pools them to deliver a scheme that connects every home, including those that are the most remote and difficult to reach. It then delivers immensely fast broadband at speeds that BT will only deliver if customers pay through the nose, and they would be lucky even then.