I beg to move,
That this House recognises that rural businesses and rural communities across the UK are isolated and undermined by slow broadband and the lack of mobile voice and mobile broadband coverage; urges Ofcom to increase the coverage obligation attached to the 800MHz spectrum licence to 98 per cent.; and calls upon the Government to fulfil its commitment to build both the best superfast broadband network in Europe and provide everyone in the UK with a minimum of 2 Mbps by 2015.
I am grateful for the opportunity to move this motion, which also bears the names of 100 other Members of Parliament. When I last saw Ed Richards, the head of Ofcom, he said that the most powerful argument he required was a political argument. He wanted to hear that Members of Parliament cared about broadband and mobile coverage. If that is all he requires, I might as well resume my seat now. I am not an expert on the constitutional history of this House, but as far as I know there have not been so many names on a motion on the Order Paper for debate on the Floor of the House in recent memory.
I wish to thank very much everybody who has supported this motion. I wish to thank first my hon. Friends from Cumbria, on both sides of the House, as well as the many Members who have put so much energy into mobile broadband over the last three to five years. That includes my hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), and of course many Members from other parties. From the Liberal Democrats, we have had contributions from the hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Chippenham (Duncan Hames)—to roll out the Cs—and from the Labour side, we have had support from the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), and the right hon. Members for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). We have also had support from the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru.
What, though, is the motion facing us today? It has three parts. The first focuses on rural need, which I hope Members will address in their speeches. The second focuses on mobile coverage, and the third focuses on the Government’s commitment to super-fast broadband. All three are connected. In a sense, it is already outdated to separate them. It is increasingly clear that a separation between voice coverage and data coverage is a thing of the past; that an attempt to separate the rural areas from the urban areas is a thing of the past. The central fact about broadband and mobile coverage is that it is—not to be too pretentious—a single global universe. Nevertheless, I will hand over to other Members, who will talk about the first and third elements of the motion. I will focus exclusively on the second part—the mobile coverage obligation.
Enormous thanks are due not just to the many Members whom I have mentioned, but to the civil servants who have worked unbelievably hard in Broadband UK to make this happen. It is unfair to pick out names, but I would like, in particular, to thank Mike Kooley, Rob Sullivan and Jim Savage. I would also like to thank Ministers, including the Minister here today, the Secretary of State and all the communities that have been working so hard. I hope that others will develop that point, but again, although it is unfair to pick out names, I want to mention those extraordinary people in Eden—Libby Bateman, Miles Mandelson and others in the Leith-Lyvennet broadband group—who have been pushing ahead with their programme. However, that is not the subject of my speech today.
I am here to speak about mobile broadband coverage. I will take 30 seconds to explain the issue. This is the last chance for a generation to provide good mobile broadband coverage for 6 million people who will not otherwise get it. It is the last chance because, at the end of the month, the Ofcom consultation closes. That consultation will determine the coverage obligation imposed on mobile telephone companies for the 800 megahertz spectrum. This is a spectrum on which we all depend for our smartphones, our iPads and iPhones. It is also a spectrum that is ideal for rural areas. So why has Ofcom stated in its consultation that it has no intention of increasing the coverage from the current level, which, as hon. Members will know, is 95% of the population, 90% of the time? That equates to about 87% of the population.
That is an enormously good point. It is a matter of bewildering complexity. Ofcom is over-layering four different models dependent on masts, terrain, topography and thickness of walls, and the reality is, as the hon. Gentleman says, that 90% of the time for 95% of the people is probably an overestimate of what we are currently getting.
Nevertheless, Ofcom states in its consultation document that it can see no benefits from extending the coverage further. In fact, it states on page 67 that the costs would outweigh the benefits. Why? Because it is worried about losing money in the auction—nobody knows how much—and is worried that when it tries to sell the radio spectrum, which it owns, to the mobile telephone companies and asks them to increase their coverage obligation from 95% to 98% these companies might pay less in the auction. Indeed, they may. It stands to reason they would pay less, but probably not as much less as Ofcom fears.
That is an excellent point. The reality of auctions is not that people operate on a fully rational basis, counting the number of their masts and then bidding exactly less than that. We have all participated in auctions. They are elaborate psychological procedures that are exactly designed to extract as much money as possible.
My hon. Friend is putting the point so eloquently that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cover the sorts of constituents that he and I represent, along with many others in the House. Does he agree that there is a risk that Ofcom is being penny wise, pound foolish, and that in future it could become very expensive for this country to have truly mobile broadband?
My hon. Friend makes exactly the right point, and much better than I could. “Penny wise, pound foolish” is exactly right. To put it bluntly, it is a no-brainer. This is the time to act. If we are going to do it, we should do it now. There is some fantasy out there that if we get it wrong, we can go back to the mobile telephone companies in two or three years’ time and say, “We’re very sorry, we didn’t impose an obligation on you, but would you mind awfully providing 98% coverage?” However, by that time they will already have begun to lay out their infrastructure and will have made their decisions. Acting then will be more expensive, the mobile telephone companies will be under no obligation to do so, and we will have to pay them. At that point their interests will not be aligned with ours.
If we impose an obligation at the right moment and say, “You’ve got the licence; now provide 98% coverage,” their interests will be to provide it as cheaply and efficiently as possible. If, on the other hand, we approach the mobile telephone companies in three years’ time as a contractor, we should remember that there will then be an additional problem. As my hon. Friend suggests, if we do it now, there is no cost to the taxpayer. The money would not come from raising taxes from people or stealing it from another Department. All that we would be doing is taking the risk that we would make slightly less in the auction. That would not be the case in three years’ time. If in three years’ time we suddenly wanted to spend £215 million on building masts, we would have to tax people or move money from other Departments; and we absolutely know that people who say, “Give me that bird in your hand, because I can promise you those two in the bush in three years’ time,” are almost certainly misleading us. This is the time to do it.
While my hon. Friend is on the subject of investment in broadband paying for itself, does he agree that part of the significance of the measure—the Government are to be congratulated on the investment—is that every pound that we spend on rural broadband will pay back UK plc in spades? In my constituency, where coverage is extremely poor, communities are waiting for the opportunity to start businesses back in villages and drive a model of sustainable development. The investment will pay for itself; we merely need to think about how we recoup that benefit and use it to invest in infrastructure.
That is a fantastic point. I will come to growth in a second, but perhaps, rather than taking any more interventions, I could now make some progress and accelerate through my speech so that everyone can get in.
There is only one question—the fundamental question—that we need to ask Ofcom: does mobile broadband technology matter? Will this thing that I have in my pocket—this mobile device—and that everyone else has in their pocket matter in five years’ time? Will people be using iPads and iPhones then? If we have reason to believe that the technology is important, why are we proposing to leave between 6 million and 9 million in this country on the current figures excluded from using these machines? For the sake of what? Why exactly are we being told that those people should not be able to use the technology?
I hardly need explain to the people in the Chamber why this technology matters or what its uses are. Others will develop that far more, but to run through them quickly, the fantastic comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) was absolutely right. Our economy is driven by these devices. Growth comes from productivity, and the biggest, simplest contribution that we can make to productivity in this country is through broadband and mobile coverage, which is particularly true for rural areas, as the many people in the Chamber from such areas know. Why? Because the biggest contribution to economic growth through mobile and broadband technology is made by small and medium-sized enterprises. What do we have predominantly in rural areas? Small and medium-sized enterprises. My constituency is an example. The national average is that SMEs occupy 50% of the private sector, but in Penrith and The Border, SMEs with fewer than 10 employees employ 92% of our work force. Furthermore, because we are almost starting from scratch in rural areas, we are not talking about a slight increase in speed from 2 megabits to 3 megabits; we are talking about a step change in economic productivity for rural areas.
We are also talking about making a real difference in public services. As we all know, more and more public services are being driven online. In Cumbria, for example, the justification for the Cumbria police closing police stations is that they want policemen to be on the streets more, using their tablets to transmit data straight back to the police station. Nurses and doctors visiting people in their homes rely on being able to transmit data in real time back to a hospital from the home. Education is being transformed by online learning. In the United States, 40% of post-secondary school students are taking a course online. Recent research by Carnegie Mellon university suggests that mixed online and classroom learning can increase the speed at which children learn by 100%. And I do not need to talk about Twitter, Facebook and all the other things that everyone in London, and every child in those parts of the country with mobile coverage, take for granted, except to ask why everyone else should be excluded.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful and eloquent speech. In rural areas, we spend more time travelling from place to place, because the distances are greater. The coverage figures that he has given are those for static people when they are at home, but in fact, we spend far more time travelling from A to B, and our communication is often broken further when we do so.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point.
My argument is about mobile broadband coverage. What is the argument against extending it in the way that I have suggested? It is cost. Ofcom’s only argument is that it is worried that it might make a little less in the auction. Let us say that, based on the Swedish and German models, the auction is going to generate about £3.215 billion. Ofcom is worried that it might make only £3 billion. For a number of reasons, that is probably an underestimate. That £215 million represents an absolute worst-case scenario. Let us look this directly in the eye: £215 million is less than we spend in three weeks on our operations in Afghanistan. In fact, mobile coverage is one of the smartest, cheapest forms of infrastructure investment that we can make. It is far cheaper than fixed telephone lines, and far cheaper than ports or roads. As far as infrastructure investment that would create real productive growth in the British economy is concerned, £215 million is a small sum of money.
It is a very basic estimate predicated on the assumption that, to increase from 95% to 98% coverage, we would need to build approximately 1,500 masts, and that the average cost of a mast hovers at just under £150,000. So the figure of £215 million represents a worst-case scenario. The assumption is that the mobile phone companies will cover some of the costs of the masts anyway, because they will get increased revenue as a result of installing them. The Government should not have to pay for all those masts. Furthermore, companies such as Three already have the infrastructure in place, and were those companies to win that chunk in the auction, they would not have to pay to install new masts. The £215 million is a worst-case projection for getting up to 1,500 extra masts and pushing through to 98% coverage.
Are we prepared to turn around in 2015 and say to people in this country and people in our constituencies, “No, everybody else in the world can have this thing, but you can’t have it. In every other part of Britain, if you happen to live in central London, you will be able by 2015 to attach a device to your heart, which can monitor your vital signs, transmit in real time to a hospital, regulate your drug intake and help you stay at home. I am sorry, though, but you live in Northumbria and you are not going to be allowed to have it”?
Are we prepared to turn around to students and say, “Everywhere else in this country, if you happen to live in Chelsea or the centre of Manchester, you can do online learning, you can learn the harp, you can study German or Russian. In fact, you can study anything you want from anyone you want at any time you want, but unfortunately you live in Suffolk, so you are not going to be able to do those things.”?
By 2015 it will not be just data-rich businesses or internet-rich businesses, but the basic small and medium-sized enterprises that will be dependent on these devices to cut their transaction costs, increase their reach to market, drop their advertising costs and so on. Are we prepared to turn round to every one of those businesses and say, “Of course it is extremely beneficial for a business to have these services—in fact, it is the only way a business can compete and survive—but because you don’t happen to be located in the very centre of London, you are not going to be able to work in that way.” ?
Are we to say to a farmer, “Through this technology, you might be able to use special identification tags and make some use of the astonishing bureaucracy being imposed on you, but only if you happen to be farming in Chelsea. If you are farming in the uplands of Cumbria, you might as well forget about it.”?
We are looking for a positive narrative. We are looking for a narrative around growth. We are looking for growth, which is not effectively saying, “Oh, we are just going to get 90% of the country going”. We are looking for growth that is saying, “We want 100% of this country going.” Growth is about productivity; productivity is about the internet. If we are looking for a positive narrative, let it be this: at the moment, our best mobile next-generation coverage is worse than that of Uzbekistan. I know something about Uzbekistan. I would not be surprised if someone were to stand up and say to me, “In Uzbekistan, there are more political prisoners in jail than there are in Britain”. However, I am not just surprised, but horrified to learn that in Uzbekistan, the mobile next-generation coverage is better than it is in the United Kingdom.
