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Broadband Speeds: Northern Ireland

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2016

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered broadband speeds in Northern Ireland.

I welcome this opportunity to raise an issue that is incredibly pertinent to the constituents of all Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy is present to hear our views. I have received correspondence from a number of individuals, families and companies who are frustrated by the slow progress on this issue and its economic impact. I have also been in touch with business owners and individuals from my constituency who have detailed the impact that “not spots” and poor internet connectivity have had on them, on their children’s education and on driving economic growth and productivity.

I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting the issue of broadband and superfast broadband in Northern Ireland. It is obvious to me as an elected representative, and to all elected representatives in Northern Ireland, that better superfast broadband is essential for creating jobs and employment and for helping the economy to grow even further. Does she feel that the Minister needs to endorse that and to support our Minister in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course, I agree that faster broadband is critical to driving economic growth and fuelling productivity. I am anxious to hear the Minister’s response and how he is working with the Northern Ireland Executive and with BT and the other providers, because there is no doubt that the majority of people now expect reliable and accessible broadband as a matter of course, yet in rural constituencies such as mine and many others in Northern Ireland there are businesses, families and farmers who are denied the necessary internet access and speeds that are the norm in urban areas, which may be due to topographical reasons. The lack of adequate broadband in other rural communities across Northern Ireland and Britain has created a digital divide that will only be exacerbated without meaningful action from the Government.

Is the hon. Lady aware that Fermanagh and South Antrim have two schemes that are being pushed at the moment?

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

On 6 October 2015, I received an email from the Minister indicating that Northern Ireland received £11.6 million for phase 1 and/or phase 2 of the superfast broadband programme, but that would allow for only two thirds of premises in my constituency of South Down to have access to superfast broadband by 2017.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and for securing this debate. She may be aware that when I was on Belfast City Council we secured the second largest amount—£13.7 million—from the urban broadband super-connected cities scheme for Belfast. However, does she agree that there is still further work to be done by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to secure such a scheme for rural areas, which need it most?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. While the concentration of that money was clearly in city areas of Belfast and Derry, there is still a need to concentrate funds within rural areas, working in particular with the alternative technologies that are currently being promoted, because we all want to avail ourselves of those.

I will have another go. I just wonder whether the hon. Lady, who I thank for bringing this subject forward, is aware of the Avanti rural broadband schemes in Fermanagh and South Antrim, particularly in leisure centres. Would she support looking for private companies to come in, because there is a hint that Virgin might help us as well in the future?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. At this stage I will perhaps argue slightly against my political ideology and say that there is a need for increasing competition between private investors—[Interruption.] As Virgin and others have said, incentivising take-up has been proven to be a more effective driver of improved coverage of superfast broadband speeds.

Let me say to the Minister that many of my constituents in rural areas who have direct access to broadband have speeds of only 2 megabits per second, but there are other parts of my constituency—in much higher drumlin country and also in the mountainous areas of the Mournes—that do not have any access at all. That leaves people at a distinct disadvantage, whether they are families, business people or farmers. That issue needs to be addressed by working in partnership with other bodies, but the Government need to pay particular attention to it.

There was the voucher scheme, which many businesses in Northern Ireland availed themselves of. Sadly, around 12 October 2015 that funding ceased—because, I suppose, demand exceeded supply of resources—and many businesses found themselves without that resource and lacking the capacity to develop their broadband expertise and their business, and to fuel productivity and economic growth.

I believe that speeds of over 100 megabits per second are technically possible, but many of my constituents and those of my colleagues who are here today would be happy with speeds that just meet the Government’s own definition of superfast broadband, which is 24 megabits per second, and the EU level is defined as 30 megabits per second. There are homes and businesses throughout Northern Ireland that struggle to access a meagre 2 megabits per second. Effective and reliable access to broadband should not be a luxury. We would rightly not accept such a speed on the parliamentary estate, and nor should it should be acceptable for any of our constituents.

The recent Ofcom report of June 2015 highlighted that although 83% of small and medium-sized enterprises felt that their businesses were well catered for by the communications market, a significant number expressed concerns about broadband speeds and availability, quality of service, and choosing between providers.

