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Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2015

5. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision of broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural Scotland. (906922)

The Government’s superfast broadband rollout programme has provided over £120 million to the Scottish Government to improve broadband services. More than 160,000 additional Scottish homes and businesses now have access to broadband as a result. The Government have recently achieved a deal with the mobile network operators that will reduce complete not spots in Scotland by about two thirds, and partial not spots by one half.

I very much welcome that investment, but the money to bring superfast broadband to my constituency was handed over to the Scottish Government, who are supposed to be organising the delivery work. However, many of my constituents complain to me that neither the Scottish Government nor BT are able to tell them when, or even if, they will benefit from this project. Will my right hon. Friend please get on to the Scottish Government and tell them to publish a clear timetable for the delivery of this important work?

Unfortunately, this is a tale I hear as I travel around Scotland, especially in the highlands and islands. The communities my hon. Friend is talking to—I am sure he represents many of them—are not unreasonable, but they do want to know what to expect, so that they can plan for their services and their businesses. One would not think that it was that difficult.

Mobile coverage is an important social utility, as we have seen quite recently. Because of storms and lightning, BT lines have been down for weeks in parts of Lewis and Harris. Special thanks are due to BT and hydro engineers, who have been working hard in very bad weather to repair utilities. What are the right hon. Gentleman’s Government doing to ensure that island and rural areas are not left behind with 90% 4G telephone coverage, especially considering that 2G and 3G have been bad and that, with its high data speeds, 4G coverage is an excellent system for accessing broadband?

May I first join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hydro engineers and telecoms engineers, who are working throughout the highlands and islands even as we speak? They provide an excellent service to our local communities and we should place on record our gratitude towards them. They work in very difficult circumstances.

On 4G coverage, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware of the deal my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made recently with mobile network operators. That offers the opportunity for greater coverage of 3G and 4G. We will need to see, when they come forward with the actual proposals, what that will mean for our communities, but I can assure him that I am keeping an eye on it.

In echoing and endorsing entirely the points made by my immediate highland constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), may I encourage the Secretary of State to stress to the Scottish Government the need in particular to draw BT’s attention to Openreach? It is ironically entitled, as constituents and consumers cannot reach it openly and cannot contact it directly, which is why they cannot get an answer to the legitimate question: when is last year’s £10 million investment of UK Government money actually going to meet their needs and be delivered?

It is clear, beyond any doubt, that a substantial amount of money is going in from this Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and European funds to this most important area of economic development. Responsibility for delivery, at the end of that money, rests with the Scottish Government. I take it, from the comments of my right hon. Friend and others in the House, that the Scottish Government need to be telling our communities more.

Someone once said:

“We have got to stop thinking of broadband and other connectivity issues as being some sort of luxury. It is as important to the future sustainability of our communities as having a supply of water or electricity.”

Does the Secretary of State still agree with his own words? If so, can he tell communities in Ochil and South Perthshire and elsewhere in Scotland why, when we have running water and electricity, we still do not have superfast broadband?

I absolutely stand by my own words. I recognised them as soon as the hon. Gentleman started to quote them. It is a view that I still hold and it is why this Government have made a substantial investment. If he has particular cases relating to delivery, which unfortunately we have passed to the Scottish Government, I am more than happy to help him in any way I can.