Parliament has called on the Government to host a ‘not-spot’ summit to consider ways to address variations in fixed and mobile broadband coverage across the country, following a debate in the House of Commons led by Matt Warman MP.
Attended by a very large number of Members of Parliament from each of the main parties, MPs raised important case studies about access to broadband in their constituencies and the need to ensure proper coverage for the benefit of individuals and businesses in both rural and urban areas.
The Minister responding to the debate, Ed Vaizey MP, confirmed that he would be pleased to discuss the matter further with MPs and that the Government is working towards a Universal Service Obligation to connect the final five per cent of premises around the UK which do not currently have broadband coverage.
Matt said, “It is fantastic that Parliament agreed the motion that was debated, calling for a vital ‘not-spot’ summit to consider how we can extend and improve broadband and mobile coverage across the country. I look forward to continuing to work with Ministers, fellow MPs and service providers to ensure that constructive, rapid progress is made in this vital area of national infrastructure.”
- Matt’s speech is available to read here:
I beg to move, That this House notes variations in the effectiveness of roll-out of fixed and mobile superfast broadband in different parts of the UK; and calls on the Government to host anot-spot summit to consider ways to tackle this issue.
Hon. Members reading the Order Paper could be forgiven for thinking that this debate is about the roll-out of superfast broadband across the UK, but it is about much more than that. It is about making sure that the farmer in my constituency who needs to communicate with DEFRA can do so without driving miles to a nearby town. It is about making sure that he can grow his business and employ more people. It is about the disabled woman in a hamlet in my constituency who must currently choose between paying £20 a month for a dire mobile connection or face the isolation of living effectively without access to much of the modern world. It is also about the school in the heart of urban Boston teaching some of the most vulnerable young people, and doing so sharing a single 4G connection because their existing broadband connection is not good enough.
Broadband makes a profound difference today to businesses, to shopping, to entertainment, to education, to healthcare and to everything that goes with life in the 21st century. The £1.2 billion of public money invested so far could not have gone on a better cause, and we should remember that the coverage obligations imposed on a single 4G licence amount to a further £2 billion of public subsidy. But at its heart today’s debate is about making sure that we do not allow the digital divide to widen and deepen. A one-nation Government must deliver the same digital opportunities for all of us.
The possibilities that the web offers to level the playing field between rural and even deprived urban areas and the best connected will alleviate the pressure on roads and on almost every public service that we offer. Although we are in the middle of a roll-out programme that has been among the fastest in the world, there remains a widening and deepening digital divide in Britain.
I stress to my right hon. Friend that this is a debate not about rural broadband, but about national broadband roll-out. It is likely that by the end of 2017, 95% or 96% of British premises will be connected, but the one in 25 or one in 24 premises that will not be connected are not evenly spread across the country. Without serious investment in helping to connect the final 5%, we risk isolating not only individuals but entire communities, and splitting the super-connected and those for whom the 21st-century economy is another country.
I suspect that people from BT will be watching this debate closely. It is right that connecting the whole UK on an even footing offers opportunities greater than those from the roll-out of the railways or the motorway network.
I am keen to emphasise throughout this debate the huge range of connections, where we have people on a gigabit for the same price, effectively, as people on dial-up. Today’s debate calls on the Government to hold a “not spot” summit, although at times Members could be forgiven for thinking that Prime Minister’s questions, Business questions, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions and Treasury questions are all “not spot” summits.
At its heart, the debate is about getting the best possible value for money for taxpayer subsidy and making sure that the commercial roll-out goes as far as it can.
Transparency is critical. On that point, 17% of the UK still does not even have the option of a superfast broadband connection, and 8% of the country cannot receive the 10 megabits connections that Ofcom says are required for mainstream services, and 500,000 still lack even basic broadband.
There is a universal service obligation coming at 2 megabits a second, and there are moves to raise it to 5 megabits in the autumn, and that still falls below what Ofcom says is the typical need. As BT’s roll-out continues, many of the villages that I am sure will be mentioned later will find that their connections are improved. However, the communities that stand to benefit most are those that economically are the hardest to roll out to, so it is vital that whatever Government subsidy is available is pushed as far and as fast as possible.