Today I want concentrate on possible solutions, which the Minister might also wish to concentrate on. All of us have experienced the frustration of a delayed or broken broadband connection, yet for people who experience that frustration on a permanent basis it is a lot more than just a minor frustration. It becomes a serious impediment to everyday life, to social inclusion and, of course, to economic development. Thousands of people across Northern Ireland are being denied that connectivity, so I want to concentrate on the solutions. I have talked to Virgin Media, I talked this morning to the internet broadband group, which has many members and looks after that level of connectivity for them, and yesterday I also talked to Vodafone. They all have a collective vision that there needs to be a greater level of partnership between Government, the devolved Administrations and the community.

The Scottish Government have invested in research as part of their world-class Digital 2020 vision. Two such projects are the free-space optics project at Edinburgh University and the white space project at Strathclyde University. Does the hon. Lady agree that the UK Government must invest in research if we are to have any chance of providing the level of service that our constituencies deserve?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very helpful intervention. I agree that there needs to be more evidence-based research to highlight the areas that are not yet covered by good quality, high broadband speeds, particularly those areas that are so distant from the cabinets. There also needs to be an emphasis on bringing fibre to the premises. FTTP needs to be a part of digital infrastructure and needs to be investigated.

There is also a view that Openreach should be structurally separated from BT, as BT is the sole provider, to allow Openreach to invest in delivering an effective infrastructure for the whole telecommunications industry. Communication providers could then consider investing in an independent Openreach. Ofcom should look at that, and the Minister should also look at it, perhaps to refer it to the Competition and Markets Authority.

When the hon. Lady and I enjoyed each other’s company—I certainly enjoyed her company—in Downpatrick just before Christmas, I was mightily impressed by the way that the local council was providing a vast range of services online. Is there any evidence that there is a failure of take-up in those essential council services because of the lack of connectivity, particularly in the Mournes region?

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention and for his good visit to South Down on 5 December. He is right: businesses that are not near the cabinet and premises that are not served need much better levels of technology. It is our local economy and local services that lose out.

Another issue is that structural separation will take time, so there is a need to move quickly to open up BT Openreach and provide better access for competitors, including to the network infrastructure. For example, other countries in Europe have managed to do that through physical infrastructure access under the existing regulatory regime. Spain and Portugal are leading examples of that. There is also a need to investigate the research into the whole rural broadband scheme, which has not been terribly effective. Alternative technologies need to be investigated. I met the Internet Services Providers Association this morning. It has a broad umbrella membership, and people and companies within it are doing that work. We need to look at alternative technologies that are capable of delivering the superfast speeds that are already universally available elsewhere. Subsidising take-up would be a more efficient solution for remaining rural areas.

The Government should focus any intervention on stimulating demand by subsidising the up-front costs of satellite broadband take-up. I would like to see the re-introduction of the broadband voucher scheme, which businesses found useful. I thought it would have happened in the autumn statement, so perhaps the Minister can reflect on that issue. In a recent written answer, he stated that

“this Government is working closely with Ofcom to implement the broadband Universal Service Obligation by 2020, as recently announced by the Prime Minister.”

There is doubt and apprehension that that might not happen, because there is not that collaboration between the technologies. There is monopoly control by BT, and separation and structural reform needs to take place.

No, I will conclude, because I think it is fair that the Minister has time to respond to the issues.

I hope that we do see that universal service obligation by 2020. To quote the Minister’s written answer:

“This will give people a legal right to request a broadband connection no matter where they live.”

It will enhance business and economic opportunities and drive the economic growth and job creation that we aspire to for all our citizens, as well as ensuring the social and economic development of all our peoples. I look forward to the consultation that the Minister will announce later this year, and I hope he can give us some information about that today.

There are two issues. In 2015, 77% of Northern Ireland premises had access to superfast broadband at speeds greater than 30 megabits, compared with the UK average of 83%. Suffice to say that my colleagues representing Northern Ireland constituencies are looking for a substantial improvement on that. Another interesting fact is that superfast coverage in Northern Ireland remained static from 2014 to 2015, while UK-wide it increased by 8%.

