[Relevant document: Second Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Establishing world-class connectivity throughout the UK, HC 147.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Broadband Universal Service Obligation.
Today is not the first time that the House has discussed broadband and I suspect it will not be the last. All Members know from their postbags that their constituents have imperfect connections to the internet that is changing all their lives.
I suspect that those Members who think that they do not have constituents with imperfect connections represent constituencies where the connection is so bad that their constituents do not have the opportunity to tell them.
A universal service obligation is a huge step forward for those constituents in areas—largely, but by no means wholly, urban areas—where superfast and ultrafast speeds are possible: shopping is cheaper, the Government are more accessible, culture is on tap and the NHS can be more efficient. But for those in areas where the current USO of 10 megabits per second is a distant dream, the USO could be a lifeline from this Government, who would help those people to play a full part in the modern world, from drone deliveries to driverless cars.
There is a risk, however—this is why I am so grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate—that that lifeline is not as perfect as it could be. I hope that the debate will send a message from the House that “universal” in USO should mean that it is genuinely available to all, whether businesses or consumers, even if that has to be through a satellite connection or preferably, in due course, a 5G connection; that “service” should mean that the connection keeps pace with the quickening web requirements of the modern era, for upload and latency as well as for download; and that “obligation” should mean that it is provided by 2020 with a road map for each individual premises and a penalty on the provider if it has failed to deliver on time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He mentioned 5G. I happened to find myself in a remote west Oxfordshire village recently, where I found 4G available at 62 megabits per second, 50% faster than my BT Infinity at home. Does he agree that it would be appropriate to have 4G everywhere, not least everywhere in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts)?
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend highlights the patchiness of the network. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) could not be more deserving of that excellent speed, but all of us in this House are equally deserving of such speeds. That is the point of the debate. None of the conditions I just outlined would be controversial in any other regulated industry.
I ought to point out that although I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) got very good 4G reception in west Oxfordshire, we suffer from patchy and, in some cases, non-existent hard broadband coverage. In areas from Standlake in the south to Ledwell and the Wortons in the north, there is very much a need. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) agrees that we should be rolling out good broadband throughout not just west Oxfordshire but the whole country.
I absolutely agree. There are calls from across the House for exactly that. I would add that for me, it does not matter whether the USO is delivered through a fibre broadband connection, or 4G, 5G or whatever. The point, at the end of the day, is the connectivity that the constituent receives.
I hope I can help my hon. Friends. I understand the House’s important focus on the worries and concerns of minorities, but perhaps I can help with the tone of the debate. Before concentrating on the woes of those minorities, should not my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) acknowledge the incredible success of the rural broadband roll-out programme, which by the end of 2017 will hit its target of bringing superfast broadband access to 95% of the country? It is probably the most successful infrastructure programme any Government have run in many years.
I gather it is not correct to invite interventions, but the name of the Minister who was responsible for that programme temporarily escapes me. My right hon. Friend is completely right that this infrastructure project has been delivered with what is, in some senses, a genuinely world-leading speed and to a world-leading extent. We should not forget that, but it is small comfort to the people who do not yet have the connection. No infrastructure project that the Government are involved in is more important than broadband. The speed of delivery in some places has been world leading, but in others it has fallen far short of the standards that our constituents often tell us they expect.
I totally take on board the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), but the success of the programme has spawned its own issues. In Horsham, we have areas with good broadband. However, kids who live in surrounding villages cannot access the internet and the school curriculum is based around using it. That produces very significant problems for those children.
My hon. Friend underlines the ubiquitous importance of broadband in whatever area of life we talk about. We have to ensure that it is available not only to homes and businesses, but to schools and the health service. The announcement, that from 2020 everywhere will get 10 megabits, is one of the most welcome the Government have made. It will, however, be met with somewhat hollow laughter from those constituents who have nothing, and, shall we say, sceptical excitement from those who have 1 megabit, 2 megabits or 3 megabits, and think that 10 megabits might allow them to use the iPlayer or whatever else constituents in urban areas regard as absolutely standard.