Let us stand behind this motion. Let us push Ofcom with all our might to take that small risk to reach that 98% of coverage. Let us not allow the clever arguments of narrow economists who are blind to technology and obsessed with making their auction feature in a particular fashion allow Britain to miss the chance to get what it needs for its economy, for its society, for its health, for its education and for its communities by signing up to the best superfast mobile and broadband coverage in Europe.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important debate. I know personally how difficult it can be to interest hon. Members in technical subjects. It is to the credit of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) that he has been so successful in communicating the critical nature of our broadband infrastructure and the importance of the coming spectrum auction.
I declare an interest: before being elected I worked for the telecommunications regulator, Ofcom. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”.] I thank hon. Members for that! Before that, I worked for 17 years in telecommunications in the private sector. I was personally most grateful for the rise of the internet because it finally enabled me to explain what I did for a living when I was working on an “integrated services digital network private branch exchange”, which was double Dutch to most people. Being able to say that I was helping to build the internet meant that my friends and family could finally have confidence that I had a legitimate occupation.
Of course, we have far more important reasons to be grateful to the internet, some of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border; others will doubtless be raised during the debate. The internet is well on the way to becoming a necessity rather than something that it is nice to have. For some, the transition has already taken place. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, 90% of its members use the internet in running their businesses, and a third of those think that the broadband speed is reducing their productivity. That is a real indictment of the current level of broadband provision. If broadband is such a necessity, why have the Government delayed the provision of universal access until 2015?
I welcome the motion’s emphasis on the importance of broadband, but I want to focus on the part that calls for the mobile auction coverage requirement to be extended from 95% to 98%. I could talk for a long time about the strengths and importance of broadband, but I want to focus on that specific technical area, because it is in that regard that I fear that the objectives of many Government Members may not be realised
Ofcom is not primarily concerned with raising revenue, as the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border suggested. Its primary aim, generally and as set out in the directive, is to maximise competition. If pressure is being placed on Ofcom to consider the amount of revenue raised, that pressure is coming from the Government. Ofcom is consulting on a 95% coverage requirement because that is the coverage that mobile operators feel they can achieve without significant additional investment. It is about putting equipment on existing base stations rather than building new ones. Considerable costs will still be incurred, because the equipment is costly, but Ofcom has judged that the cost will not prove prohibitive to the private sector business case. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House recognise the importance of a valid business case to investments in the private sector. However, extending coverage to 98% would increase the cost considerably. I was interested in the estimate of £250 million from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. I note that the Ofcom consultation specifically avoids giving an estimate, on the basis that the modelling is too complex and time-consuming to undertake at present.
One thing that should be emphasised is the importance of getting the spectrum out there as quickly as possible. We do not want to spend too much time on network economic modelling. However, we must also recognise that adding a line to a licence requirement will not get that equipment out into the field; nor will it get mobile broadband into Members’ constituencies. We need to ensure that private sector companies are properly incentivised.
Increasing the mobile coverage requirement may well reduce the Treasury’s income. I agree with the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border that that would be a reasonable price to pay if we could be sure of the results, but there are two main concerns. The coverage requirement is for 2017. That might seem a long time to wait—indeed, to small businesses painfully watching the hated Microsoft hourglass turn it must seem an eternity—but it is worth noting that the 3G coverage requirement, which was for only 80%, was not met until seven years after the auction. Can the rural small businesses of this country really wait so long? The Government have apparently committed themselves to providing universal broadband by 2015, but that leaves us still four years away from a decent broadband service for all.
I hate to break up the cosy consensus, but I am going to anyway. I understand that the Opposition are claiming in the media that they could deliver broadband roll-out both faster and at considerably lower expense than proposed by the coalition Government—indeed, £200 million less. Can the hon. Lady tell the House of any project at all that the Labour Government delivered both on time and on budget, let alone in reduced time and at reduced budget?
The previous Government committed to providing universal broadband access at 2 megabits by 2012, whereas it is my understanding that the current Government have made a commitment to the best broadband—there is some doubt as to the exact definition of that term—by 2015. Our project was to be implemented not by the Government, but by the private sector, and with the right incentives. It was not only fully planned, but fully costed, and had the support of the vast majority of the telecommunications industry, who agreed that it was feasible. The current proposal to deliver superfast broadband by 2015 is, however, not fully costed, as I am sure broadband companies would set out in detail.
The coverage obligations do not match private sector business cases, and, unfortunately, are a very crude and ineffective way of correcting what is, effectively, market failure. There will be a cost to the public purse, but unlike in a directed programme, we will not have any say as to how that money is spent; so the Treasury will lose money, but we will have no guarantee or say as to how it is invested.
What does the hon. Lady think of the simple proposal to set out the number of additional masts required? If Stephen Temple were to propose that there should simply be, let us say, 1,500 additional long- term evolution masts, rather than setting a 98% coverage target, that would be much simpler to measure, there would be no debates about how exactly the plan would be modelled, and costs would be much more straightforward.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has launched himself so deeply into the detail of network infrastructure roll-out. I hope the vast majority of Members on the Government Benches would agree with me that we do not want to specify to private companies exactly how they must roll-out their infrastructure, the number of masts they will need to put in place, the equipment they should use, or the technology choices they should make. I would not therefore support specifying the number of masts, although that is an interesting proposal.
Specifying the coverage is a useful way of trying to ensure efficient roll-out, but my concern is that if the coverage that is specified does not accord with the good and effective business case, there will be unintended, and potentially perverse, consequences.
One consequence would be a cross-subsidy from those—perhaps in urban areas—who enjoy low-cost services to those of us in other parts of the country who might not, but who would therefore be able to share in the network. Given that we support such consequences in respect of the Royal Mail universal service obligation, why should we not support them in the context of broadband or mobile coverage?
My party is known for supporting redistribution in many areas and we would certainly support cross-subsidy, which is effectively the result, if that were the only consequence. When I speak of unintended consequences, I am suggesting we might not, perhaps, get the optimum mobile coverage within three years or one year because the coverage requirement is for 2017, which might concentrate the minds of the mobile operators on that date.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking that; I have very little time left, so I shall race to that point. The most effective way for a Government to intervene in a market is to direct subsidy in the most effective way possible to incentivise network coverage in the areas it is required. I suggest to hon. Members that rather than hiding behind indirect intervention through the regulator and blaming the regulator’s short-sightedness, we should clearly set out that we want universal access to standard broadband for all by 2012 and we should ensure that we have the means to achieve it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who has pressed this issue on our behalf and who has got us to this stage. His enthusiasm and eloquence is being listened to by the Government. I do not call myself a technical expert, unlike my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). I want to focus, following on from what the hon. Lady said, on the law of unintended consequences, but regarding general strictures about what has happened over the past 13 years.
I, as a new Member of Parliament, and all of us have fought in our areas on behalf of the rural sector of our constituencies. We might have fought on behalf of the local pub, of the last remaining village shop or of the last remaining small village school. As my hon. Friend said, this is a once in a lifetime chance to get things right and to reverse what is happening across the country and in all our constituencies. Villages and hamlets are either becoming distant dormitory suburbs of a town or a museum piece showing a long-lost England. In fact, historically speaking, they were the centres of business and enterprise, and for many of us the internet provided many people in those villages with a huge opportunity to restore something to village life. If we miss it, as hon. Members have said, we have missed it for a generation.
Let me give an example from my constituency. A community group came up with its own idea to revive the area, right in the hills of deepest rural Lancashire. The group got the whole community together with a programme that covered a number of villages. The plan was to cover Over Wyresdale and Quernmore with an extension through the small hamlets of Littledale and Roeburndale to the distant villages of Wray, Melling and Wennington. Only 1,000 properties were going to be provided with high-speed optic fibre. The group applied for a £750,000 grant from the rural development programme—that was all. As everyone knows, optic fibre is costly and the community planned to get over the cost by digging the ducts. The farmers gave permission because it was a community enterprise.
The people involved, who lead busy working lives, went through the whole process because they saw farmers in the hills of Lancashire having to travel miles every month to find the nearest internet access to fill in the Rural Payments Agency’s licence and registration forms for every sheep and every cow. Children travelled miles to find the nearest internet access because the homework for certain courses required internet access, which was not available in the hill-top villages. For all those reasons, the whole community got together and made some progress on the project for just £750,000—not a great deal compared with the sums that have gone missing over the past 13 years. Then, for the best of reasons the Northwest Regional Development Agency decided in its dying days this year to give the county council £20 million for broadband access across the whole of Lancashire. One might say that was an absolute positive, but what happened to our £750,000 programme? It somehow got trapped in the bureaucracy and it has been swept up into the £20 million. For the best of reasons, the county council, which has more than my area to deal with as areas all around want broadband, has to put the contract out to tender to commercial companies. The people who have worked hard on this—I pay tribute to two people in particular in my area, Barry Forde and Chris Conder, who have worked tirelessly—have estimated that if commercial companies come in, it will cost more because they will not get free access across fields. After all, why should a farmer grant free access to BT, Vodafone or whoever? They would have to charge them and the cost would be about £5,000 to £10,000 per property. Given the 1,000 properties I have mentioned, the cost for my small area alone would be £10 million, so where is the £20 million going to go?
To be fair to the county, it has the best of intentions and I give credit to the coalition Government for trying to drive this through. I know that Ministers, especially the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), understand both this issue and the urban-rural divide. However, in my area we are possibly going to lose a whole big society project. Rural communities, who have always felt isolated and separated, have almost got to the point of accepting that this is how things are—that the towns get everything. They think that the towns are where their children will move when they grow up and that perhaps one or two of them will come back to retire; that is how we end up with the dormitory villages that so many of us recognise. The big society project in my area has been swept away along with all it had brought in terms of community and social contact across the hills and valleys and between hamlets. There is also a possibility that because of the cost local people will not get the superfast broadband they need for the next generation.
I must declare an interest because I am still a Lancashire county councillor. As such I have quite an interest in the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The BT contract that has been struck by the Conservative administration is taking a very top-down approach and it has been criticised for that. I understand why he is speaking out for his constituents, but it is within his party’s hands to do something about this issue, as it is the top-down approach of Lancashire county council that is being criticised.
It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman has to reduce this matter to party politics given that there has been a genuine attempt across parties to get it right. I remind him that for 13 years nothing at all happened except the decline of those villages. I said that those involved had the best intentions and were trying to get the best results, as are the Government, and many of us are still working to do that.
We might lose our big society project but, more importantly, although the broadband that will come to the hills of Lancashire will be great and will mean that children and farmers in my area will finally be able to get on to the internet, it is estimated that most of that will be down copper wires or by satellite, so when the next stage comes, as the technical experts my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central understand far better than I do, we will end up, yet again, with the same divide between rural and urban England.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something? I understand that Lancashire county council is probably the first local authority to put such provision out to tender. Has it tendered on the basis of coverage being provided by one operator for the whole county or has it left open the possibility of different operators providing services in different parts of the county?
My understanding is that it is one operator, but I stand to be corrected on that. It is also my understanding that it is attempting to take into account my concerns and those of the villages in my constituency.
Everyone in this arena is trying to get this done. We all understand what the issue is and that it needs to be dealt with now. All I am trying to do is explain the examples from my constituency. We may well get something in rural Lancashire, but it might be something that in a couple of years’ time prevents us from getting to the next stage. I hope that we do not miss that bus and end up with yet another division between rural and urban areas. I hope that the Government will understand that as they plot to achieve the 98% coverage that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border wants to see. We must take into account the communities and the fact that they themselves want to contribute to achieve something. If we get that right, we will get it right for more than a generation.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate and, of course, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), my Cumbrian neighbour, on leading it. He made a superb speech that touched incredibly well on many issues, particularly the need for a narrative and action on growth and the means to deliver it. There is always space for him on the Opposition Benches—quite a lot of space at the moment. He made the point that, “Of course we can spend money on X; look at how much we spend everyday on all these terrible wars”, which would chime very well with what some of my colleagues say; I was surprised to hear it from the Conservative Benches. I have worked with him on the need for faster broadband in Cumbria and will say more about that in a moment.
It was good to follow the very well-made speech by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). He said that nothing had been done over the past 13 years, and obviously I wish that in many areas we had gone faster. We now need to accelerate progress, but I do not remember being able in 1997 to sit in my room in Barrow—it is upstairs, admittedly—and flick through the 3G and wi-fi on my iPhone, so things have really improved. The regulatory framework put in place by the previous Government has been part of that, and the Minister has experience of that. We should recognise that much has been done and that much more needs to be done.