It is important that all the issues to do with technologies and increasing superfast broadband speeds are addressed. We need assurances that cable and fibre cable will be provided to premises and not solely to cabinets, because some find themselves at quite a distance, and speed reduces with distance from the cabinet. The bottom line is that we want to see our local economy and productivity grow. We want to see an enhancement of job creation. We do not want to see anyone left at a significant disadvantage. Obviously technologies—

No, but it will be 1690 again some time. In my constituency, Excel in Newtownards has increased its business online and has sales across the world. It could do even more and employ more people if superfast broadband was available. The incentive to getting it in is that it would create more jobs and more lift within the economy. That can happen in Northern Ireland if the right things are done.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which relates to the points I have been making throughout this debate. We need superfast broadband, higher speeds and better connection. Working with all those in the industry and allowing that structural reform to take place will enhance our local industrial base and the availability of educational opportunities to many of our students. It will also ensure that our rural populations, particularly those in mountainous regions, will not feel disadvantaged in any way. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I will feel free to intervene on him.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. This is the second debate I have replied to today. The first was at 2.15 this morning on the future of S4C. I was debating the issue with my colleagues and other Members from Wales. Yesterday, I was in this Chamber with my colleagues from England debating the importance of regional theatre. I know that that subject is close to your heart, Sir David, as a Member representing one of the cultural capitals of England in Southend. This afternoon, it is a pleasure to be with my colleagues from Northern Ireland, including the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who is an honorary Member for Northern Ireland, given his passion for the area. I am a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland. It was a pleasure to go to Derry/Londonderry when it was the first UK capital of culture. When it won that bid and took it forward, getting good broadband for Derry/Londonderry and the support of BT were important. It is a pleasure to visit Belfast and see the fantastic Titanic quarter, the home of “Game of Thrones” and the fantastic, burgeoning creative industries sector in that fair city.

Will the Minister tell us what the Government are going to do about obtaining better superfast broadband speeds?

I certainly will. Like an ageing router, I am gearing up to move at speed towards the substance of the debate. The point I was trying to make was to praise my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland for bringing such passion and expertise to a subject that is important not only for their constituents, but for constituents across the United Kingdom.

To begin at the beginning, we work closely with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which is in charge of the broadband roll-out. In the devolved nations, the devolved Governments take ownership of the broadband roll-out scheme, and we work closely with them to ensure that it is under way. Northern Ireland was ahead of the game at the beginning of the process, thanks to European funding, and had more fibre than most of the UK. It remains a very connected nation. Ofcom’s recent “Connected Nations” report said that overall coverage is around 77% and that the availability of superfast broadband to rural homes had increased, too.

The current Northern Ireland project will add 24,000 superfast premises by March this year, and by 2017, a total of 38,000 premises will have been connected, thanks to our programme. Thanks to the £11 million of Government funding, we expect that Northern Ireland should have 87% of premises receiving superfast coverage by the end of 2017, which compares favourably with elsewhere. Small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland, for example, have the highest coverage of all the four nations for superfast broadband, according to Ofcom, the independent regulator. Also, I was pleased that Ofcom showed that the average download speeds for broadband in Northern Ireland increased from 50 megabits—already pretty substantial—to 56 megabits a second from 2014 to 2015, so we are definitely on an upward curve.

The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who clearly knows her subject extremely well, covered various other important issues to do with broadband in Northern Ireland. She mentioned, for example, the scheme that we put in place to support small and medium-sized enterprises: our broadband voucher scheme. I am pleased to say that almost 2,500 businesses in Northern Ireland took advantage of that scheme. There has been cross-party support for the scheme, which has been a success. We will keep an open mind about whether it was right to reintroduce the scheme at a later date, but at the time it was time-limited. We wanted to get businesses to sign up to the scheme within a certain period of time, and I am afraid we had a deadline. However, I was pleased that more than 50,000 businesses in the UK took advantage of the scheme.

Importantly, wi-fi in public buildings was part of the scheme. In Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, 163 public buildings now benefit from wi-fi, but we need to go further. I have never made any secret of the fact that I hope that by the end of this Parliament we will have achieved 100% broadband coverage for the UK, and we need to do this in a variety of ways. First, we have our universal service commitment: everyone should have access to speeds of at least 2 megabits. We are doing this by allowing people who have speeds below 2 megabits to connect to satellite, and we will pay for them to be connected. That scheme is managed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, so if any of the hon. Lady’s constituents do not have access to broadband speeds of at least 2 megabits, they can now apply for a voucher and be connected to satellite. That is our universal service commitment.