I would just like to take this opportunity to invite my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) to come and visit Wycombe. He is very welcome to address my constituents in Hambleden Valley, particularly in Fawley and Turville, where they would be extremely grateful if they had 4G, never mind fixed broadband.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
May I, via my hon. Friend, accept that invitation? I will go to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) to talk about the success of broadband and the perils of Brexit.
I am delighted to pass on that message.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Oh, for heaven’s sake! Yes.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that a number of innovative firms, such as ITS in my constituency, are rolling out wireless technology that allows some communities to band together and fill the gaps that the current programme, unfortunately, has not reached?
I agree, and I will come on to that in a moment. The USO must enable those innovative solutions, otherwise it will not fulfil exactly the ambitions I know my right hon. Friend the Minister has for it.
In my constituency, despite having the least well-funded police force, an enormous rural road network, and very strong opinions on the EU and immigration, broadband is the single biggest issue in my postbag. My local superfast connection figures are still 6% below the national average, and for the neighbouring constituency of Louth and Horncastle they are 13% below the national average. All Lincolnshire’s MPs know from their respective constituents the importance of this issue, even though our county council has delivered its projects ahead of schedule and under budget. I think all Members agree that the USO is a huge opportunity to make an economic impact, narrow the gap between the urban and the rural economy, and reform Government services.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is an absolute disgrace that Which? found that Scots have access to 4G signal only 54% of the time?
I would say that wherever 4G has not been delivered to the extent operators often claim it is, we have a huge problem. The hon. Lady is right that it is particularly in the rural areas to which she refers that the availability of this service could make the most difference. In that sense, we are clearly not doing as well as our constituents would demand.
It is not just rural Scotland that suffers. In fact, most of my constituency has only a 2G signal—we do not even have 3G. Ofcom has launched a very useful app, which people can download to their mobile phones, that feeds data directly to Ofcom. I encourage everybody who suffers from poor signal to download it, so that Ofcom can have real-time information on the appalling quality of service some of my constituents are getting with their mobile phone coverage.
I thank my hon. Friend. I will come to the importance of data in a moment.
Ofcom has not yet defined the “U” the “S” or the “O” bit of the USO. We must acknowledge that there will be areas that it is not economical to connect, just as we do with water or electricity, but that underlines the importance of a USO that is technology-neutral, minimising the need for ubiquitous fibre but planning for a fibre spine that powers wireless connectivity and in due course allows a genuine 5G revolution. By the time that 5G is around, the USO must also have risen with what we might call digital inflation, because 10 megabits per second is barely good enough today and certainly not good enough in perpetuity. In the manner of the Low Pay Commission, Ofcom should make recommendations each year to see the USO rise incrementally, and the Government might occasionally make a point of surpassing those recommendations, as it has with those of the commission.
Assuming that this USO is like those in other industries, in that it allocates a reasonable budget per connection, it will be vital that communities can pool their funding, in the manner that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) mentioned, in order to encourage private companies such as those she mentioned to take innovative paths. This effectively would create a voucher scheme of the sort that the Minister talked about in a recent debate. It is certainly important that we explore the avenue of allowing communities to club together rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves.
Connecting the final few per cent. of the UK will require an unprecedented host of diverse solutions, from satellite broadband to, I hope, full fibre. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury will agree, however, that one size will not fit all, however marvellous the companies she mentioned might be. A single company might not necessarily be the right approach to provide a backstop for a USO. I suspect that many will express views on BT in this debate, but in reality even that one enormous company will not be providing every part of the solution.
My hon. Friend mentions the one big family, BT. In my constituency, there are excellent companies, such as STL Communications, which provides data, IT and broadband solutions across the entirety of west Oxfordshire and London. Does he agree that there might be ways in which all sorts of companies can be involved in the provision of a 100% broadband solution?
The Government’s indication that, in the hardest-to-reach areas, connections will be provided on request, rather than by default, is a pragmatic economic response, but communities should be incentivised to go further. I would, however, caveat this approach—that it be demand led—by saying that the USO should surely be extended to all major roads, not just motorways, and to railway lines and stations as soon as possible. I know that the Department for Transport is working on this, but building it into the USO as well would be progress.