In the time remaining I want to look at three crucial issues, all of which are aimed at providing maximum value for taxpayers’ money and, crucially, promoting maximum competition so that the free market drives the roll-out as far as possible. The first issue is transparency. It is a source of huge concern to all our constituents who do not have superfast broadband that it is often impossible to find out when, if ever, they might get it. Councils are often unwilling to reveal that, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, despite assurances from Ministers and BT that they can do so.
Hon. Members should accept that it is not possible to produce a 100% accurate map of everywhere that superfast broadband will go. There are areas where commercial roll-out, Government-subsidised roll-out and decent mobile network speeds will not make it. I call on the Government to ensure that there is much greater transparency on where those areas are and that that is a central outcome of the summit which I hope will result from this debate. It is not enough for mobile networks to provide maps relied on by businesses that imply comprehensive coverage when in fact people have to stand in the middle of the road or hang out of the window. It is not enough for my constituents to struggle to determine when BT’s roll-out will get to them. I would rather give them bad news than no news so that communities can start to work out what they can do for themselves.
I would hope that greater transparency might come from BT, but it may come across all networks only with much tougher regulation. That transparency would also allow companies and councils to make a better case for putting state aid into areas where it is not currently permitted.
The second issue is the role of BT within the current roll-out. I am sure many Members will say that BT is, in effect, a monopoly and that its Openreach division should be split off, and accuse the company of creaming off Government subsidies and spending them on sports rights while failing to provide a consistent service across the country. In my constituency and across Lincolnshire, BT’s roll-out is ahead of schedule and under budget. Moreover, with take-up ahead of expectations, unexpectedly large revenues are being ploughed back into extending the network further than we had expected. None the less, rival networks will say that Openreach could raise more money and invest more widely as a separate company.
It is unfashionable for Members of Parliament to admit that there are things they do not know, but as someone who covered broadband’s roll-out as a journalist for 10 years or so, I admit that I do not know whether the roll-out would be better if BT were to be split up as a company. I am certain, though, that regulation needs to be simpler and more rigorous however the company ends up, because we must promote more competition. I am also certain that Ofcom’s assessment of what is best must be absolutely robust so that whatever decision is reached is not a matter of perpetual debate. I urge the regulator to consider all possible options now.
Some argue that splitting up BT would delay this vital roll-out unnecessarily. I would say that we should not put our principles before a vital national infrastructure project, and that if any delay would harm businesses and families, Ofcom should assess what the impact of breaking up BT might be in the short term.
I agree that access to broadband is an issue of social inclusion. However, I remember as a journalist visiting the highlands and islands of Scotland to see BT’s publicly subsidised roll-out, so those areas have benefited.
Although it is right to focus on the roll-out of our current plan, we are in the process of making a plan for the final 5%. That is why this is the right time to have this debate and for the Government to focus on “not spots”.
Finally, the issue of a universal service obligation, which I mentioned briefly earlier, must be addressed in a more meaningful way. The current 2 megabits per second must be raised, but to raise that dribble to a mere trickle of 5 megabits per second is not enough when 10 megabits should be regarded as the minimum. We must accept that some parts of the country will exceed the minimum by much more than others and therefore set the minimum as high as is practically possible. I for one would like Ofcom to consider whether the current definition of superfast broadband could be that minimum, in line with the aspirations of various Governments around the world, especially when taking into consideration fixed broadband and mobile signal. That will be especially important, as a host of niche schemes come forward across the country, to connect the final 5%.
Additional mobile spectrum may be the answer, but according to Ofcom it will not be available for use until 2022, which will not provide much hope for many of our constituents. 4G will not reach 98% of the UK population until 2017, leaving millions currently with no manageable broadband connection, wireless or fixed.
The solutions to the final 5% will be many and varied, and I am sure that more companies will join those that have already used church towers, tractors and their own trenches to build a new network where it was previously thought impossible. Satellite must play a part, as will many of the exciting new projects in the Government innovation fund.
To conclude, if the Government are to achieve their manifesto commitment to near-universal superfast broadband by the end of the next Parliament, as well as ultrafast broadband at nearly all UK premises as soon as is practicable, a brave regulator, much greater transparency and serious Government investment must be forthcoming. Some 12% of our GDP is generated through the internet, which puts the UK significantly ahead of other countries. That status will only be maintained if we do everything we can to further narrow the digital divide, and I hope the Government will agree that the “not spot” summit for which the motion calls will be a positive and constructive part of that vital process.