We have also put in place some trial pilots and a satellite scheme as part of the pilot in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, where some 300 premises have benefited from that trial scheme, which is designed to show us the costs of getting to the very hardest to reach premises—what we call the last 5%—and how we can get to them in the most cost-effective way. Northern Ireland has also benefited from the mobile infrastructure programme, and we are putting masts in “not spots” where there is no mobile coverage. Two of those masts are already live and another seven are being built.

The Minister mentioned the mobile trialling project, which I understand was placed in South Antrim and in Fermanagh. Can he indicate whether that scheme is likely to be extended to other parts of Northern Ireland? He has indicated that there is a high level of speed in Belfast and in Derry, but I am concerned primarily about the rural areas that cannot access the speeds that are necessary for economic growth.

If the hon. Lady is talking about mobile coverage, we have concluded the mobile infrastructure programme. At the moment there are no plans to build more masts, but, again, I will keep an open mind about that, because I am aware that some communities have not benefited from the scheme and would like to, and I will continue to keep that under review. It is worth reminding hon. Members that we have, in conjunction with the mobile operators, changed the terms of their licences, so that all four mobile operators are now committed to reaching 90% geographic coverage for 4G by the end of 2017. The distinction between premises coverage, which should be about 98%, and geographic coverage is important because there are many areas with very few premises, but that are large geographic areas, and we hope that the 90% commitment will see far wider 4G coverage for people in rural areas, and also for those of us who as passengers might use our mobile phone while being driven. Of course, we would not dream of doing that while we were driving ourselves. That is a very important point.

Going further into the future, the hon. Lady mentioned two or three issues that are important when we look at digital broadband roll-out over the next few years. The first is the potential break-up of Openreach, about which there is a lively discussion in this House and outside. The hon. Lady may be aware that Ofcom is conducting a digital communications review, and it is due to report towards the end of February, when it will make clear what it regards as the appropriate way forward for Openreach. We will wait to see what the independent regulator concludes in that respect.

I have already mentioned our universal service commitment, but the hon. Lady also talked about the universal service obligation, which is a different thing. We will introduce legislation to ensure that anyone who does not have fast broadband can require a provider to provide them with speeds of at least 10 megabits, which is twice what the European directive requires. We intend to introduce that legislation over the next two years, so that by 2020 everyone should be able to apply for fast broadband, if they do not already have it, through our other various initiatives.

The hon. Lady rightly talked about fibre to the premises, which is, to a certain extent, the holy grail of superfast broadband. I was lucky enough to visit TalkTalk, which was conducting a trial in York, at the end of last year. It is delivering 1 gig to the premises. However, it is important to remember two things: first, it is very expensive to deliver fibre to the premises, and secondly, it is pointless to deliver fibre to the premises for people who do not necessarily want it. In the small tech world that I tend to inhabit, almost everyone I converse with thinks that everyone in the country wants 1 gig. Actually, most people want 10 or 20 megabits so that they can run a home office or a business from home, or take part in various consumer activities that they and perhaps the rest of their family want to take part in. Those are the sorts of speeds we want to give everyone in the country.

To reiterate, first of all, I welcome this debate. I think the hon. Lady is right to highlight the problems and issues faced in her constituency and in Northern Ireland as a whole, and I welcome the contribution of other hon. Members. As I have said, we have an £11 million roll-out of the broadband programme. We will get to 87% of Northern Ireland by the end of 2017.

The Minister made reference, as I did, to fibre to the premises. He indicated that that was the Government’s holy grail: the top-level aspiration. Currently, less than 1% of the UK has fibre to the premises. Although I understand that it is costly, it could be one way of ensuring that those hard-to-reach rural communities could have access, so what plans do the Government have, working with the technological companies, to ensure that that is part of the pathway to a universal service obligation?

As I was saying, fibre to the premises is very expensive and is not necessarily what the consumer wants at this moment in time, but we will certainly see individual companies over the next 10 years starting to introduce it more and more. It is worth reminding the hon. Lady that the technology that BT is already beginning to trial should see, for example, existing fibre to the cabinet solutions providing speeds 10 times faster than they currently do. So we could see people in her constituency, currently receiving 30 megabits, receiving speeds of some 300 megabits in a couple of years’ time and at very little cost. We intend to go forward with the universal service commitment, then the universal service obligation, as well as trialling alternative technologies. However, the hon. Lady is right to hold us to account. I would like to continue to work with her and her colleagues in improving broadband in Northern Ireland.