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Rural Broadband

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2011

This is a very oversubscribed subject, and we have only a short time. I am keen for all hon. Members present to intervene. Some 15 hon. Members have been in touch with me about that. I ask them to give me three or four minutes to get under way and then I will try to bring everyone in.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Minister very much. He came up to Nenthead in my constituency on what was a hairy day over the top of the Alston fell. He saw us install the new broadband network and launched our conference. In general, this is a very positive story. It is the beginning of a new story, but a very positive one. I thank also all the MPs here today. Incredible work is being done constituency by constituency. If there is a broader constitutional lesson from all this, it is about the role of Members of Parliament in driving forward superfast broadband.

I say a huge thank you also to the officials. We have had incredible support from Anton Draper in the Department for Communities and Local Government, from Mike Kiely and Robert Sullivan in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, from Alan Cook at Cumbria county council and from communities themselves. This is above all a story about community pressure and Government responding to it. Within the confines of Cumbria, there has been huge pressure from a diverse range of communities. The people and places include Libby Bateman from Kirkby Stephen, Miles Mandelson, who has constructed one of the most exciting superfast networks imaginable in Great Asby, Leith-Lyvennet Broadband and Northern Fells Broadband. They have all been pushing ahead on this issue.

There is a huge need, which I am sure all hon. Members will speak to, particularly for rural areas—for our economies above all. Isolation cripples our economies. As a group of MPs, we tend to have in our constituencies far more self-employed people than any other constituencies in Britain and far more people working from home. Broadband is essential for that, but also for public services such as health and education. It allows my neighbour with Parkinson’s disease, instead of making a four and a half hour round trip to Newcastle general hospital, to have a live video link to the consultant without leaving home. The same is true of distance education and learning.

The challenges, which again are not things I need to talk about at length today, are challenges of topography, scarce population and the amazing shifting sands of technology. Every time I talk to the Minister, a new person has emerged with a new and astonishing solution. I am thinking of point-to-point microwave links; the fact that one Minister is pushing satellite technology; cellular solutions; long-term evolution solutions; and, today, people talking about moving signals down electric wire.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I am sorry if I am a minute early according to his guidelines! If there is one message that we all want the Minister to take away from today’s debate, is it not this? Communities that are geographically isolated should not be allowed to become digitally isolated.

That is a fantastic point. Of course, the complexity of what the Government are dealing with is astonishing. It is not just topography or technology; it includes cost, legal issues such as European state aid regulations, and issues such as the spectrum auction, which I hope to come on to briefly.

May I make a little progress for another minute and a half before I take any more interventions? This project owes an enormous amount to ministerial leadership—not just that of the Minister, but of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and has seen enormous progress to date. However, it is a revolution in methodology and procurement. People are having to push boundaries on procurement and methodology that would have been unimaginable 11 months previously. People are having to be much more flexible. Instead of going for big, framework, county council solutions, they are having to respond, often parish by parish, to very different technological solutions within a single area of 100 square miles. That involves risk. It involves generous investment by the Government. It involves piloting measures.

What does this mean? For the new policy, it means three lessons. We need to share the lessons from all the pilots much more effectively around the country. I hope that this is the beginning of a series of Westminster Hall debates—if anyone has the patience—in which we can take the lessons further. We need to look much more seriously at finance. Of course, there is great inspiration from the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, when a dedicated bank was set up for communities to electrify rural areas. The green investment bank is a good beginning for our Government in that direction. The big society bank is another good beginning. I would like to see finance facilities available specifically for parishes and communities to be able to move ahead with their own broadband.

The final issue is the rural spectrum auction. We talk a lot about broadband. We must think about mobile coverage. An Ofcom consultation is taking place at the moment. Ofcom is pushing only for 95% coverage for this spectrum. We need to shove it up from that, because 95% coverage will mean that most of the areas represented in this Chamber will not be covered. On those grounds, I will take my second intervention.

Does my hon. Friend agree that now is an excellent time to urge the Minister to address the twin problems of broadband and mobile phone coverage, not one or the other and not even sequentially, because in rural areas it would be impossible to deliver on the big society pledge without both those issues being addressed?

I would like to reinforce a suggestion that has already been made twofold; I echo both suggestions that have been made so far. We have had a second summit in Herefordshire. We have been one of the very fortunate recipients of the first pilots, for which I am enormously grateful to the Minister and to officials. The overwhelming feedback that has come through has picked up both the mobile point and the point about 100% coverage in rural areas. That is regarded as the basic requirement. There is a sense of digital entitlement that will not be thwarted. That means an interesting mix of technologies, which takes us that final mile to the person who is living in the mountains.

Those were two very important and effective interventions. Mobile telephone coverage is better in Kabul than in Cumbria. Any of us who travels around Europe will find that the coverage is much better in the Norwegian fjords than it is in Cornwall or Wales. That really matters for us.