I should also say that I have written to Mr Speaker to ask to be excused from the winding-up speeches, as I am travelling to Scotland this evening for the funeral of David Cairns tomorrow. I hope that the Minister and other Members will excuse me.
In the brief time available, I want to stress the economic importance of faster broadband networks in my constituency and across Cumbria. We of course want faster roll-out and see the urgency of that. I am happy to support the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, but we need to do this as fast as possible, and 2015 is still a significant way off. There is a need for greater action from the Government and from broadband providers, which we must not forget.
I want to mention the example of Kates Skates in Barrow. Barrow is an urban area, but urban areas within larger rural counties experience these problems cheek by jowl with people and companies that would more readily be associated with rural surroundings, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood noted. In 1996, Chris and Catherine Palmen thought that it would be a good idea to construct an indoor ice rink in the centre of Barrow. It actually turned out to be a bad idea, which did not get anywhere at all, but their story is testament to our extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit in Furness and throughout the country, because unperturbed by the mammoth flop of that business the Palmens decided to go into retail.
Kates Skates started with ice skates and quickly expanded to the point now where it has possibly Europe’s largest range of skates, skateboards, snowboards—if any Government Members are skater boys or girls, they can help me out—and scooters. The company has a really tremendous range, ships upwards of 250 orders a day from its small store and employs about 20 people, with 5% of its orders coming from the shop in Furness and 95% from online orders from the rest of the UK and, increasingly, Europe.
That is exactly the kind of business that we need to promote to ensure that such concerns can prosper anywhere in the UK, but the Palmens tell me of their enormous frustration at their slow broadband connection, which really hampers their internal processes. They spent quite a lot of money developing 3D images of their products, but having reached that stage they realised that they could not put them online because their broadband link was too slow to sustain them. We have to be able to do something about that. Companies such as Kates Skates say, “We started up in the area where we are from, we want to stay there, we love the quality of life in Barrow and the access to elsewhere in the Lake district, and we don’t want to move to a larger city.” The Palmens are in an increasingly difficult situation, however, because of the slow broadband with which they are forced to contend.
Many people have raised this problem with me, and I am sure that we will hear further examples throughout the day. CGP Books in Broughton, a great company producing textbooks, has itself shelled out for a faster link, but the increasing costs are obviously affecting its bottom line. Furness Internet, which provides services throughout the area, has frustrated customers who want to do more but cannot because of a single point of failure: the data cable that it purchased at great expense. The company says that the cable is relatively reliable at the moment, but if it goes down, all the customers of Furness Internet will be up the swanny, and that is really worrying for people who are looking to locate to the area. I spoke to the head of Cumbria’s chamber of commerce today, who stressed how absolutely essential it is for us to sort out the problem if we are to drive wider progress in the county.
I believe that in a previous existence the hon. Gentleman used to advise the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) when he was Prime Minister, and I was wondering how much of the £20 billion-odd that the former Government raised through the sale of 3G licences was reinvested in the rural broadband network. If a little of that money had been invested, would we not be in a better position today?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions my former boss, the former Prime Minister, and mobile phones. His robust, old-school Nokia survived many trials and tribulations, during even my time working for him. Those rumours are not true, by the way—just to be clear.
Look, investment was made. There are real questions about whether there was enough investment, and about whether progress moved fast enough, but there has been very fast progress. Does it need to be faster in future? Unquestionably, yes, and that is what we are here to discuss.
This is not only an issue for the Government but for the private sector and for individuals. There was a collective failure to anticipate the rate of growth across the world and how critical it would become to people going about their business and to the operation of businesses and public services. It is now absolutely right to put in place steps to ensure that we can grow, right across the country, to the extent that we need to.
The Government need to put in place a more robust framework. We made that case strongly before the election and continue to do so. There is also a role for the big providers, which need to do more than they are doing at present. I am pleased that BT has sustained work at its call centre in Barrow, which was earmarked for closure. After a robust campaign by me and by workers and the Communication Workers Union, BT thought again and is now talking about increasing the level of work in that call centre. One of the reasons it initially gave for the difficulty in bringing work into the area was that it did not have the broadband speed that some places in India had. That is a very alarming fact that shows the clear business need to speed up the level of service.
I would say to BT and other companies that competitions such as Race to Infinity, which I imagine a lot of areas represented here took part in, must not merely be a data capture exercise in which the top five win and the companies end up with massive numbers of people to write to about products in future. It is important to reflect the clear business need that exists in these areas and the business case for putting in superfast broadband. It is vital to strengthen the framework, but we also need more action from the private companies in doing the right thing by the many individuals who rely on superfast broadband and by the businesses that are crying out for it so that they can grow.
It is perhaps apt that I follow the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), because he and I both know what it is like to feel pain. We have suffered together. Last week, he and I, and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) and for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), went off to the Falkland Islands, where we endured a 3G desert. There is no 3G mobile service in the Falkland Islands. If, Mr Deputy Speaker, you see an elected Member of Parliament wrenched from his BlackBerry—or CrackBerry, as it is known—and unable to tweet for a whole seven days, you will understand what real pain is like.
Having endured the indignity of not having 3G for a week, I rather understand the terrible situation that many of my constituents and constituents of other hon. Members suffer not just for a week but on a regular basis, and the impact on their quality of life and ability to do their jobs and keep in touch with friends and family. It has a massive effect, and we should not underestimate it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the frustration in certain constituencies is added to when wonderful maps are produced by Ofcom that suggest that they have coverage, whereas the practical reality for many constituents is that they simply do not have that coverage? That rather adds insult to injury.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, the situation is worse than that. All Members have constituents who pay for broadband services that they do not receive. Some of my constituents in Burton pay for what they are assured is 8-megabit broadband, but receive 0.9-megabit broadband. The frustration of buying a product that one does not receive is massive. I therefore share his concerns.
As we speak, there are people in my constituency of Burton who are desperate to stream Parliament TV live, but who are unable to do so because of their inability to access fast broadband. One of the issues that appears most consistently, week upon week, in my postbag as a constituency MP, if one excludes automated campaigns on issues such as forests, is access to broadband. It is incumbent on us, as politicians, to represent that frustration, which we have heard about, and to get something done about it. On that point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) for giving one of the most interesting, informative and motivational speeches that I have heard in this Chamber for a long time. He is a credit to those who campaign for faster broadband and we are delighted to have him leading the charge.
I would like to pay tribute to the efforts of certain people in my constituency. The first is Ian Page, who is evangelical, bordering on obsessive, about getting faster broadband for Burton and the outlying areas. Many hon. Members will know that my constituency is an interesting mix of urban areas—Burton is a brewing town—and outlying villages, many of which are incredibly rural. Ian has run a campaign over many months and years, and has put in a great amount of his own time. He runs street stalls, starts petitions and has a website. We are very lucky to have him in our constituency, because he does a great deal of work. I also pay tribute to my local newspaper, the Burton Mail, which has consistently run a campaign to force BT, kicking and screaming, to improve broadband access in my constituency.
The reason for those campaigns is that the current broadband service is stopping growth and jobs in my constituency. I know of at least three businesses that were looking to relocate in the Burton constituency, but decided not to simply because of the poor quality of the broadband access. One was a printer, who needed broadband access to download graphics and large files for his business. He had no choice but to move elsewhere in Derbyshire, where the broadband access is better. It is frustrating as a constituency MP, desperate as I am to bring new jobs and employment to my area, to see that hampered by BT’s inability to provide the internet access that is needed.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned quality. Does he agree that although we talk about roll-out and the percentage of coverage, we do not talk much about capacity? Of course it is important to talk about rural areas. However, in every constituency across the country, even in much more urban areas, there are people who technically have coverage, but the quality and limited capacity of the access mean that it cannot be used commercially. I hope that the 4G spectrum will deliver that increased capacity, but it remains to be seen whether it will.
I absolutely agree. There are examples in my constituency, particularly in outlying villages, where one person gets a decent broadband service and their next-door neighbour gets sporadic access, if any. The inconsistency of provision is a major problem for a large number of people not just in my constituency but, I am sure, across the country.
Even in Hampshire, where the county council has invested heavily in its public services network, it is calculated that by 2015, 20% of people and businesses will still be unable to get access that is anything other than very slow, if they can get it at all. We are talking about 25,000 businesses and 112,000 people.
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and at a time when we have a global economy and the internet provides access to employment, contracts and business, it is simply unacceptable for people to be denied that facility. I know that the Minister is passionate about the subject, but we desperately need to see some movement forward.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border talked about the trade-off between the auction price and the cost to UK plc as a trading organisation. If we asked people in my constituency about that trade-off, I think they would say, “Give us faster broadband now”. I hope that the Minister is receiving that message loud and clear.
We talk about rural broadband, but in my constituency there are villages such as Anslow and Tatenhill that are only 1 mile or 1½ miles outside the central Burton area but whose internet access is incredibly sporadic or in many cases non-existent.
The hon. Lady asks an interesting question. I think they would say, “We want faster broadband, and we want it now”. We all understand that feeling.
It is incumbent on BT in particular to focus on what it can do to extend coverage to people who are at the end of the line. Villages such as those that I mentioned, which are tantalisingly close to the exchange, should get better broadband provision.
Has the Minister considered whether the legislation on the unbundling of the local loop needs revisiting? Should we not say that if BT cannot provide a service from exchange to cabinet and cabinet to home, we should open it up to competition and allow other providers to do it? I do not think my constituents care who provides the line; they just want access. Is there a case for considering whether other providers could do that faster and more effectively? That is not to criticise BT, because I know it is doing its level best, but the current situation is hampering the UK economy and having an impact on people’s quality of life.
Once again, I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border on bringing forward such an important debate.
I start by paying tribute to my neighbours and friends in Cumbria and other Members for excellent speeches. This is a tremendously important debate, and I will restrict my comments mostly to the third part of the motion, which refers to target broadband speeds. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), talked about the impact on business, but I wish to mention the impact of broadband coverage—or, in the case of south Cumbria, the lack of adequate broadband coverage—on social equality and social justice.
Let us look at the wider picture. The biggest issue facing folks in the Lake district and the dales, and in the areas that are so beautiful that they are not in either national park in south Cumbria, is the mismatch between average incomes and average house prices. The average house price in my patch is more than £250,000, but the average income is significantly less than £20,000. One in three young people leaves our area and never comes back.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) spoke about the loss of businesses from his area because of the lack of broadband coverage. Many people who employ four or five members of staff will shift their business out of the south lakes because of a lack of business space, but they also move away because of the lack of access to decent broadband coverage.
Superfast broadband is a way of equalising opportunities in rural areas, where wealth and poverty are cheek by jowl. Why would people not live in a staggeringly beautiful place such as the Lake district or south Cumbria if they could afford to do so and if they could make a living there? People move into our area to retire—they are extremely welcome if they have the wherewithal to do so. Others buy second homes and visit occasionally, which is okay. However, many are effectively displaced, because they cannot earn a living there. Adequate—or, I hope, more than adequate—access to superfast broadband would give people the opportunity to set up or work for businesses and to make a decent living.
The same problem exists in Somerset, and it affects not only those who are seeking to retire but those who are seeking jobs. In my area, jobcentres are few and far between, and people seeking jobs must be online to apply for jobs that are advertised in jobcentres, so their opportunities are incredibly limited when they cannot get broadband.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The need for such communications is greater for people in rural areas than for people in urban areas.
The current situation in my constituency is that many areas have access to pathetically slow broadband speeds. I pay tribute to Colin Barr and the team from Colton parish council, whose study showed that 45% of people in the High Furness local area could access no more than 0.5 megabits per second. Our communities and their MPs will not tolerate that. That is why I am so proud that our communities in Cumbria, and South Lakeland especially, are choosing to make their own luck. I pay tribute to the folks in Colton, Hutton Roof, Grasmere, Beetham, Kirkby Lonsdale and Upper Kent, and to the team from Fibre GarDen who ensure that we can deliver superfast broadband to Garsdale and Dent. They show a vision that UK plc—I am not aiming criticism in any specific direction—has so far not matched. This debate is about demonstrating that the House of Commons stands behind them in solidarity.
