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Volume 406: debated on Thursday 5 June 2003

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If she will make a statement on the level of competition in the broadband market. [116508]

The Government target is for the UK to have the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 by 2005. The latest assessment indicated that at the end of March we had the third most competitive market—we are ahead now of the USA—based on measures of choice, price and regulatory framework.

I am afraid that the reality is not matching the Minister's rhetoric. He must be aware that in suburbs of London and in the home counties there are areas where broadband is not available. What is needed is more competition. BT runs an arcane system of registration before it will introduce broadband to an area. Will he explain why his party defeated a Conservative party amendment to the Communications Bill that promoted more competition in broadband?

The reality is well ahead of my rhetoric. We passed the 2 million mark on broadband last month, only eight months after we reached 1 million. In April alone, another 163,000 broadband connections were added. That is probably the highest monthly figure ever. The two million connections are evenly divided between ADSL—asymmetric digital subscriber line—and cable. There is fierce competition going on—exactly the competition that the hon. Gentleman calls for. In the ADSL market, there are more than 100 competing resellers of the BT wholesale product. Indeed, I received an e-mail last week from a company offering broadband at less than £19 a month, so the competition is working. We need a competitive market. That is what we are getting and we are seeing the benefits of it.

What is the Department doing to ensure that public sector investment in broadband, particularly in education and health, can be piggybacked by communities that do not have access to broadband? In many areas, there is no competition because there is no broadband. If the public sector is investing in broadband, surely that investment should enable local communities in those areas to get access.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is an important part of the answer in rural areas in particular. I am chairing a ministerial steering group addressing exactly the issues that he raises. The public sector as a customer will make a key contribution. We will spend £1 billion across the public services on broadband over the next three years. That will lead to investment in telecommunications infrastructure for the public sector, which will then be available to other users such as small businesses and residential customers. Our task is to ensure that we manage that process to maximise the benefits in areas such as his. We are firmly committed to that, as are my colleagues in education, health and the other public services. I believe that we can be very optimistic about the outcome.