I endorse what my hon. Friend says about coverage. In Devon, my part of the world, 9% of people have either no coverage at all or less than 2 megabits per second, which is horrendous, and 22% of rural businesses say that without superfast broadband, they are going to move nowhere fast, so it is imperative that we take action on that.

I thank my hon. Friend very much. On the point about mobile coverage, the statistics on coverage are very dodgy. In the Ofcom consultation document, there is a shocking paragraph in which it says, “We do not have the methodology to work out exactly what the current coverage is in rural areas and therefore it is difficult for us to factor into the auction what the economic benefits will be of achieving 100% coverage in rural areas.” Therefore, Ofcom is saying that it is likely to push ahead with a lower coverage obligation, not on the basis of any research but on the basis of an assumption that research would be difficult and that the results would be unquantifiable. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber thinks that that would be acceptable.

As another Devon MP, I would like to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said. We have beautiful countryside in Devon, but we also have very poor roads. Therefore, if we had good, fast broadband, many of the businesses could remain in the area and could be built up, along with all the health and education needs being met. This is about delivering competitive broadband throughout rural areas. I urge the Minister to ensure that when bids are being considered from various areas, Devon is given a bite of the cherry.

To finish on mobile coverage, the rural spectrum auction will be essential. As people are aware, a big auction of 4G is being consulted on at the moment. That includes very exciting spectrum that comes from the digital switchover. That is spectrum that allows us to push signals a very long distance, but perhaps not so many data down those signals. That is the kind of spectrum that we would like to get for rural areas. Everyone in this Chamber who can join us in pushing the Government from 95% to perhaps 98% in the rural spectrum auction and pushing back against the Treasury, which will say that it will not receive as much money from the mobile phone providers if that kind of rural requirement is put in place—

On that point, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There is a risk that the Treasury will demand a high price now, but it will cost a fortune later, when we are reliant on delivery of services, as he described, through the use of mobile broadband. The cost of putting in extra provision then will cost the country so much money that we will be told that we cannot afford to do it.

My hon. Friend reminds me that when I was in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, I noted that coverage was much better than in South Norfolk.

May I point out that six of the Members here for this debate were here for the previous debate on pig farming? They stayed because we all represent isolated rural areas, and many of the problems that we face apply not only to agriculture but to broadband. Does my hon. Friend agree that what was said about the Treasury is particularly important? Getting it right, and getting 100% coverage, will enable the kind of economic growth and the extra tax base, with more tax being paid by rural communities, that will do a great deal to get us out of the present economic hole in which we find ourselves.

That is a brilliant point, and a very good one to make about the Budget. The Budget focuses above all on two things—what we are doing with fuel and what we are doing for small and medium-sized enterprises in trying to support exactly the sort of businesses that exist in our areas. Without superfast broadband and mobile coverage, it is difficult to understand how they will flourish.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. As usual, he speaks powerfully and succinctly. He spoke of pushing the Government to go from 95% to 98% in the auction. Is there any reason why we should not aim for 100%—that we set it out as a universal service base?

We in the House should send a clear message to the Minister and others that unless there are overwhelming financial or technical arguments against it we should look for 100% coverage. We have long had universal post, but universal digital access is more important than the post ever was. Perhaps we need to send that signal, and ensure that Ministers cannot chivvy away at a few percentage points on the side.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. The answer must distinguish between broadband coverage and mobile phone coverage. We have a universal commitment for broadband coverage, and we are pushing for a 2 megabits universal service commitment by 2015, but mobile phone coverage is not in place. Were we to push for 100%, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) suggested, instead of the mobile telephone companies paying the Treasury for that spectrum we would end up with the Treasury paying them to take it. It is perfectly possible, as was suggested, that we could make a powerful economic argument to the Treasury on why it might make sense for the Treasury to pay mobile telephone providers to take it, but to do so we would need some very robust figures.

One sad thing about the Ofcom debate is that we do not yet have a group powerful enough to put those figures in place. Such figures would prove that 92% of those businesses in Penrith and The Border that employ fewer than 10 people would benefit enormously. In addition—this applies in all our areas, because many retired people live there—applications for telemedicine and telehealth with mobile phone coverage are much more exciting than those that currently exist on broadband.

I want to say how important it is for businesses to get proper access to broadband and mobile coverage. I would add that in rural areas, it is good to facilitate independent living through good communications. That is another aspect to be considered.

I am aware that I should be coming to a conclusion, but at the end of my speech I shall draw together some of these interventions. The lessons show that it will be difficult.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—and for having his finger on the digital pulse, given the number of Members packed into the Chamber. I do not know why we are not having an hour-and-a-half debate, although I suspect that my hon. Friend tried for one.