We must show ambition. The ambition that saw the development of the railways, canals and so on is lacking so far in that critical aspect of our infrastructure needs. The target of 2 megabits per second, as I am sure most hon. Members know, is staggeringly unambitious. Next year, Norway will roll out to 98% of its inhabitants 100 megabits per second, and the EU digital agenda is for 30 megabits per second by 2020. I admit that Singapore is not entirely rural—[Interruption.] It has bits of rain forest—I checked on Google Maps and once upon a time spent six weeks there. Singapore has access to 1 gigabit per second, for pity’s sake, which is what we are competing with. The reality is that we are behind. That will matter.
When I studied at university in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) in 1990—I would barely touch a word processor at that time, never mind anything else—I read an article about mobile phone usage. People were asked, “Can you see yourself needing a mobile phone in the next 10 years, or would you want one?” but only one in five answered yes. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton was asked how many of his constituents want access immediately. I am sure that many do, but I am also sure that many of his constituents, like many of mine, do not realise that they want it, or that they should want it.
There is a need for evangelism to sell the need for access to superfast broadband. We will need something like 100 megabits per second, and we will need it soon. For example, those places in Cumbria that are most remote from hospitals and the most likely to benefit from telemedicine are the least likely to have the chance to access that technology. World leaders such as Gilkes in Kendal, which is providing hydroturbines in south, central and north America, need to be able to upload incredibly complex graphic designs. Kendal now has 20 megabits per second and that is wonderful, but even that will not be enough for very long. Rural farmers need to be able to complete their Rural Payments Agency forms. The £2 billion Cumbrian tourism industry needs to be able to punch above its weight as it fights the city break market. To do that it needs more than the 2 megabits per second that we are talking about today.
I am proud to be part of the campaign across Cumbria with the county council and BDUK—Broadband Delivery UK—to roll out the broadband pilot in South Lakelands. I am also proud of the broadband pioneers and the hub co-ordinators we have in the area. I welcome what is happening in Cumbria, but I am frustrated by the speed of the project and the speed of the target. I am concerned that the infrastructure as it is built across Britain must be future-proof, but it is not even now-proof. We have to build a network that is in the interests of our communities and businesses, and—dare I say?—not in the interests of one or two large telecommunications companies. That is the great fear I have about our county project. We have heard that fear about Lancashire and I suspect that it is shared across the country.
We need to state that copper is not the answer and that fibre to the cabinet is not a future-proof answer. It might suit certain companies, but it is not future-proof and fibre to the home and business is the answer. Mobile and satellite solutions also play a huge role, and I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said about mobile networks. Costs should not be higher for users in rural areas than they are for users in cities, and that is another important issue.
Andrew Fleck, the chairman of Fibre GarDen—the team trying to bring fibre-optic, superfast broadband to Garsdale and Dentdale, said in his e-mail to me a couple of days ago:
“The cost of nationwide implementation is prohibitive in the current economic climate, but the economic penalty for delay will be greater still.”
He is absolutely right. Tonight I will get on the train to Oxenholme and travel on a rail network that was built by visionaries 150 years ago. That is the sort of vision and ambition that we need today.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on setting out in such visionary terms the superfast future that we all hope to have, but it is worth noting that the vast majority of the companies that built the railways went bankrupt and it was public subsidy that enabled the uneconomic areas to be reached.
The hon. Lady makes a correct observation, and I would make one in return—and it is not meant as a dig at my hon. Friends from another party. Let us reflect on how Norway is able to have 98% access to 100 megabits per second next year: it is because it still owns its telecommunications company and it can make it so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on securing this debate this afternoon and on his passionate and eloquent speech. I strongly support this motion. Mobile phone connection and access to the internet at a decent, workable speed are things that much of urban Britain can take for granted, but those vital connections are often absent entirely in rural Britain.
I will focus on one part of the motion, which is the impact that poor access to the internet and lack of broadband have on local communities. In parts of north Yorkshire and my constituency, broadband coverage is desperate. North Yorkshire has among the poorest provision in the country, with 30% of the county being classed as a low-speed area. The impact of this weakness is seen in many ways. For one, it holds back our local economy and has a detrimental impact on jobs and growth. For example, one of the biggest employers in my constituency is a company that forms part of a large international group, but it cannot operate its group’s international systems simply because the internet platform is so poor.
I agree entirely that superfast broadband would be enormously beneficial to our economy. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £20 billion that we might be spending on high-speed rail will do less to improve the north-south divide than would superfast broadband, which would benefit all parts of our economy?
That is tempting but difficult territory. I will resist the temptation because I have long campaigned vigorously for better rail connections for my constituency, particularly for better trains to Leeds and York and direct services to and from London. By the way—a small plug—the first direct service to Harrogate from London starts on Monday.
About half-past 5, I think my hon. Friend will find. I hope to be there to see it off, like the Fat Controller, and then dash back to comply with the whipping arrangements later that evening. I think that high-speed rail is a good idea for certain parts of the country, so I am upfront about supporting it. My only complaint is that delivery is so slow that I will be well over 70 by the time it reaches Yorkshire—thank goodness that feels a little way off!
I was making the point about businesses in my constituency requiring a better internet platform. Many of our small and medium-sized enterprises, often in the agricultural and tourism sectors, are being held back. They need a good internet presence to reach out to their customers and win business. However, the lack of broadband is not purely a commercial matter. It has held back access to education, as was expressed so eloquently earlier. It also holds back the provision of public services. I saw that first hand as a member of Harrogate borough council while seeking to improve services across a wide but poorly connected area. I do not want the people of north Yorkshire to be unable to take advantage of developments in health care. I have seen and discussed with health care professionals from Airedale NHS Foundation Trust how its telemedicine work can help people in remote communities, particularly those with long-term conditions.
Then there are the straight social and community benefits. Communities that can communicate are stronger. It is easy to do the diagnosis, but harder to tackle the issue. I have to say to the Minister, however, that I think the Government get that and understand rural communities. I was pleased to see the high level of investment that the Government have found for this area, despite these being very difficult financial times. We have worked hard in north Yorkshire to be one of the pilot areas for the roll-out of superfast broadband, and I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who is here today. As a team of north Yorkshire MPs, we have worked to put the case for our area’s inclusion in the Government pilots, which we secured—I am grateful to the Minister for that. Although we work as a Yorkshire team in many areas, teams need leaders and on this particular issue my hon. Friend has done a great job of leading the way.
The progress that we are making in north Yorkshire is very encouraging. Many groups have been working together, including the county council, the district council, the voluntary sector, local communities and business groups. This issue has been identified by the new York and North Yorkshire local enterprise partnership as one of its priorities. We also have a good local delivery vehicle in NYnet. The provision of excellent broadband services is critical to our country, but especially critical in rural areas of long distances and low-population densities, where we have seen the danger of communities falling behind. The Government have responded positively to this challenge, and in north Yorkshire we are taking up the challenge from them to make our pilot as successful as possible. I am happy to support this motion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on securing this important debate. Much of what I was going to say has already been covered by previous speakers. However, I would like to cite a few examples from Pendle of the urgent need for better broadband access in our rural areas.
Earlier this year I was contacted by Robin Yerkess from Fence, whose broadband speed was only 0.3 megabits. After BT was contacted and an engineer sent out to see my constituent, that increased to 1.4 megabits, which is an improvement, but can hardly be described as good. Neil Hodgson, a resident from Blacko, tells me that broadband speeds in the area are only 0.5 megabits, while Ian Smith, another Blacko resident, says the same, although his broadband speed recently peaked at 2 megabits following some work on the exchange. As many hon. Members have said, broadband for such constituents is not a luxury; it is absolutely essential. Mr Smith works from home for a company based overseas. Without extending broadband coverage to our rural areas, it would simply not be possible to perform jobs such as his.
In Higham, Arthur Stuttard says that the maximum speed at his property is 1.2 megabits and constantly dropping. The connection was once down for six weeks because of corroded lines. The same is reported by Bernard Ingham—[Laughter]—indeed—the chairman of Higham parish council, who says that he typically gets just 1.25 megabits to 1.75 megabits. I have had similar reports from many Pendleside villages. Brian Nelson from Roughlee tells me that he has never achieved more than 1 megabit, while Bill Mayor from Goldshaw Booth says that Newchurch may be unique in the whole country for suffering poor connection “when it rains”.
Broadband coverage in the centre of Colne, where I live, is relatively good. However, as soon as one gets away from the town centre, things deteriorate rapidly. Raymond Rushton from Trawden told me that his broadband speed varies from 0.58 megabits on some days to 2.8 megabits on others. Kris Stevens from Laneshaw Bridge has said that speeds of up to 3.7 megabits can be achieved between 10 pm and 3 pm, but during peak hours that is reduced to 0.7 megabits, making packages such as Sky Player completely unusable. I share the same fate as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths). Unfortunately, none of my constituents has complained that they have not been able to get BBC Parliament streamed live quickly enough, although I am sure that many of them are paying close attention to what goes on in this place.
Those are just a few of the constituents who have e-mailed me or contacted me via Facebook or Twitter in advance of this debate—people who are becoming increasingly frustrated by the inadequate broadband coverage in Pendle. Unless rural broadband improves, people will no longer be able to move into those villages or other rural areas, killing our local economies and leaving those still living in those communities with restricted access to jobs, information and public services. It is about time that our rural areas enjoyed the same access to broadband that so many businesses and individuals in our larger cities have been used to for so long, particularly given the importance of fast, reliable broadband in creating small and medium-sized enterprises and driving employment growth.
The important motion before us refers to rural broadband, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is also remarkable how many small areas on the edges of cities are affected? For example, Quedgeley in my constituency is served by the Hardwicke exchange in Stroud, which is a rural area, with 100 businesses there affected by slow broadband. Does he agree that the Minister should also consider that aspect of this important motion put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. What is surprising about his constituency and mine is that many of the properties that suffer from slow speeds are short distances from the exchanges that serve them. However, the technology used is so old, archaic and lacking in investment that such problems continue year in, year out.
I applaud what the Government have announced so far, particularly the initiative announced last October, which earmarked four rural areas—unfortunately not including Lancashire—for a pilot scheme for the next generation of high-speed broadband, in addition to setting aside £50 million for investment in the second wave of internet test projects. But the £830 million that the Government have pledged to create the best broadband network in Europe by 2015 will be spent in vain unless those living in more remote areas—
I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman on that figure. My key point is that that money will have been spent in vain unless it benefits those in rural areas as well as those in urban areas across the country.
Owing to the rural, coastal and sparsely populated nature of Lancashire, there is a real fear that our county could be left behind. A pan-Lancashire proposal endorsed by the local enterprise partnership has been drawn up. It is supported by Blackburn with Darwen borough council, Blackpool council and Lancashire county council. It estimates that, under current proposals, only 66% of premises will have superfast broadband by 2015, leaving 34% without. Needless to say, the 34% will predominantly be in the kind of rural communities that hon. Members have been describing today.
The pan-Lancashire proposal seeks to address that shortfall, and the outline proposal for £15 million of funding from the European regional development fund, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) mentioned earlier, has now been submitted. Lancashire has also submitted a funding proposal for £13 million from the £530 million that the Government are investing through Broadband Delivery UK. I commend that proposal to the Minister and urge him to do even more to connect our rural communities. As many of my constituents in rural communities whose broadband speed is currently less than 1 megabit have said, the adverts for services offering 100 megabit broadband are simply a bad joke.
In the spirit of the motion, I will be as superfast as possible. First, I must draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on securing this debate. I want to talk about the local position, concentrating on rural need and on superfast broadband need in particular. I then want to talk about the potential for satellite broadband to provide a solution for those remote homes and businesses that many hon. Members represent.
To be honest, I wonder what I am doing here today. I represent Bracknell, which is part of the Thames valley, where 10% of the world’s information technology businesses are based. It is part of the golden triangle of Newbury, Reading and Bracknell. We have Oracle, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Dell and Fujitsu Siemens. We have so many IT companies that I do not have time to list them all. And yet, until very recently, part of my constituency only six or seven miles away still had dial-up internet. I wonder why that is.