Over the many months I spent on the HS2 Committee, I tried very hard to insist that we included an obligation to provide broadband all the way up the line and that we gave affected communities access to it. I also think that for every development of over 20 houses we should insist that the developer put in superfast broadband. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
I absolutely agree with both points. It is daft that we are not fibring up every new housing development by default, and it is short-sighted of developers, because we know that superfast broadband connections add value to the houses. There is virtue on both sides.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), I would go slightly further than Lord Adonis’s National Infrastructure Commission did recently, and say that we should be slightly more creative in identifying areas of default provision.
Crucial to all this is the issue of data. There would be a real risk of cherry-picking if we were to publish simply a bulk set of every single connection and how fast it is; actually, that might provoke the sort of anti-competitive behaviour that none of us would like to see. However, it strikes me that publication of address-level data will provide constituents with an accurate picture of their broadband speeds now, and it should also provide them with a road map for the future, so that it would allow not only prospective purchasers of a house to see what speed they might get and what their upgrade path might be, but communities to pool their own data so that they can identify whether they should be going out to other companies to try to attract investment or whether they might be able to wait a little while because they know that a solution is coming.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Actual Experience provides free software that can be downloaded on to people’s computers at home that feeds into Ofcom and provides real-time data? I am trying to encourage communities in my constituency that do not have access to 2 megabits per second broadband to use that free software so that we can gain greater and more effective data on this issue.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Actual Experience, which has worked with Ofcom, provides an invaluable and often free service from which all our constituents could benefit. It is precisely that data that allows communities to join themselves together and work out whether they can go to companies and point out that they are an attractive place to invest, or indeed whether they need to persuade, as has happened in many parts of the country, a friendly farmer to help them dig the trench. It is a useful thing.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. Does he agree with me that the heart of this issue is not that Ofcom does not know where the gaps are; it is that provision in rural areas is challenging? It is a challenge that companies do not find conducive to taking up and we have social exclusion as a consequence?
I agree that communities that are not connected are not connected to the modern world. That is precisely why we need to make sure that a USO is genuinely universal. I do not agree with the idea that data will not help those communities. I think the more data we have, the more we are able to go to prospectively innovative companies and ask them what they can do, and the more we can see how those communities can get together. It is a two-way street.
In the end, it will be communities themselves, I believe, that drive the universal service obligation. As BT and others have pushed the roll-out of existing broadband further and faster than originally predicted, the howls of protest from those who are left behind have grown only louder. Without the USO, Britain’s digital divide will become too wide to bridge. With it done properly, however, it will be the foundation for a truly digital nation. Enabling that is enabling a new industrial revolution, which is a prize that I think we would all agree—whatever our party—is more than worth fighting for. I hope that this debate will enable the Minister and others in the industry to gain a wider perspective of the views of this House, so that we can build the best possible universal service obligation for all of our constituents. I commend the motion to the House.
Let me first congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate. I truly welcome the opportunity to discuss this crucial subject. I particularly welcome the conversion of the Conservative party, after a very long time—seven or so years—to supporting a policy of universal broadband provision.
Access to broadband is absolutely crucial in society today, and has been for the last seven years. That is true not just for businesses, but for individuals. The Government are increasingly insisting that citizens access services through the medium of broadband. It is therefore essential that we have a universal service. It is extraordinary that that concept, which the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness talked about for the last 20 minutes, was rejected by the Conservative party. The concept of universality is crucial, but it was rejected by the coalition Government in 2010. In the 2010 general election, the Labour party had a policy of introducing universal broadband at a speed of 2 megabits by 2012. When the coalition Government came to power, they instead insisted—I remember the hon. Member for Wantage—
The right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey); I beg his pardon. I remember the wording, as I heard it so many times: the coalition Government were going to deliver the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015. But they rejected universal broadband, and ever since, I have, when sitting on these Benches, watched Conservative MPs complaining about lack of broadband provision. They are complaining because, as we all know from our constituents—individuals and companies—that provision is not being delivered. The result has been disastrous, especially for communities away from south-east England and the richest parts of the UK.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s points on universality. Llwyn Helyg country house is an award-winning business in my constituency; it has won a range of accolades and has a five-star rating on TripAdvisor. The only negative comment it has ever had is about bad broadband provision, and that has an impact on its business.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The same point has been made to me, and I am sure to many other Members, particularly those representing beautiful constituencies with large tourism sectors. Broadband provision is extremely important for businesses in that sector nowadays; to appeal to and access a worldwide market, they have to be able to provide these services.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. As he will know, Wales, including my Neath constituency, has some of the most rural communities in the UK, and despite the Superfast Cymru project we still lag behind England on coverage and take-up. Does he agree that the Government should underwrite the additional £20 million needed, and currently being sought from EU funds, to get the job done?