We heard in the Budget that superfast broadband will be a big benefit for enterprise zones. I am in a rural community, and my businesses were badly hit in December because of the heavy snow. Andel, a firm that is based at the top of the valley in Marsden, wanted to Skype when doing business with eastern Europe, but it could not; the firm raised the matter with me a couple of weeks ago. Can we try to ensure that the money that is raised—something mentioned by my hon. Friend—is ring-fenced, and that some of the funds raised through the 4G auction are invested in the superfast broadband network?

My hon. Friend may not be aware that below Lincoln are urban areas, within the constituency but outside the city boundary, and including Bracebridge heath, that still have problems with a lack of suitable broadband provision. All Conservative councils, particularly North Kesteven district council and local Conservative Councillor Mike Gallagher, have been active in seeking to resolve the matter, and have established a good connections group as part of the Lincolnshire sustainable community strategy. Indeed, they have applied to BDUK—Broadband Delivery UK—for pilot scheme funding to improve the provision of broadband in those areas. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to work together to improve our constituents’ access to suitable broadband connectivity and to enhance the competitiveness of businesses in our constituencies?

I am a little concerned that my hon. Friend is about to finish his speech, because I would like briefly to pay tribute to his leadership on this matter, on which he is the most knowledgeable person in the House. I hope that Cumbria, together with north Yorkshire, will build the arc of superfast broadband across rural northern Britain.

Before he concludes, will my hon. Friend talk a little about the responsibility of communities in dealing with the matter? I am concerned that the debate has gone a little too far towards Government solutions and council solutions. He has played an exceptional role in getting communities motivated. How does he do it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Will he adequately distinguish between superfast broadband and the kind of broadband that small businesses need in order to make the economic difference that we all want them to make as quickly as possible? The Government do not always distinguish between broadband, which enables small businesses to offer their services to the entire world, and superfast broadband which may have economic benefits in future that have yet to be fully quantified.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and pay tribute to his leadership in this important field. He mentioned the Treasury, and I wish to speak about the payback potential of such investment.

As with so many infrastructure matters, the payback is enormous, and I urge the Minister to make the case to the Treasury. The Chancellor gave a stunning Budget today, outlining investment in East Anglia—for science in Norwich and Cambridge and for the A11. It could herald a renaissance of small business and high technology, but it will not happen without good broadband. With it, we would be paid back in spades—it would pay huge dividends to the Treasury. Somehow, we must find a mechanism to anticipate that growth, using it now to fund the infrastructure that will feed it.

I represent undoubtedly the most remote and hard-to-please area. The Minister must understand that there is a way forward, provided that we harness the efforts being made for existing communications. If we do so, there will be a great addition.

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. He started the debate, but he has not had time to speak. Does he concede that we are talking about rolling out broadband to rural businesses to help support them? If we do not do this, businesses will leave rural areas for urban areas and end up exacerbating rural deprivation.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have so far concentrated on fibre-optics as being the answer to the problems of all rural communities and broadband? Does he agree that we should diversify that money in the next spending round?

I thank all who have intervened. I shall try to conclude in 60 seconds, and I shall take no more interventions. I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) for what she said, and all who intervened on the subject of communities, because I wish to conclude by mentioning those two factors.

The Government are handling two complex issues. One is how to deal with a rapidly changing technological picture, where the fibre-optic investment that seems sensible this year may seem less sensible, than the 4G investment next year, or moving signal down an electric wire the year after.

The most important thing is not just the flexibility with technology or, indeed, the distinctions that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central drew between the 2 meg access many businesses want today and the superfast access they might want in future but the question of communities. Our procurement processes have tended to be very centralised and one size fits all, of which Cornwall was the absolute epitome, with more than £100 million being spent on an area of 1,000 square miles and delivered through the county council with a major telecoms provider.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) suggested, it is essential that we give parishes a voice. Parishes and communities will provide financing and labour, they will waive wayleaves, they will dig their own trenches and they will connect their own fibre-optic, allowing us to achieve much broader coverage and much faster speeds in a fraction of the time. That will be possible only if the Government hold their nerve, resist the temptation, often from county councils, to spread the money thinly across a large area and allow genuine pilots in response to communities. That requires the commercial sector to be more flexible, allowing communities to connect to their point of presences. Data charging rates must be reasonable, and if the community digs and installs the fibre it must not be charged as though the commercial provider had dug it.

The Government are absolutely on the right track with those huge challenges.

I wish to reinforce my hon. Friend’s argument. I have a cautionary tale from my own patch, in the parishes of Over Wyresdale and Quernmore. The community, which is prepared to do the digging and where farmers are on board, made a bid, but it has been swept into a county-wide European regional funding bid involving a national internet provider. It will not get what it wants and will lose all the economic benefits of a community doing things for itself. The service will be far more costly and will deliver less than the community could do itself.

