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Volume 517: debated on Monday 25 October 2010

We are making excellent progress in broadband roll-out. Last week, the Chancellor announced four superfast broadband pilots in rural locations in the Highlands and Islands, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Herefordshire. There will be further announcements before the end of the year on how we will roll this out to the whole country.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In view of the potential cuts to rural bus services on top of the disastrous cuts in rural post offices under the last Labour Government, does he agree that the roll-out of broadband to our rural communities is absolutely vital in the fight to prevent rural isolation?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Superfast broadband in rural areas offers huge opportunities for things such as telemedicine, home education and working from home. The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts estimates that when this is done, it will have created about 600,000 jobs. The difference between Government and Opposition Members is that when Labour were in government they had secured £200 million for broadband roll-out, whereas we have secured £830 million. I think the public know who is doing better.

The villages of Ripple, Shrawley and Aston Somerville have all been in touch with me recently about the problem of very slow broadband speeds. Is there anything I can say to my constituents now about what can be done to speed things up?

What my hon. Friend can say is that this Government have committed to this country having the best superfast broadband network in Europe. Labour Members promised 2 megabit access for the whole country, so they wanted us to be in the economic slow lane, whereas we want to be in the superfast lane.

When does my right hon. Friend expect the results from the rural broadband pilots to be gathered?

I hope the rural broadband pilots will start in the middle of next year and that, by the end of that year, we will be in a position to see how successful they have been. The broader issue with these pilots is that we have managed to secure nearly £1 billion of investment for this project—a lot more than the Opposition ever did—but it is going to take a lot more money than that, so we need to use this money to catalyse private sector investment. The point of the pilots is to understand the best way to achieve that, so that we can roll it out to the whole country at minimum cost to the taxpayer.

I am sure the Secretary of State will be as delighted as I am to learn that Broadhempston primary school in my constituency has recently gained access to high-speed broadband. However, he will also be acutely aware that there are many other household businesses and schools across Devon that remain effectively broadband blackspots. It is important to act urgently to ensure no part of Devon is still struggling to get broadband as other parts of the UK move into the super-broadband age. I am particularly concerned because I believe we are not part of the pilot and I do not wish to wait two years for progress. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me in order to discuss this important matter further? What assurances can he give me that parts of Devon will have access sooner rather than later?

The assurance that I can give to my hon. Friend is that, having inherited a situation in which 250,000 homes have no access to broadband, we have developed a credible and affordable plan to deal with it; and that pledge applies to her constituency just as much as it applies to every other constituency in the country.

I welcome the expansion of broadband—although before too long there will be 250,000 people without homes, let alone in homes with access to broadband—but might the Secretary of State consider whether broadband is not slightly yesterday’s technology? There are now cities around the world that are wholly wi-fi, so that people are not dependent on bits of lead and copper. Will the Secretary of State consider an experiment, perhaps in Rotherham? Could it be turned into a wholly wi-fi town?

The broadband pilots that we have announced are not technology-specific. If the right hon. Gentleman had asked me what I thought the likely solution would be, I should have said that there was likely to be a mix of fibre, wi-fi and mobile technologies that deliver universal connection. However, we want to wait for the pilots to establish the most cost-effective way of achieving that.

When will this super-duper roll-out reach the 25 ex-pit villages in Bolsover? People keep asking me when that will happen. The Secretary of State has painted a wonderful picture, but will it be this year, next year, some time or never?

I have good news for the hon. Gentleman to take back to the villages of Bolsover. Our commitment is that we will achieve that during the present Parliament. We will have the best superfast broadband network in Europe. The difference between the Government and the Opposition is that under us there will be no phone tax, no increase in the licence fee, and nearly £1 billion of investment. Who says that you cannot do more for less?

Wales has not been excluded. Herefordshire is on the border of Wales, and I very much hope that some of the benefits of the pilot there will spread over that border.

The last Government committed themselves to 2 megabit broadband for everyone by the end of 2012. You have committed yourself to vague promises to improve the broadband network. Can you say precisely when everyone in the country will have 2 megabit broadband?

Order. I have committed myself to nothing on this matter and I can say nothing on this matter, but I hope that the Secretary of State can.

We have not said that we will not honour that commitment. We have delayed it from 2012 to 2015, for the simple reason that, as the hon. Lady will understand, there was not enough money in the pot.