It is essential that we put the infrastructure in place that will deliver for the whole of the United Kingdom; that is the thrust of my speech.
I represent Wrexham. We have heard about rural areas that do not have access to broadband, but Wrexham is a manufacturing and exporting constituency that has many businesses and many modern technology parks around it. Many of those businesses have been telling me over the past few years that they have not been able to access the type of broadband services that are essential for modern businesses to be able to compete.
The Superfast Cymru project is led and delivered by the Labour-run Welsh Government in Cardiff, so if those businesses are struggling, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman speaks to the Welsh Government in Cardiff, who are rolling out that programme.
It is a matter of regret that the hon. Lady never misses an opportunity to be partisan. If she knew anything about this subject, she would know that the infrastructure and the whole basis on which broadband services are delivered are constructed by the UK Government; it has been their responsibility to deliver the policy of spreading broadband across the UK. It demeans the Conservative party to resort to petty, political point scoring, but that is what I have come to expect from her.
This is a serious, important subject, because I believe in the United Kingdom and in supporting areas right across the country—not just the richest areas, which is the policy of the Conservatives; whenever figures come through from Ofcom, we still see that the richest parts of the country have the greatest broadband provision. That acts against the interests of the nations and regions of the UK. It is the role of government, and the UK Government in particular, to correct the deficiencies of the market, but the coalition and Conservative Governments have failed to do that since 2010. That is why we have heard so many complaints from Conservative MPs at every Culture, Media and Sport Question Time since 2010 about the weakness of broadband provision and services.
I accept that there has been progress. Demand has not stood still since 2010. I know that the hon. Member for Wantage—
He was rewarded for failure.
Right honourable. It is always good have personal connections in politics these days; one always secures rewards.
Labour’s commitment to 2 megabits would have established universal provision, so that the entire UK would benefit from the expansion of broadband services. In reality, the richest areas have benefited most. We always accepted that 2 megabits was a starting point and would not be enough, but the important thing was the commitment to a universal service. Jettisoning that principle was disastrous. It reflected a failure to appreciate the essential nature of broadband in today’s economy and society. It accelerated still further the regional imbalances in the UK; this country has the most marked regional differences in income of all OECD countries. If we are to address economic and wealth inequality across the UK, the Government must act to ensure that we have a universal superfast broadband service. I welcome, therefore, the conversion to a commitment to universal service, but it is a shame that that did not happen in 2010, and that it has not been in place for the past six years.
BT has achieved much in broadband provision, and has extended that provision since 2010. However, it effectively has a monopoly over the infrastructure in many areas, yet it is not able to meet the required demand.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way. There are delays in consumer provision reminiscent of the pre-privatisation era of the early 1980s. Individuals tell me time and again that they wait weeks, sometimes months, for a broadband connection when they move house.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
I will not give way to the hon. Lady because she makes cheap political points.
In addition, many areas do not have the broadband infrastructure to secure superfast services. Until recently, Wrexham had only one broadband infrastructure system, which was unable to meet the demand from local businesses and individuals. The UK Government, who are responsible for devising the system, should have put in place a governance structure that created either the necessary infrastructure through a monopoly provider or a competitive market in which providers compete to build infrastructure. Their failure is that they have done neither since 2010.