On that note, I will conclude by making four points: first, huge thanks to the Government; secondly, in the spectrum auction we must push for much broader coverage of rural mobile; thirdly, there must be much more flexibility for communities in procurement; and, fourthly, I wish everyone good luck.

I thank you, Mr Bayley, for your patience during this rather eccentric debate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. May I say what a lovely time I spent in your constituency visiting the National Railway museum, which was placed in York by Margaret Thatcher, who pioneered the role of culture in urban regeneration? I know that you will want to acknowledge that.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) for initiating the debate. With a one-line Whip on a Wednesday afternoon following the Budget statement, I had expected a quiet discussion between him and me, but I should have known that when he is involved in something it always becomes much bigger than it says on the paper.

I pay tribute to my 17 Conservative colleagues who have turned up and to the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) and for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is no longer here, but who is a former Ofcom employee and perhaps should be lobbied by hon. Members on rural mobile coverage. Having heard interventions from Carmarthen, Herefordshire, East Yorkshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Gloucestershire, Devon, Lincolnshire, Northumberland and Lancashire, no one can doubt rural communities’ desire to achieve broadband roll-out. Although it would be iniquitous to pick a single example, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for the simple reason that my wife was born in Stroud. In fact, her birth appeared on the front page of the Stroud newspaper because she was born on new year’s day—but enough of that.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, who praised me and the Secretary of State for the work we are doing on broadband roll-out. We have managed to purloin £530 million to help to fund broadband roll-out. It is important to make the point that that is specifically for places where the market will not deliver. The broadband for about 66% of the population will be delivered by the market—I understand the tone of the debate; that will broadly be BT and Virgin Media—but the rest of the money is set aside for mainly rural communities.

I also concur with my hon. Friend in his praise for key officials—Rob Sullivan, Mike Kiely and all the others who work so hard at Broadband Delivery UK, as well as officials now at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport supervising the process. They have worked intensively with local authorities. Four pilot areas, three of which are represented in the debate, are about to go out to tender. A second wave is on the stocks; 11 areas have already expressed an interest and there are two more days for a local authority or local community to express an interest in bidding for broadband delivery. Hon. Members are free to speak to any areas that have not yet expressed an interest in bidding, and we hope to announce the next wave towards the end of May. We are also working closely with the devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that this is a United Kingdom initiative.

I am confident that we will soon make rapid progress. The pilots have been extremely important for Broadband Delivery UK in understanding and learning about the tendering process, and although people might feel that it has taken some time, the hard work of the four pilots—the vanguard—will ensure that future pilots are taken forward much more quickly in understanding the tendering process and in continuous learning following the tendering process, as we begin to dig holes in the ground to lay broadband.

A number of other key points were made. To a certain extent, the debate morphed into a discussion of mobile coverage. I want to make these points. I stress that the pilots and the future waves of broadband delivery are technology-neutral. The best broadband is probably delivered by fibre, but there will be other solutions in some rural areas, such as digital fibre points, whereby WiMax will take the broadband further, and mobile solutions. There will also be satellite technology solutions.

Rural mobile coverage is extremely important. Ofcom has begun its consultation on the auction of 4G spectrum. I ask hon. Members who bump into the chief executives of the four chief mobile operators to urge them not to turn to their learned friends and litigate with the Government over the rules. We are anxious to get the spectrum out there; it has been a protracted process. We are very aware of the needs of rural coverage, and I am discussing with Ofcom how we ensure that it is available under the spectrum allocation. Let us not forget that spectrum allocation is important to the whole UK and to the UK economy, especially with the rise of the smart phone.

I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border says about the possibility of broadband roll-out being a big government solution. He will know that I am extremely anxious to see community broadband solutions, but—perhaps this is pushing back on my hon. Friends—but they are in a position to sit down and discuss with their county councils the best way forward on the bidding process. It is easier for a county council, perhaps with its own money and additional money from Europe, to seek match funding from the Government, but its tender need not be a big company or big government solution and can include community broadband solutions.

The key is to ensure that community broadband solutions are technically joined up so that that network can be available for other users. Should, for any reason, a community broadband operator fall away, that network would still be available to be used and integrated into the county-wide network. I urge my hon. Friends who, on behalf of their constituents, have rightly expressed an interest in rural broadband to discuss with their county councils how they are bidding, urge them to put in place one or two people who will lead the process full time and ensure that community and parish voices are heard in proposing the solution.

The debate has shown that the broadband initiative is gaining real momentum. The Government have put in place the money. We are also putting in place deregulatory initiatives—for example, on deployment of broadband across telegraph poles for the first time and on wayleaves. We are anxious to work. Towards the end of the year, we will begin to see a process whereby counties, when they are ready, can simply come to us with a proposal and, I hope, some funding of their own, which we will be in a position to match.