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Volume 540: debated on Thursday 9 February 2012

5. What recent progress his Department has made on the roll-out of superfast broadband; and if he will make a statement. (94334)

Order. I am very interested to hear about the plans for the roll-out of superfast broadband, but I believe I am right in saying that the Secretary of State wants to group this question with two others.

With your humble permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this Question with Questions 5 and 6.

I wanted to say that our plans for the roll-out of superfast broadband will mean that conditions such as the common cold, even when held by Ministers, will be able to be diagnosed online. The roll-out continues apace, and broadband plans have now been approved for a third of local authorities.

The progress on this subject is particularly welcome in rural areas, but inevitably 2%, 3% or 4% of people will fall outside the proposals. What are the Government going to do for them?

I am going to Pembrokeshire next week on holiday, when I will personally be inspecting the rural broadband facilities and mobile coverage in my hon. Friend’s constituency, although I cannot promise to do the same for all hon. Members. He makes an important point, and we have made good progress this year. Our plans for superfast broadband will cover 90% of the country, but Ofcom’s plans, as announced in January, for the 4G spectrum auctions mean that the new 4G coverage will reach 97% of the country, and that will offer a broadband signal. That still leaves 3% to go, and we must work very hard to make sure that everyone is included in the broadband revolution.

With such a massive budget deficit, we cannot rely on extra Government spending for ever more, so it seems to me that we have no choice: we have to rely on innovation—both innovative industries and the innovation of our people—to bring economic growth to every region. Today’s satellites can beam high-speed internet access to every region of Britain, instantly opening up remote areas to economic activity. Does the Secretary of State share my vision for a connected Britain in which satellites bring jobs and the power of online public services to every region of our nation?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In the Thames Valley local enterprise partnership, which covers his constituency, the broadband plans are still at amber, rather than green, and I would be most grateful for his help in getting the three unitary authorities to work together to get those plans into a state where they can be approved. He rightly says that we need to be technology-neutral about this; fixed-line fibre will go into the ground in some areas, but for the more remote areas we will definitely need wireless solutions, be they mobile, wi-fi or satellite, and we will keep all options open.

Residents of villages such as Hockliffe, Stanbridge, Tilsworth and Eggington often have to make do with broadband speeds of only 1.5 megabits per second, which is very restrictive for local people and severely limits the ability of local businesses to grow. So when can residents in these villages expect things to get better for them?

Again, I ask for my hon. Friend’s help, because the plans for Bedfordshire are also amber-rated, rather than green-rated. We have said that we want all local authorities not only to start procurement for their broadband plans, but to complete procurement by this Christmas, otherwise we will consider taking back the funds that we have allocated and putting them in a national contract. We are very keen to ensure that roads start to be dug up and solutions actually happen by the start of next year.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of YouView on the demand for broadband services?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I think that the impact will be huge. The iPlayer is already a very big source of demand for broadband, and as YouView arrives many more people will use the iPlayer and other such services. I am pleased to say that Wales is making excellent progress. Its broadband plans have been given the green light and we have had a good partnership with the Welsh Government. I hope that his constituents will benefit from that.

Following on from the Secretary of State’s report on Wales, will he update us on the situation in Northern Ireland? What discussions has he had with the Northern Ireland Executive and what progress has been made there?

We have had very good discussions. There is good news and bad news as far as Northern Ireland is concerned. The funding allocation has been quite small for Northern Ireland, but that is because it has one of the best superfast broadband networks in the UK and, in many ways, is a model for the rest of the country.

I would like to bring a little reality to this debate. My constituency covers rural Teesdale, so I know that farmers are being required to communicate online with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs even when they have no broadband. Given that the problem is in rural areas, why did the Secretary of State earmark £150 million of new money for cities? What is he going to do for people whose local authorities do not come forward with viable plans?

The hon. Lady ought to have a bit of humility, because when her Government left office, a quarter of a million homes still had no broadband whatsoever. We are going to sort that out. We have massively increased the investment in rural broadband. It is five times more than the amount that is going into urban broadband. Her party makes a big song and dance about opposing cuts, but in the interests of consistency, it might like to support increases in spending, particularly when they are much more than her Government ever promised.