There are many Members here today, and I imagine that their mailbags are as full of complaints about this as mine is. A village in the west of my constituency, Finchampstead, is packed with people who work in the IT sector. I knock on their doors and ask for their support, and they say, “Yes, fair enough, but how come I cannot get fast broadband? I work for an IT company, yet I come home and I cannot get a decent internet link.” I have absolutely no answer for them. I have heard Opposition Members suggesting that we could not predict what was going to happen. Well, yes we could, and some of us did. The direction of travel was pretty obvious, not only for the internet but for mobile phone usage. We can argue that the capacity we need was not predicted, but we all knew that it was going to grow.
I have been convening meetings, and BT has kindly come in to see me. I am sure that all hon. Members have received BT’s briefing today on its fibre optic outlay. It assured me that it is going to hit various target dates for its fibre optic plans, but those dates have now been pushed back. My constituency is in Berkshire, not in some gloriously remote part of the countryside in Cumbria or the Yorkshire dales. I am in Berkshire, and I do not have a decent internet service. Indeed, in my own home in a semi-rural area in Berkshire, I cannot really get the internet—it is utterly pointless. I have inquired about the problem and tried to work out the solution, as I am not convinced that fibre optic will be there for people.
That is why I shall now move on to deal with satellite broadband. This may seem remarkable, but it is possible to get a decent broadband service throughout the country via satellite. Every constituent that Members represent can secure broadband access at a minimum of 2 megabits a second via satellite. I am told that speeds can reach upwards of 10 or 12 megabits; there is a significant cost, but it is possible. That seems to me to be an ideal solution. It is arguably cheaper and quicker, and it is undeniably greener because it uses less energy to provide the service for sending around the data. It is from the same sort of satellite, I might add, that the information for our BlackBerrys and mobile phones comes. It also relies on the space industry.
I accept that, although there has been an improvement, as I know from having had the privilege of seeing one of the new Ka-band satellites launched before Christmas. There is room for improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of satellites, but the space industry has plenty of experience and evidence of those developments. By the end of this Parliament, about 300,000 links will be possible for broadband via satellite. That is quite a few, and I am sure that it covers quite a few of the homes and businesses that my hon. Friends represent. Broadband Delivery UK estimates that about 2 million businesses and homes do not have good enough broadband. I am one of them and so are many people living in the west of my constituency and elsewhere.
My final point about the space industry is that it is successful—a £7.5 billion industry annually, employing more than 80,000 people. The companies that provide the broadband service do so not only here, but sell their services abroad. They sell these services, some of them to 50 or 60 countries abroad, bringing income into this country. In the process of providing a broadband service that we all know is needed for this country, we will also be able to export, which is fantastic in itself.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said, this is a no-brainer. There will be a combination of solutions to provide broadband for everybody. It will include wireless and mobile, and fibre optic, but I suggest that for the difficult-to-reach places, space provides the solution. We are fantastic at space. We are already providing solutions for broadband in that way, so let us provide some more.
Ultimately, infrastructure matters. Reference has been made to the visionaries of the Victorian age who brought us trains. However, one mistake was made during that period. If my British social and economic history serves me well, we decided to go with Stephenson’s gauge for rail, instead of Brunel’s. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) has now left the Chamber, but an analogy can be drawn here: Brunel had a wider gauge, so we could have gone faster with our trains. We are now struggling to provide even faster trains; if we had gone with Brunel, we would have had them. I suggest that we adopt exactly the same approach to broadband. Let us not have a narrow vision, but a broad one. Let us have a system that provides the very best broadband for all our constituents.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on securing this debate, which elicits considerable interest. I shall speak mainly about rural needs. My constituency is more rural than most, with the possible exception of those in Cumbria. My residents include people such as Andrew Byford who lives over the Snake pass—those who have been through High Peak will know the area—and whose internet connection is so poor that it is not worth having. He shares that problem with many hill farmers in High Peak. Mention has already been made of the number of forms that farmers must fill in, and they have to fill them in online. Hill farmers are having a tough time at the moment, and that is making it tougher. We could argue another time about the number of forms that they are having to fill in, but the point I am making now is that they are trying to do it using internet connections that are completely unworkable. They are having to drive dozens of miles to find a connection that will enable them to fill in their forms.
I know from my experience many years ago, when we set up our business, that locating a business is governed by various criteria. Thirty years ago, one of them was the STD code. I risk being intervened on at this point, but I used to have a very good knowledge of STD codes throughout the country, because I knew where companies were. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has left the Chamber, but I happen to know that the code for that area is 01229. [Hon. Members: “Trainspotter!”] I am, yes.
People setting up businesses took STD codes into account because they knew that their customers would look at the code and say, “I know where that is: it is local.” Now, however, one of the most important factors for such people—and, for many of those running new-style businesses, the most important—is the speed of their internet connections. If the connection in an area is not good, they will not locate their businesses there. As a result, new businesses will be set up in urban rather than rural locations, which will widen the urban-rural divide.
It is harder for the existing rural businesses to compete when they are competing against urban businesses with faster internet connections. That is not only discouraging those starting new businesses from entering rural areas but is making it harder for those who are already in such areas to survive, and making it more likely that they will move out. We all have our difficulties in rural towns and villages, such as the closing of shops, and if people move out, that rolls on. It is the law of unintended consequences.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman experiences the same as I do in Northumberland, where one of the best sources of growth for rural areas is the setting up of small businesses in relatively remote locations, but where those who set up businesses in the hope of being able to use the internet are now being out-competed by people with faster internet services.
I could not agree more. Small businesses are my bag. I would describe them as the engine room of the country. New businesses can be set up anywhere now because the STD code does not matter any more, but we are hampering them by the lack of internet connection and the slow, unreliable broadband. My constituency contains a huge number of quarries. When limestone cannot be dug in Miles Platting, it has to be dug in Derbyshire, in High Peak. The quarrying companies are struggling because of the internet connection, but they cannot move. We need to help those businesses, which employ a great many people.
Some local companies might wish to adopt a more internet-based marketing strategy, but the lack of connection restricts them from selling online. That is another reason for them to move to urban areas. If businesses move to urban areas, will the people who live locally move? They are more likely to commute, which will increase travel on the roads and rails and hence increase carbon emissions. The knock-on effects will go on and on.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the reduction in carbon reductions that results from a decent internet infrastructure. Earlier in the week, he may have heard Transport Ministers say in the House that one of the few reasons we are able to cope with the present capacity constraints on our transport infrastructure is the fact that more people work from home, thus reducing their dependence on travel. The internet enables them to do their work at home rather than incurring huge amounts of time, cost and indeed pollution by travelling.
That is true. Good internet connections increase the ability to work from home, thus reducing travel requirements and carbon emissions.
Access to public services is increasingly online, which also disadvantages rural residents. When I send out my electronic MP’s e-mail shot, I have to upload low-resolution pictures because I know that it will take local people a long time to download a high-resolution picture. I do not want the people of High Peak to wait for a long time to see a full picture of me.
It will look better in low resolution.
That might be true, but I prefer to give people the option of seeing it in high resolution.
Research has also been done on the education of our children. The GCSE exam results of children who are digitally included—I think that is the phrase that is used—are 25% better than the results of those who are not. The people in the remote villages of High Peak and similar rural areas do not have that advantage, so that is a further disadvantage they face. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this subject to the future of the country, our children and our businesses.
I welcome the Government’s stated intention and the money they are putting into this endeavour, and I refer the Minister to the letter I wrote to him on 25 March regarding Derbyshire county council’s bid for the next wave of funding for digital roll-out. I hope he will acknowledge that, and I also hope the bid is successful. He has momentarily moved from his place. [Interruption.] Yes, I am sure he is right behind me, in every sense of that term.
Previously when people set up businesses, they had to install things called utilities: gas, electricity and water. In the 21st century, there are four utilities, because, in my view, broadband is the fourth utility as it is vital that businesses have it. That is why we need to roll it out to rural areas such as High Peak and Cumbria, in order to give our communities a chance to survive in what is a difficult world and to help people remain in their villages and to build and sustain their communities emotionally, socially and economically.
(Mr Nigel Evans): Order. To enable as many Members as possible to contribute, I am now reducing the time limit to five minutes.
Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on securing the debate. We represent two of the largest constituencies in England. Mine covers 900 square miles, and his is about twice as large, I think. As many Members have said, my hon. Friend is leading the way on this issue, and I would also like briefly to pay tribute to his office staff—to Louis Mosley and the other members of the team—who are assisting him in leading the way.
Like my hon. Friend’s constituency, my constituency has become the test bed for one of the superfast broadband pilots, which is fantastic news. The procurement process began last week, and we hope that many major telecommunications companies will come forward and start bidding so that we can deliver on this project over the next couple of years. The aim is to address the major issue for north Yorkshire, which is the need to sort out, once and for all, the digital gap that is damaging businesses and communities throughout our county. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) mentioned, 30% of the county is classed as having low-speed broadband, which is having a massive effect on individuals, businesses and communities.
Copying my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, my Yorkshire colleagues and I recently held a conference. Talking of copying, I advise anyone who is interested in this issue to copy all my hon. Friend’s initiatives, as he has done some great stuff. We copied his conference idea in north Yorkshire, and hundreds of people from all walks of life came along and talked about the problems they are facing.
The biggest problem is an economic one. Unless we address that through market intervention, there will be a downward economic spiral in rural areas, because businesses will begin to move out and there will be no incentive for them to move back in again. The north Yorkshire pilot cannot come early enough, therefore.
The issue is not just to do with businesses, however. As we have heard, there is general frustration in all walks of life: there is huge frustration about housing becoming less marketable because of “not spots” and low speeds, and about whole communities of people, and their schools and other organisations, getting fewer deals online. Apparently, people lose out by £500 or £600 a year if they cannot get online to take advantage of the internet shopping bargains.
For all the Government have done for us on this issue, communities and villages must play their parts. As many Members have said, communities throughout England are coming together, and in Skipton and Ripon we have seen some great examples. In Darley, a beautiful village in Nidderdale, many people have come together and shown that there is demand, showing those who hope to invest in our procurement process that there is money to be made—Sue Welch and David Holland deserve mention. Across the Pennines, in Appletreewick, Adrian Precious did something similar. They got their communities together and showed that if we link the communities, that presents a real proposition for the private sector.
The £500 million fund and the Government’s universal broadband commitment are grabbing the attention of my constituents and of North Yorkshire. Although I am very positive about the work the Government have done, there is a slight question mark over mobile provision. The forthcoming auction of the 800 MHz spectrum is equally key for our rural communities and if we consider the poor auction process for 3G and what happened then, we can see that there is a tremendous amount to learn.
I have a number of questions for the Minister, but I have only 10 seconds left. Will he consider some different ways of taxing—
Saved by the bell there, Minister.
People could be forgiven for thinking that a constituency such as mine in Bury North, which ostensibly lies within the Greater Manchester conurbation, would not be affected in any way by the problems that are the subject of the debate. When people think of Manchester, they inevitably think of the vibrant city centre or perhaps of the two football teams that were so much in the media and the spotlight at the weekend. Greater Manchester, however, is much more than just a city. It is made up of 10 local authority areas, of which Bury is one, and Bury North lies on the very northern edge of the Greater Manchester conurbation. It is in reality in parts much more rural Lancashire than the city of Manchester and I want briefly to highlight the effect of that dichotomy this afternoon.
In addition to the principal town of Bury, there are several rural villages in the constituency. Although I readily accept that they are not quite as far from an urban centre as some of the villages in, let us say, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), whom I warmly congratulate on securing this timely debate, when it comes to the problem of having a workable broadband connection they might as well be. It is a case of so near, yet so far.
I am greatly indebted to the Bury rural inequalities forum for its work in providing me with concrete examples of the problems that face individuals and businesses in those small rural villages. For example, in Nangreaves, the broadband speed is, on average, 500 kilobits per second, which is typical, provided by a BT line some 5 miles from an exchange. The same applies to all the villages, such as Holcombe and Hawkshaw.
Let me give one example in particular. Affetside is a small village with fewer than 250 residents located on the edge of the west Pennine moors. It lies on the old Roman road that ran north between Manchester and Ribchester. The village has only one telephone infrastructure provider, British Telecom, and because of its relatively isolated nature no other telephone service providers have sought to provide any coverage in the area. The lack of competition unsurprisingly results in higher costs than would be expected elsewhere. I am informed that the existing aluminium cable is believed to have been installed 40 years ago, in the 1970s, when high copper prices forced the switch to aluminium. Whatever the cable, current broadband speeds are typically in the region of just 0.7 to 1 megabit per second, but speeds vary greatly and reliability is a major problem. I should add that rather than improving, the problem is getting worse as more and more people are forced to do business online and access services online. The demand on that decades-old cable is increasing and the quality of people’s internet connections is gradually reducing.