I am pleased to say that in Wrexham, in the past two months, Virgin Media has begun to build its own infrastructure system, its first in north Wales, as part of the Project Lightning programme. I thank Virgin Media for responding to the pressure I have consistently put it under to introduce that system, but if we are to have a universal system right across the UK, it is incumbent on the Government and regulators to create the system necessary right across the UK. That they have not done so already is a failure on their part.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Right hon. Gentleman. I wanted to improve the quality of debate by bringing a couple of facts to bear, because the hon. Gentleman is making a highly politicised and partisan speech. It is just worth pointing out to the House that in Wrexham, a town I know well, 95% of premises have access to superfast broadband, and by next summer that figure will be 98%.
Order. If everybody is to get equal time, Members should take up to 10 minutes; if they do not do that, other people will get squeezed out. If Members wish to make interventions, they should be short and sweet. I ask the people who are giving way to use up to 10 minutes. Ian Lucas, I know you are nearly ending your speech.
I am very aware of the position in Wrexham, because people contact me every week—every day, on occasion—to complain about a lack of provision. That includes complaints from businesses, and I can and will send the right hon. Gentleman a list of the complaints that I receive. I accept the position, but this is an important matter and I am not inventing these cases; they are cases that come to me.
BT is coming under a lot of pressure, and I have fought hard to get Virgin Media to come to Wrexham to provide competition to BT, which will improve the system. I do not think BT should be excluded in the future. As for the idea of a quick fix, splitting Openreach from BT is not a simple solution. One problem of the broadband market has been that a lot of the companies in the sector have spent far too much time arguing with each other about provision over the past few years. I want to make a constructive proposal for the sector, one based on my experience as a Minister. Regrettably, I am not right hon. because I do not have the right connections at present, but I was a Minister in the Labour Government who created the Automotive Council and, subsequently, the Defence Growth Partnership and the Aerospace Growth Partnership. They were put together to get businesses to work together for the benefit of the UK as a whole, to devise an effective system of businesses in individual sectors working together. I would like to see that in the broadband sector. I would like the Government, in pursuit of a universal service obligation, to construct a communications council, so that businesses work with each other and with Ofcom to devise a proper and appropriate approach to pursuing a universal obligation.
Providing broadband is not only a massive challenge for us, but a massive opportunity; the scale of the job is such that it provides training and skills potential for years to come. This should be a central task for the communications industry, and the Government should be working to ensure that the investment in infrastructure in the years to come leads to a parallel upskilling of our workforce right across the UK. A communications council should be tasked with that, and should take that objective forward.
Universal broadband should have been put in place years ago, and I welcome the fact that the Government have finally concluded that it should be introduced. They need to work with industry to look at the best way forward, and with Ofcom to secure the way forward, and then make sure that the investment made is used to upskill our young people and provide the type of service right across the UK that all businesses need in today’s world.
Order. May I remind Members to take up to 10 minutes and no more, so that everybody can have equal time? I call Ed Vaizey.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I shall make two or three recommendations, which will I hope be useful to my right hon. Friend the Minister. I do not particularly want to dwell on the past, but after the previous speech it is probably worth putting in context some of the points that have been made. It is worth pointing out, for example, that, in terms of the Labour party’s promise to deliver 2 megabits by 2012, we do not know whether that would have been fulfilled, as it was based on a highly questionable telephone tax, which would have seen a revolt from consumers. In any event, we now have coverage of 99.22% at 2 megabits.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) failed to explain what happened in 2010, which was that the new Government looked at the promise of 2 megabits and understood that it would not be nearly enough. In fact, I suspect that many of our constituencies, which were already getting 2 megabits, complained to us about poor broadband. What they want is a superfast connection of around 24 megabits that allows them to use many of the applications that we now regard as very commonplace.
While we are talking about accuracy, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is inaccurate to say that the less economically wealthy areas have been disadvantaged, when the constituency of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) has 95% superfast coverage while mine has just 78%?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The rural superfast broadband programme has been a great success. It has delivered access to superfast broadband to almost 5 million homes. The money invested by Government will be paid back because of the nature of the contracts. The hon. Member for Wrexham mentioned that he had persuaded Virgin to come to his constituency. Virgin is now investing £3 billion in extending its network, and that is partly inspired by the success of the superfast broadband network.
