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Superfast Broadband

Volume 603: debated on Thursday 3 December 2015

By the end of 2017, 95% of homes and businesses in the United Kingdom will have access to superfast broadband. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last month, by the end of this Parliament people will have a legal right to request a broadband connection, no matter where they live. We will be consulting on these plans, which will put access to broadband on a similar footing with other basic services early next year.

I welcome the universal service obligation to provide 10 megabits of coverage to the whole country by 2020. Point-to-point wireless can provide a solution today up to 30 megabits, but the organisations behind those facilities will not invest because state aid will one day bring fibre to those communities and take away their customers. Can Ministers provide a solution to this important conundrum?

I commend my hon. Friend on his advocacy for his constituents on the importance of achieving superfast broadband as quickly as possible. The universal service obligation will provide a safety net, but it will take some time to work out the details. In the meantime, we would welcome all the alternative suppliers putting forward their solution. It may well be that different solutions will be appropriate for different places.

Some parts of my constituency such as central Rochester, the peninsula and the businesses in Chatham historic dockyard have been suffering from poor fibre-optic broadband coverage from BT for too long. Much-needed upgrades were supposed to be in place from December last year, yet we are having to wait until the 2016-17 financial year at the earliest. What can the Minister do to stop broadband companies from dragging their heels so that all residents and businesses can enjoy the services that they ought to have?

I fully appreciate the wish of my hon. Friend that her constituents should have access to superfast broadband as soon as possible. We are making extremely good progress on phase 2. We have already passed an extra 3.3 million premises, and that will rise to 4 million by early 2016. By the end of phase 2, we expect to have achieved 97% coverage in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We will then work hard on the remaining small number of houses, which will have the possibility of the universal service obligation to rely on.

Those of us who are long and strong advocates of universal service welcome the Government’s U-turn on this matter. Only a few weeks ago, I was told by the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy that this was not possible, and it was not Government policy. I will be taking part in the consultation, but will there be any new Government money from the UK, the Welsh Government or the European Union?

I would be extremely surprised if that was what my hon. Friend said, as he has been a leading advocate of the universal service obligation policy, which will benefit all the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, just as it will every other household in the country. The precise details of how the universal service obligation will work are still to be worked out, and that will obviously include how it will be paid for, and we shall be consulting on that over the coming year.

Given the report that was published this week by Ofcom, which illustrated the differences in broadband speed in Northern Ireland and the fact that Northern Ireland has 73% coverage compared with 88% in the rest of the United Kingdom, what action will the Secretary of State and his officials take to address this matter?

I believe that the Ofcom report showed different possible causes for slower broadband, including, I am told, Christmas fairy lights. That is why it is making available an app to measure the speed of wi-fi. I can tell the hon. Lady that in Northern Ireland we expect that by the end of the superfast broadband project 87% of homes and businesses will be covered. The Northern Ireland Government have received £11.4 million from Broadband Delivery UK for the project.

18 . In some easily accessible areas in my constituency superfast broadband is extremely economically viable; BT has received a huge amount of subsidy since 2010. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that this is unacceptable and will he meet me to see what we can do to get this right and solve the problem of accessibility? (902546)

We are making good progress, as I have already mentioned. We are optimistic—indeed, confident—that we will achieve the 95% target by the end of 2017. That still leaves some difficult areas. I will, of course, be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what more we can do to ensure that all his constituents can benefit from superfast broadband.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking with other Departments to enforce broadband speeds? These questions are about superfast broadband, but what constitutes “superfast” on the ground, as it were, is a matter of great dispute. Many providers say that they provide speeds of “up to” a certain number. What enforcement steps is he taking?

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s concern that advertised speeds are not delivered in practice. We talk regularly with Ofcom about that matter. Ofcom is carrying out detailed research and, as I mentioned earlier, making available an application that will allow consumers to test whether they are achieving those speeds. The universal service obligation, to which the question refers, that is coming into place will require all providers to be able to supply at least 10 megabits —the speed that Ofcom currently assesses as necessary for someone to be able to enjoy most normal applications.

Five years after abandoning Labour’s universal service commitment and having delayed his own super-slow crawl-out at least three times without proper consultation with either Ofcom or the industry, the Prime Minister magics a universal service obligation out of thin air. The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, with whom I have the deepest sympathy, is forced to pretend that it is part of some strategy that has not been published or even consulted on. The Chancellor, however, is not in on the trick: the comprehensive spending review does not mention the issue once. Does the Minister have any idea of how much the obligation is going to cost—or it just a sop to his Back Benchers whose mailbags are bulging with complaints about broadband?

That was a good try by the hon. Lady, but in actual fact we have been making extremely good progress. The superfast scheme has now passed an extra 3.3 million homes and we will achieve 95% by the end of 2017. The universal service obligation is to allow those few remaining households who do not benefit to have a legal right to require broadband. As to the costing, we are in discussion with the industry about that and we will consult on it. We look forward to hearing all inputs to the consultation, including the hon. Lady’s.