The Government’s commitment to providing everyone with broadband access at a speed of 2 megabits per second by the end of this Parliament is to be welcomed, but it is only a start and will not solve the problem. By 2015, the rest of the world will have moved on and the digital divide that exists between town and country will continue. The answer is not to solve today’s problem tomorrow with today’s solution, but to look to the future and ensure that when lines are upgraded they are fully future-proofed. Otherwise, I fear that by the time anything actually happens to help my constituents, it will be too late and they will continue to be stuck in the slow lane of broadband internet access.
It is a privilege to speak in this afternoon’s debate, but I arrived with a tinge of anxiety as I suddenly realised that I had not signed the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). I think the point has been illustrated that many outside the Chamber are totally in agreement with what he is trying to achieve this afternoon, particularly in relation to the auction.
In Ceredigion, we have 600 family farms, 147 villages and hamlets and one of the highest proportions of small businesses per head of population anywhere in the United Kingdom. This sounds a little like a maiden speech and I have said these things before but the principles of entitlement are the same for those communities as they are for communities anywhere else. In Ceredigion 20 years ago the debate was about retaining a railway line from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth, but today the issue is about broadband, mobile coverage and people’s entitlement. We are past the point at which people in rural communities will stoically make do and now need to make arrangements to have access to broadband; there is an entitlement to have that in those communities.
I want to associate myself with a point that has been made by many hon. Members this afternoon—the sense of frustration felt by constituents who hear debate in England and other parts of the UK about superfast broadband when they lack any access whatever. I think of the farmer with a haulage company in the village of Trefenter on the edge of the Cambrian mountains who was desperate to expand his business but had to rely on incredibly slow dial-up. We were able to involve a satellite company and ensure that a pilot satellite scheme helped him out in order to nurture and grow his business. As has been pointed out many times in this debate, this is about economic growth and building a vibrant—Welsh, in our case—economy. That is why this debate is so important.
This is also about bridging gaps between people. In the last Parliament, when the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, of which I was and am a member, looked at broadband, we also looked at the social and age divides between people. When a rural bank closes, those who are elderly and who are not switched on or who do not have the motivation to access broadband will be severely disadvantaged in a way that, perhaps, younger people in urban areas have not been, but we lack the basic infrastructure to bridge that gap.
The National Farmers Union of Wales, NFU Cymru, has talked about the importance of broadband to farming businesses—a point that the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) has made. It is important for supporting business-to-customer, business-to-business and business-to-government communications, as well as for providing farmers with opportunities to market their products. There are also the added expectations from the previous Government, and in some cases the current Government, for business to be conducted online. The Government’s announcement in 2010 of the compulsory electronic completion of VAT returns for farm businesses with a turnover of more than £100,000 was greeted with great anger in parts of rural Britain because that objective is simply impossible to achieve. Now there is the roll-out of online completion of single application forms by 2016. That cannot be realised until these targets on broadband coverage are met.
Mobile reception is another critical issue in my constituency. I cannot travel from Aberystwyth in the north of Ceredigion to Cardigan in the south and have a phone call at the same time—it would be a lengthy call, as it is a 40-mile route on a bad road—because it is impossible to have a conversation without numerous stops and starts. That is something that we in rural areas have to put up with, while people elsewhere take mobile reception for granted. My constituents cannot ring their MP on his mobile phone and expect an answer if he is in his house—I can receive a phone call on my mobile only if I am standing in the middle of the road outside my house. Those are the frustrations that many people experience.
There has been good progress in Wales. There were good attempts by the Welsh Assembly Government, who were of a different political party, to identify pilot schemes. Two communities in Ceredigion—Cilcennin and Beulah—have benefited from such a pilot scheme. Although I am frustrated that Wales is not included in the pilots that the Government have announced for superfast broadband, I take comfort from the fact that some of the areas identified for the pilots, such as Herefordshire and the highlands and islands, are rural, which I hope will allow Wales to learn from the experiences. For me, this debate is simply about entitlement. It is a costly debate about entitlement, but it is an entitlement that we must not forget.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). I want to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) for the work he has done in preparing for the debate and encouraging Members to become fully involved. Many Members have highlighted the problems caused by the lack of broadband in their communities. I also think that there is an obligation on us to offer some solutions and encourage the Minister in his negotiations with the Treasury. I will move on to that later and how we can come up with some answers to the problems.
I am very pleased that broadband has been considered in the debate both as mobile broadband and as fixed-line broadband, because a short time ago fixed-line was the only way we considered it when discussing it. Ofcom recently reported that there had been a 2,200% increase in mobile data traffic in 2009, and I suspect that there has been a significant increase since then, with new technology being used both commercially and as a result of lifestyle changes.
There is great variance in the availability across the constituencies we have heard about today, particularly in rural areas but also in some urban areas. In my constituency, for example, much of Barry has the benefit of superfast broadband, which runs exceptionally well, but there are pockets within that urban environment that do not. However, some rural communities, such as Colwinston and Ystradowen, have almost no coverage at all. That is a tragedy for the people living in those communities and for the young people as they grow up.
Many points have already been made about sustainability, prosperity and the fact that home working and flexible working are a way of life for many people these days. Many people would like to make them a way of life but cannot do so because of the lack of broadband in their communities. There is also a social cost that we must recognise, as some Members have mentioned.
With regard to mobile broadband, 3G is the method that most of us would use. We need to recognise the differences between England and Wales in that respect. We do not have data for my constituency, but I can offer data on the differences between England and Wales. For example, there is 79% coverage in Wales for 3G, but 98% in England. For 2G, there is 89% coverage in Wales, but 99% coverage in England. Although people might assume that the technology has moved on, 2G is still exceptionally important, because last January Ofcom decided to lift the restrictions on the use of 3G services on the 2G network. That decision favours only two operators, and I think that the solution to many of these problems must be competition. Unless there is fair competition for all the operators, we will obviously not get the swift solutions that we would like. I hope that when the Minister responds he will say what he wants to do to correct that imbalance.
Much of the solution to the problem will be the 2012 auction. The 800 MHz spectrum will be important, because it will travel so much further, and the £530 million that the Minister and the Government are making available to try to close the “not spots” is welcome, but we need to recognise that there will be limits on what that £530 million can achieve. Bearing in mind the tight financial climate, I have no doubt that there were tough negotiations with the Treasury to secure that money in order to try to deliver a universal service obligation by 2015. I have no doubt also that the Treasury will have one eye—if not one eye and one hand—on the 2012 auction, so we need to support the Minister to ensure that in his discussions with the Treasury his hand is as strong as it can be.
I remember debating eight years ago the luxury of 256 kilobits, and if anyone had 512 kilobits that was absolutely extraordinary. The universal service of 2 megabits is welcome, but let us not forget that this is a fast-moving dynamic.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), but I want to go a little further and talk about the Government’s moral and social obligations, aside from their economic ones, in this context.
I hesitate to mention the big society so early in my speech, but it was invented in rural Britain, and rural Britain is finding it increasingly difficult to deliver and sustain the big society as it falls behind the rest of the country and, indeed, the rest of the world when it comes to broadband and mobile coverage.
I want to restrict my comments to mobile phone coverage, as far as we can distinguish it from the rest of the debate. We have heard from a number of people how the UK is not where it should be, and from the previous two hon. Members how Wales is not where it could be. It is interesting to hear examples from Norway, France, the United States and recent ones from Port Stanley of people’s ability to communicate with one another by mobile phone, because I in my office in Whitland in Carmarthenshire could not communicate with the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) just up the road, were we to wish to speak and were he to seek my advice on the coalition’s performance, thus denying us both a golden opportunity to advance our careers. There is, however, a serious social and economic problem.
We have already been told, quite rightly, about the effect on small and medium-sized businesses in rural Britain, but we have not touched on the plight of the elderly in the more lonely parts of our rural communities; on the work of the charities and carers who look after the elderly and vulnerable in those areas, in often hostile geographic and climatic conditions; or on the plight of young people in rural areas, who simply want to be young people in rural areas in a 21st-century context. It is a great source of gloom to me that the babysitting community of Lampeter Velfrey has discovered that there is no mobile phone coverage in the Hart household, the consequence of which is that I do not go out anything like as much as I used to because my babysitters cannot text their friends when they are in my house. If there is a more serious reason for the Minister to address the matter urgently, I am not sure what it is.
To be serious for a moment, however, I want to focus on the impact of the problem on the police and, in particular, on Dyfed Powys police and the mobile ID project known as Lantern, involving the piece of kit they carry around which enables them to take fingerprints while in remote areas, and which relies on the mobile phone network. In our area, the police were subject to two carriers but that was insufficient, so the system did not work as well for our police force as it might have, through no fault of their own. They were able to expand the number of carriers and thus improve the coverage, but unfortunately the Metropolitan police have led a tender process resulting in a UK-wide contract and the tender being awarded to the company that Dyfed Powys rejected on the basis that its system did not work in our area.
We have to be a bit careful about a one-size-fits-all solution based on so-called supreme technological solutions which do not necessarily apply to the wilder and more lonely parts of the country, particularly west Wales. This has an effect on the police’s ability to deliver on its obligations to the community, which is very relevant given the challenges that forces are facing, and that in turn leads to a compromised confidence on the part of the rural community as regards its personal safety and its ability to trust the police to deliver a first-class service, as I know they do.
I welcome the combination of effort by Ofcom and the Welsh Assembly Government. I think we are now instructed to call them the Welsh Government, but for the purposes of clarity they will remain the Welsh Assembly Government, certainly in my house. There is much to be cheerful about because, as other hon. Members have said, this is a golden opportunity—perhaps the only golden opportunity—for the Government to show their commitment to rural communities: not only their economic but social and moral commitment. We have heard for many years—and we believe it, I would suggest—that this commitment is real. There is no greater opportunity than now for them to cement that commitment and to prove to rural Britain that they believe it is a force for good.
Like all speakers, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on securing this debate, which is extremely important, particularly for our rural communities. Many hon. Members have stressed the massive growth in the importance of the internet. Indeed, broadband was introduced in this country as recently as 1990, and yet we have seen a huge expansion in its impact on how we interact with each other, how we transact business, and our ability to interface with public services, and it has spawned new markets and changed existing markets beyond recognition. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) put it, it has gone from being peripheral to our day-to-day existence to being absolutely essential. Despite its importance, however, as the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) pointed out, there never has been, and still is not, a universal right to any particular level of service. By contrast, that is something that we see in the context of our postal service in regard to the universal service obligation.
The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) defended the previous Government’s record on rolling out internet coverage. The situation has been very poor. Internationally, we are not starting from a good position. In a study by Oxford university sponsored by Cisco Systems, published as recently as October 2010, we were ranked 18th in the world in terms of broadband service, behind countries such as South Korea, Japan, Sweden and Denmark. Being 18th may sound about average or fair to middling, but it should not disguise the fact that there is a huge chasm between what we are achieving at 18th and what the top group of countries are achieving. The report states that the UK is “comfortably enjoying today’s applications”
but the top 14 are
“ready for the online applications of tomorrow.”
That is the point. The general quality of internet coverage is improving worldwide, and we have a lot of catching up to do, particularly in our rural areas, where, too often, we are disconnected not only in terms of the digital economy but our physical infrastructure.
I have several villages in my rural constituency where people are very concerned about the coverage that they are receiving. Exminster is a village close to Exeter where the parish council has undertaken extensive surveys of the kinds of broadband speeds that are being achieved locally, which are very ineffective. As many Members have said, the speeds that are achieved are often significantly below the advertised speeds. In one area of Exminster, BT advertises a download speed of 7.5 Mbps, but 25% of residents are achieving less than 2 Mbps. That is hardly surprising given that the Commission for Rural Communities tells us that, as at April 2010, about 60% of households in urban areas have cable whereas the figure is as low as just 1.5% in our villages and hamlets. According to the Library, 33% of my constituents have low broadband speeds. That compares to just 1.8% in Hammersmith in London.
