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Broadband (Rural Communities)

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011

In August, I announced indicative funding for all parts of the UK for our ambition to have not just universal 2 megabit coverage, but 90% coverage of superfast broadband.

North Yorkshire is grateful for the Secretary of State’s Department’s support, and we are getting on with our project, but may I press him further on the 4G auction? It seems that the auction is a Treasury as much as an Ofcom issue, and I would be grateful for any update on any discussions that he is having with the Treasury. I believe that we must nail that issue for north Yorkshire to get the broadband that it needs.

I should first like to congratulate my hon. Friend, because north Yorkshire and Cumbria are two of the regions of the UK that have made most progress—they have pretty much moved to tender stage on the 90% superfast broadband ambition. I have a lot of sympathy with his view on coverage, and we are having many discussions inside the Government about how best to handle that. That matters because on all the projections that we see at the moment, the amount of mobile internet data will triple every year, and over the next four years we expect it to increase twenty-sixfold.

The unfortunate truth is that many rural areas, including Kirkliston, South Queensferry and Ratho in my constituency, are still crippled by poor broadband services, with speeds significantly lower than the 2 megabits per second minimum target. Will the Secretary of State update the House on any discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on matching the £68.8 million investment recently announced by his Department?

We had what can best be described as a rather curmudgeonly response from the Scottish Government about our broadband allocation. That is not a total surprise, but given that the amount of money allocated to Scotland took account of the additional costs of rolling out broadband in sparsely populated rural areas, and that the amount was much greater than it would have been under the Barnett formula, we were expecting a little more enthusiasm. However, now the challenge is on for the Scottish Government to match what the UK Government have contributed, and to ensure that we deliver universal broadband access to my hon. Friend’s constituents, and 90% superfast broadband access as well.

I accept that the Secretary of State has gone some way to providing resources, including to the Scottish Government, but does he agree that to ensure universal broadband coverage some of the most rural communities will require access to affordable satellite broadband? Will he consider bringing forward some of the unallocated money currently in his budget to operate a pilot project in Scotland—in conjunction, I hope, with the Scottish Government—on that very issue?

I am a localist. That is why our broadband strategy does not prescribe how local authorities and devolved Administrations meet their targets. However, we have calculated the costs and provided half the money, and we expect them to match-fund. I am pleased to say therefore that in all the areas on which we have had discussions so far there has been a willingness to provide that match funding. If satellite is the right solution in Scotland, we will support that, but we want to leave it to the Scottish Government to come up with the right solution.