We know that the problem is the cost of reaching rural consumers. The answer must be to encourage unrestricted competition, but to recognise the vital disconnection between what maximises supplier profits and what delivers the optimum social and economic benefits to our communities and the country as a whole. That is why I strongly welcome the motion.
It is important that the Minister and the Government consider as many innovative ways of delivering internet as they can. Virgin Media has looked at using telegraph poles to loop cable through. An important village in the west of my constituency, Northlew, has done a sterling job in using microwave WiMax broadband. We need to look at the sharing of utilities between utility companies, such as BT’s ducts and poles. I know that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been in discussions with business about that. I would like an update on that from the Minister in his winding-up speech. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) about wireless satellite broadband. We need to have a patchwork of solutions, and that can be achieved only by doing things locally. That is why I hope that the local enterprise partnership bid in my area for £40 million is taken seriously. It will send just the right signal that rural communities in my area are not forgotten.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart).
Several Members have mentioned an urban-rural divide. It may surprise people that I want to contribute on this subject given that I come from Romsey and Southampton North. I do not see this as an urban-rural divide. Parts of our cities have very slow broadband speeds. There is also a rural-rural divide. I was contacted shortly after last year’s general election by a constituent who lives in the same village as me. I thought that we were enjoying good broadband speeds, only to be informed that he was suffering from download speeds of less than 2 megabits per second. A couple of weeks later, I visited a business in the village and was astonished to hear the familiar binging and bonging of dial-up, which is still being used in the 21st century. That was literally four or five miles from the end of the M27 and just outside Southampton.
I argue that it is the sheer inconsistency of coverage that causes some of the greatest frustration. Neighbours on different sides of the street get inconsistent coverage. Part of the village in which I live gets its connection from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who was here earlier, but those who get it from the Wellow exchange get a much faster service.
The Prime Minister referred to this matter recently and indicated that he regards rural broadband as vital. There are many reasons why it is vital. I would like to highlight the increase in working from home and of flexible working. We have heard about the environmental benefits for people who can access decent download speeds and work comfortably and conveniently from home. There are also educational benefits. I was fortunate to attend the launch of a wonderful new IT suite at Wherwell primary school in the very north of my constituency, which had fantastic facilities. However, during the local election campaign a few weeks later, I encountered a child from that school who was laughing at me for trying to use a smartphone in the village, because it was ridiculous that any grown-up could possibly think that that would ever be possible.
I am disappointed to learn that Britain is only 26th in the world for average connection speeds and that our average speeds are slower than in Romania and Latvia. That is an embarrassment and we must address it urgently. As fuel prices have increased, we have all been contacted by myriad constituents who are concerned about the increase in fuel prices. Many of them want the convenience of being able to work from home and want to do their shopping from home. It is cheaper for people to have Mr Tesco deliver their shopping and pay him a fiver for the privilege than to drive to the local supermarket. In many rural areas, the local supermarket really is not that convenient. Of course, there is also online banking.
I will briefly draw on my experience of working for a small charitable organisation in Hampshire. It was not in rural Hampshire, but in a town. We were keen to deliver more online services to our members and donors, and to those who wished to support the work of the charity. One of our biggest frustrations was that when we wanted to use our banking services, the connection, even in a town, was far too slow. It was very difficult for the website to cope with people’s membership subscriptions.
I am sure the Minister will be relieved to hear that I do not believe the solution lies solely in the hands of the Government. We have to call upon every part of the industry, upon other organisations and upon local government to facilitate what is needed. Hampshire county council has carried out an enormous survey with Ipsos MORI to find out what demand there is for high-speed broadband in the county. Through its bid to Broadband Delivery UK, it is seeking to open up the public services network and co-operate with a wide range of internet service providers, to improve the availability and speed of connection across the county dramatically.
I know that now is the not the time to provide an advertisement to the Minister for the unique selling point of Hampshire’s bid, although some of my colleagues have given such advertisements. Suffice it to say that it is very good, and I hope he will look upon it favourably. Its objectives are straightforward. It brings real hope to my constituents who want nothing more radical than to be able to do their shopping or banking online from home or Skype their grandchildren in Australia. In a 21st century Hampshire village, that really did not ought to be impossible.
I am conscious of the time, so I will endeavour to keep my contribution short.
I do not think Ofcom or the Minister can be in any doubt about how passionate we all feel about the advent of superfast broadband. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), as well as to my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), with whom I work closely on this and a number of other projects. They both have energy about a vision that we all share.
The Government deserve some praise, although they have taken a bit of a beating today, because they have committed £530 million, a not insignificant figure. I am pleased to see that it is not just the Government who are involved, because I understand that the BBC has committed £150 million for four consecutive years. That shows its conviction that superfast broadband is the future.
I wish to follow on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) about the importance of Devon. It is the largest county in the country by size, and 20% of our community live in very poor rural areas. Rural broadband is therefore critical for us. To compound our problem, we have a very weak strategic road and rail infrastructure. The M5 ends at Exeter and our A roads are not great, and the concept of having electrified railway lines any time soon is sadly a dream, not a reality. Our fight is to get diesel rolling stock.
Many people in our communities live in an isolated environment, and we have the highest number of people in receipt of the state old-age pension of any region. For them, communication and access to any form of entertainment is extremely difficult without broadband. Two thirds of our businesses have fewer than five employees and a turnover of less than £250,000, and broadband is crucial for them. Home working and the ability to communicate with clients and customers are key, and that cannot be done effectively without some form of mobile or internet connectivity. As was pointed out earlier, Government compliance, such as VAT returns, increasingly has to be carried out online. If we are really committed to improving the economy in rural areas, that must be a reason for having broadband.
I am pleased that there are two of us in the Chamber supporting the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership’s bid for the second wave of pilots. It would be nice to think that the weight of numbers might help us to persuade the Minister and others that we have a comprehensive bid that is well supported across Devon and Somerset, and that it will make a huge difference to people living in both counties.
The challenge for the Government is to maximise, dare I say it, the bang they get for their buck. We have to make the best use of our infrastructure to maximise choice. Rural infrastructure is expensive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon explained, BT provides access through poles and ducts, and Ofcom has said that that must be on fair and reasonable terms. As I understand it, what is being offered at the moment is not entirely in accordance with that. Ofcom is going to take up the cudgels, and I hope it does so sooner rather than later. Otherwise, implementation will be a challenge.
As has also been mentioned, innovative partnerships with other utility companies are clearly important—we should not focus only on what BT and other internet and telecoms providers can offer. We need to think more broadly about what we do. Government can assist with that by simplifying the regulatory regime, particularly on planning.
Earlier, we heard a plea for the Government to consider satellite. I agree, because this debate should be about not only where we are now, but the future. I suspect that one reason the Government have a target of only 2 megabits per second is that the world moves on. By 2015, we could see a very different number. We need research on that, and it would be great if the Government provided tax support by increasing R and D credits—I am pleased with what we are doing on the corporation tax front.
Finally, I support the concept of increasing the requirement in the bid of more than 95% coverage for mobile technology, but could we add a requirement for rural or landmass coverage, rather than a requirement for population coverage? That would help the rural community. Good on the Government! Let us see broadband fly! We can do it!
I should like to make just a few points and to speak for the Somerset half of that Somerset and Devon bid, which would make such a fantastic difference. Many hon. Members have made points about farmers, young people and old people, but, in my area, many who have retired to Somerset because it is such a beautiful place can stay in their town centre homes and, using broadband, can access facilities and services such as shopping deliveries.
Rural post offices also benefit from broadband. Businesses use the internet in my towns, and individuals use eBay and Amazon to sell and buy goods. In my post office, there are queues of people who want to send small parcels and envelopes containing things that people have bought, which props up our post office system.
I thank the Minister for meeting me on Monday to discuss broadband in Somerset. I pointed out to him that I am running, with the Administration Committee, an iPad trial. The iPad is fantastic when I am here in London, and completely useless when I am in Somerset, where I cannot access anything because the broadband service is so poor.
Where it works, broadband is the most fantastic thing. One area of my constituency that has a good service is Burnham and Highbridge. Burnham-on-Sea has a website—burnhamonsea.com. Some 7,000 or 8,000 people live in Burnham, but that website gets 15,000 unique visitor hits per day, and 50,000 pages are downloaded every day. That rate goes up during the summer tourist season, which is critical, because 26,000 people are employed in tourism in Somerset alone. They depend on people coming to Somerset for their holidays and knowing what they can do and what facilities they can access.
I thank the Minister for the trouble he has taken to listen to the Somerset and Devon bid, and I hope, as it is bound to do, that it brings success to our counties in business and every other sense, particularly for residents.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on securing this enjoyable debate, and for putting together a formidable array of talent to present the case for their areas around the UK—we heard a brief intervention earlier from a Member from Scotland. The hon. Gentleman has established himself as an assiduous and powerful advocate of the construction of a viable broadband service because of the nature of his beautiful constituency and other rural constituencies. It was good to hear a Government Member giving high praise in the Chamber to a Mandelson, for which I am sure he is very grateful.
There is, of course, a lot of common ground in this debate. We all believe in the importance of a broadband network. The Countryside Alliance has presented evidence that a broadband network is essential to the viability of a living countryside. Development in communications is a massive opportunity for the countryside, provided that a viable broadband network is constructed.
We all accept that there is a market failure in the broadband sphere. Most accept that two thirds of the country will not be adequately provided for by the market alone and that Government action is needed to remedy that market failure. It is important to talk about some definitions if we are to make progress on the common ground that exists between the political parties. We have to be clear what we are talking about and the terminology that we are using. The first important phrase is “universal broadband”. By this I mean that all should have access to broadband services. The previous Labour Government had a commitment to introduce universal broadband services, up to a speed of 2 megabits by 2012.
Until last week, the Government had assiduously avoided using the word “universal”, as far as I could detect. Instead, they continued to use the formula that their aim was to introduce the best high-speed broadband in Europe by 2015. They avoided defining exactly what that would be. But last week we made some progress, because the Government made it clear—for the first time, as far as I am aware—that their target was to provide universal broadband by 2015. That is a three-year delay in the costed target introduced by the previous Labour Government. If hon. Members get complaints from constituents with no broadband provision, they should blame the Government.
That delay is very bad news, because universal broadband is hugely important. First, it is important to the private sector. Competitive businesses in our modern economy, wherever they are, must have access to the broadband network. Without it, they will be at a substantial competitive disadvantage, and that will be bad news especially for businesses in rural areas.
We were on track to meet that deadline. It was costed, and the £200 million that would have been used to do that would have been taken from the same money that the current Government are using in connection with their broadband commitment. For the outside world—although not for this Government—a year is a very long time. I am not aware of any questioning by the industry of the commitment made by the Labour Government. The position was deliverable, but this Government have decided to put back that universal broadband target by three years.
Absolutely. The Minister is always very polite in his answers to parliamentary questions, but he is also very good at drafting uninformative replies, something that I worked very hard to achieve when I was a Minister. I was not quite as good at it as he is.
The provision of universal broadband services is also very important to the public sector. Online services are a massive opportunity for government at all levels to provide better services more quickly and more efficiently. However, the Government can move in that direction only if they provide those services to everyone across the country. For example, I understand that the Government intend to move to the compulsory online registration of new companies. As the former responsible Minister, I understand the reasons—costs and efficiency—for this decision, but one can justify such a move only if there is universal broadband provision across the UK. A company with no access to the internet cannot be required by the Government to use it.
If we are to have universal broadband by 2015, what will it cost? Through parliamentary questions, I have established—I did get some information—that the cost of providing universal fibre-to-the-premises provision would be £29 billion, and that more realistically universal fibre-to-the-cabinet provision would cost £5 billion. We agree that there is a market failure and that the Government have sought to address it by setting aside the £530 million by 2015 mentioned several times today. However, we all accept that that is not enough, so we must look to the private sector for the necessary investment to bridge that investment gap.
On definitions, the Government are not just committing themselves to universal broadband; they are committing themselves to the best high-speed broadband in Europe by 2015. It will be helpful if the Minister tells us today what speed he regards as high speed for these purposes. If we are to work together for the benefit of our constituents to achieve that target, we must know what it means.
We know that insufficient public money is available to achieve the Government’s goals by 2015, so let us consider the position for private investment. How is that going? Here, I regret to say, there is a problem that was referred to by a couple of Government Members, including the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris). On 1 April the Minister received correspondence—no coincidence perhaps—in which senior executives of leading communications companies, including Fujitsu, Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Geo and Vtesse Networks, wrote that “urgent intervention” was needed to require BT to revise the pricing for the use of its infrastructure. The companies also stated that without such intervention the Broadband Delivery UK process risked a lack of vigorous competition, and as a result would fail to deliver the investment, quality, speed of roll-out, innovation and value for money that the industry was capable of delivering, and which taxpayers deserved. That is a major problem for the necessary private investment.
The communications network under Labour was extremely competitive. For example, in the past three years, competition has seen the cost of mobile broadband fall from £50 per gigabyte to less than £10 per gigabyte.
The previous Government made massive advances in the provision of broadband services and internet services over a very long period. I am proud of our record. Had the Government stuck to the same targets, we would have achieved much more progress than has been achieved to date. I now hear from providers, and the Minister has been told in correspondence from them that without urgent intervention there will be a lack of vigorous competition in the marketplace, so what action is he taking in response to these representations?
I wish to raise one more concern with the Minister. It is now clear that responsibility for the delivery of broadband services in particular geographical areas in England is to be the responsibility of local authorities, which might create a patchwork of provision across England. Different local authorities will attach different priorities to the advancement of the network. We heard from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) about the issues affecting Lancashire. I was pleased to hear that the tendering process in the North Yorkshire pilot area seems to have begun, even though the pilots were announced as long ago as last October. There are particular issues when it comes to the provision of services and tender documents by local authorities. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that each local authority makes the progress needed to achieve the targets he has outlined?
I was interested to hear that Somerset and Devon are working together on their pilot project in the south-west. One of the drivers for that is the superior provision in Cornwall, which has been assisted by European funding that is unavailable in Devon. Hon. Members from Wales may be interested to know that the provision of broadband in Wales and Scotland has de facto—if not de jure—been assigned to the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Government respectively. Responsibility for delivering services in Wales and Scotland will essentially be dealt with at the Assembly or Scottish Parliament level. A patchwork is already developing across the UK. It is important not to lose sight of the need for a national network. We do not need a lot of small “railways” running in individual areas without their being linked together. Although having small, big society projects set up networks is appealing, there is a danger of the networks not working effectively together. There are tensions between the small and larger projects. It is important that we maintain a competitive network.
I am sorry that I have not been able to deal with the numerous contributions made today. However, I am sure that the Minister has heard the strength of feeling from Government and Opposition Members, and that he will use the video in his negotiations with the Treasury, because there will come a time when some of the bids being made now will be turned down, and that is when government starts to get difficult. Saying yes is easy; saying no is always more challenging.
I am grateful for the chance to respond to this debate, which was called on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). He has been showered with enough praise in this debate, but let me add to the oleaginous tone with which we all approach him. For one so young and so new to this House, his ability to gauge the issues that concern the House is second to none. His relentless focus on mobile broadband is also severely disrupting my life. I have gone up to Penrith and The Border for a superfast broadband summit that even had members of the United States Administration attending. This is the second broadband debate that my hon. Friend has called, forcing me—I know that hon. Members will share my disappointment at this—to decline my invitation to the European Commission’s Culture Council in Brussels today.
I do not necessarily want to respond to every speech today; suffice to say that almost 20 Back Benchers contributed to this debate, all very effectively, raising issues and concerns specific to their constituencies. I thought that the shrewdest of all was my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who pointed out that the lack of superfast mobile broadband was preventing him from hiring babysitters.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport announced in his speech at the national digital conference last week that our ambition was to see superfast broadband coverage of 90% of the population in all areas of the country. To respond to the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), I must say that that is why last week I announced my ambition of universal superfast broadband in this country, starting with the clear aim of making sure that 90% of the UK can get at least 25 megabits per second by 2015. I have now thrown down a bone for the hon. Gentleman, so that he can table a series of parliamentary questions to elicit further details on that. In defence of the Government’s position, we mentioned our commitment to the universal service of 2 megabits by 2015 in our excellent publication “Britain’s superfast broadband future”, which was published in December. Specifically, it was mentioned in paragraph 8.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border started speaking, it felt like an Oscar acceptance speech because he had so many people to thank. The only people he did not thank were his family, which I was surprised about. I am pleased to see that his own team of officials is watching from the Gallery. I know that the whole House thanks them for their hard work. It will come as no surprise to learn that one of them is a constituent of mine, which is why she is so talented and able to undertake this very complicated work.
If the hon. Lady will wait for one second, I want to use this opportunity—[Laughter.] I want to echo my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border—it is quite clear that most hon. Members want to be like him—by thanking my own officials, Mark Swarbrick and Simon Towler, who have done an astonishing amount of work on this issue. Such is their dedication that they even took the photographs for the superfast broadband document that we published in December.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) will be interested to hear that I want to pay tribute not only to the work of Broadband Delivery UK, which was set up by the previous Government and comprises an excellent team of dedicated officials from the private and public sectors, but to the telecoms regulator, Ofcom. I know that we will be discussing the auction in a matter of moments. Ofcom is very ably led by Ed Richards, who also has a fine team. I have embarrassed the hon. Lady on many occasions, but the fact that she could say, “I’m from Ofcom” was a stamp of great quality, and she now brings adornment to the House. Anyway, I seem to have persuaded her not to intervene on me.
On the 25-megabit target, our target of having the best superfast broadband in Europe is of course dependent on a range of measures, including choice, coverage, speed and take-up. Competition is also very important. It is all very well for an hon. Member to mention that Uzbekistan has better coverage than the UK—that sounds like a bit of a slight to Uzbekistan, although I am sure that that was unintended—but it is worth remembering that Uzbekistan has a population of 5 million people, and effectively one mobile broadband provider. If we want to encourage competition, which will encourage choice, innovation and low cost, we will also have to acknowledge that the Government cannot direct and demand how broadband is rolled out.
The hon. Member for Wrexham pointed out that we expect two thirds of the country to be covered by private sector investment, with BT and Virgin clearly in the lead, along with some small network operators. As so many hon. Members were keen to praise far-flung places all over the world for their broadband, let me be the champion of British business and British broadband providers. Every three months, BT puts down a fibre network equivalent to that of Singapore. BT, a British company, is rolling out broadband at twice the pace of Deutsche Telekom, twice the pace of AT&T and twice the pace of Verizon. That is something that we should be very proud of. BT recently announced that it expects to offer an 80 megabit service next year, while Virgin already offers a 100 megabit service. I do not want to sound too patriotic because we also welcome the intervention of Fujitsu, which has plans to bring fibre connections to 5 million rural homes.
The key to this debate is supporting those areas where the market will not deliver. We have already announced four pilot areas, including the one represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border—it was more than life was worth not to have his constituency as one of the pilot areas, although it was, of course, I emphasise, an independent decision—along with North Yorkshire, Herefordshire and the highlands and islands. [Interruption.] Well, we all know about the discussion of Herefordshire and Wales that took place in the House a few months ago.
We will announce the next wave of pilots next week. As the hon. Member for Wrexham pointed out, this is indeed where government gets difficult, because we will have to say no to a few. Let me offer a crumb of comfort to those who may get bad news next week. From now on, we shall be working on a first-come, first-served basis. We will not announce a third and fourth wave; any local authority whose bid is not accepted can sit down with Broadband Delivery UK, work through the bid to find out where the gaps are and then come forward again when it is ready. It will be a rolling process. We also recently announced the creation of a rural community broadband fund, which is expected to be worth up to an additional £20 million—above and beyond the £530 million we have made available.
I am conscious of time and I am anxious to talk about mobile voice and mobile broadband. I understand the issue. In rural Oxfordshire, in the village close to Wantage where I live, I have to stand in the middle of the road to get mobile coverage. When I was candidate before the 2005 election, simply getting my constituents connected to the internet was a high priority for me. I pay tribute to the work of community broadband groups, which many hon. Members have mentioned, as their ability to galvanise enthusiasm and put forward solutions is important, encouraging other operators to take an interest and see that provision of rural broadband can be profitable.
Broadband Delivery UK is taking a technologically neutral approach to solutions; mobile broadband is a potential solution for hard-to-reach areas. We want to see partnerships between fixed, mobile, wireless and satellite operators to compete for the available funds. I emphasise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A couple of my hon. Friends mentioned the benefits of satellite technology. I am lucky enough to have the National Space Centre in my constituency, so I would be more than happy to see a satellite solution. We have to be realistic, however, about what satellites can deliver. They will be a complementary technology, but they certainly do not provide a one-size-fits-all solution.
The key issue—and, I think, the key reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border called this debate—is the auction that is about to take place for the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum, and the coverage obligations put forward in Ofcom’s initial outline of how the auction will take place. I remind hon. Members that this is being consulted on; it is not fixed in stone. This debate will be important not just for the Treasury to watch, but for Ofcom, which will give serious consideration to any representations, along with appropriate evidence, on whether to increase the coverage obligation attached to the 800 MHz licence. It is important that robust evidence is made available.
Let me make it absolutely clear to hon. Members that the auctioning of spectrum is not a money-raising exercise. In fact, under European rules, it is not appropriate to auction spectrum simply to raise the maximum revenue possible. Ofcom has to take into account a whole range of different factors, including the investment capacity of operators. It must also undertake a cost-benefit analysis of whether the coverage obligations are inappropriately expensive.
It is important that Ofcom’s consultation is seen to be open, transparent and robust. One thing that I have learned in government is that the constituency of mobile and telecoms operators with which I deal comprises not only some of the most fantastic British companies, but some of the most litigious. If my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border could have done any additional work in marshalling his forces for this evening’s debate, it would have involved conveying to the chief executive of each company, in no uncertain terms, his and his colleagues’ view that we must get on with the auction, and that any attempt to disrupt it through litigation could set back the auction and therefore the roll-out of spectrum.
I have deliberately avoided being partisan in my speech, but I must express disappointment about the interventionist approach that I consider the last Government to have taken in regard to the spectrum auction. I believe that if they had simply left it to Ofcom, we would have reached the end of the process before the present Government had even come to office.
We should bear in mind the changes that are taking place in the UK mobile market and in technology. I had the privilege of visiting Alcatel-Lucent recently to observe the technology that it is developing in Swindon. It is good to see inward investment taking place there. Technologies such as femtocells—which, essentially, provide small base stations in the home or office—will radically improve indoor coverage, and will give users better coverage.
The hon. Member for Wrexham made a valid point in his critique of the Government’s policy in regard to local authority bids. I think that local authorities are best placed to lead the bids, but it is important to remember that Broadband Delivery UK sits behind the bidding process,. It is able to advise local authorities on procurement, and assesses bids partly on the basis of the capacity of a local authority to deliver in terms of its personnel and expertise. The more such bids are made and the more individual local authorities engage in procurement exercises, the more other local authorities will have an opportunity to learn from the process.
Let me end by reminding the House that Rome was not built in a day. We must bear in mind the capacity of the private operators and companies that will deliver superfast broadband. I believe that we have adequate sums to support it, but I take the concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House very seriously. We are working as hard as we can, given the constraints within which we operate, to deliver good superfast broadband to as many people as possible by 2015.
I thank all Members who took part in the debate. It is extraordinary that on a Thursday afternoon 20 Members should speak on a motion tabled by 100. I also echo the thanks expressed to Louis Mosley.
The fibre issue remains central to the debate, and I am sorry that I did not say more about it. The connection of fibre through backhaul to mobile telephone masts needs to be addressed. However, it is on mobile broadband that we should really be focusing because of the consultation this evening.
Extraordinary changes have been made. By 2015, 7.1 billion people will have mobile telephones. That is more than the current population of the world. Whatever we do, whether it involves £215 million, 1,500 masts or a 98% coverage obligation, let us use the debate to pass the message to Ofcom that it must extend the coverage obligation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House recognises that rural businesses and rural communities across the UK are isolated and undermined by slow broadband and the lack of mobile voice and mobile broadband coverage; urges Ofcom to increase the coverage obligation attached to the 800MHz spectrum licence to 98 per cent.; and calls upon the Government to fulfil its commitment to build both the best superfast broadband network in Europe and provide everyone in the UK with a minimum of 2 Mbps by 2015.