The point I really want to make is that I am sick and tired of people talking down this country and pretending that we are in some kind of digital desert. The latest culprit—I am astonished that the Government allowed this to happen—is Lord Adonis, a Labour peer—[Interruption.] No longer a Labour peer. Alright, he is an ex-Labour peer, but we know where his sentiments lie. He used the platform of the National Infrastructure Commission to publish a report yesterday claiming that we have worse mobile broadband than Peru. He based that on one set of analysis by Open Signal. I am not denigrating that company, but it relies on people downloading an app and then uploading the speed they are getting. Some 4,500 in Peru use the Open Signal app, and most respectable telecoms analysts would not go near a country unless they had data from at least 25,000 users. One of the mobile companies in Peru does not even provide 4G, but that is not even mentioned in the Open Signal app.
It is much better to look at a company such as Akamai, which points out that we have the fastest download speed in 4G of any country in Europe. It is almost double the next best in the EU five. Its report, which was published this week, says:
“the United Kingdom once again had the fastest average mobile connection speed at 23.7 Mbps (up from 23.1 Mbps in the second quarter)”.
We have between 82% and 93% household coverage for 4G. A total of 76% of mobile subscribers in this country have 4G subscriptions. That is double the next best country, which is Germany, at around 35%. We have companies such as Amazon investing in cloud services. We lead the world in e-commerce. If we are this so-called “digital desert”, as Lord Adonis claimed today to promote his report, how come we lead on all these metrics? I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to give Lord Adonis a dressing down, and to tell him to check his facts and use a better analysis instead of running around promoting his report, pretending that we somehow live in a digital desert.
As it happens, I have the Akamai table here on my machine. Whereas the UK has a score of 13 for international connections, Peru has a score of only 4.4. How Lord Adonis can come up with his figures, I do not know.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend.
Apart from the dressing down of Lord Adonis at the Bar of the House of Commons, my main policy point is this—[Interruption.] I tried as a Minister to get a comprehensive data analysis of broadband connections, because too many independent reports are knocking about that people can use to make their own partisan points. We need Ofcom to collate these reports and to update its data, because its own data—not through its own fault but because of how long it takes to collect them—are often six months to a year out of date. We need one comprehensive UK digital report published every year by Ofcom, incorporating all the independent research.
I took refuge in the absolutely excellent independent analysis undertaken by thinkbroadband. If any hon. Members want to know how many connections they have in their constituency, they should go to the thinkbroadband website where they will get the most up-to-date and accurate information.
Having attacked Lord Adonis without his having the chance to defend himself, let me say that I thought his report was excellent, despite his pathetic attempt to promote it by putting out misleading analysis of the digital position in this country. The recommendations were spot-on, not least the recommendation that my right hon. Friend the Minister’s empire should be expanded. I tried to expand my empire when I was a Minister and I failed dismally. People will not be surprised to hear that, but my right hon. Friend is 10 times more talented and 10 times more superfast, and it is right that under his stewardship we should bring together all digital projects.
It is a scandal that we do not have broadband in trains. The reason is that that area is run by the Department for Transport and Network Rail, whereas it should be run by my right hon. Friend. It is a scandal that the Home Office is in charge of the emergency services network; it should be run by him. It is a scandal that we do not have coverage on our roads; it should be run by him. All these digital projects should be brought under one Minister, and I cannot think of anyone more talented than my right hon. Friend.
I come now to the third recommendation. We have something called Broadband Delivery UK—BDUK. The clue is in the title: the D is for delivery. Under my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is talented enough to oversee a large organisation such as that, Broadband Delivery UK should be turned into a delivery organisation that works with local councils. It should not be left to the hon. Member for Wrexham to browbeat Virgin Media to deliver broadband to his constituency; BDUK should be working with Virgin, Openreach and all the mobile operators.
Many of the problems that make us gnash our teeth and pull our hair out are down to appalling planning procedures. We all know the story of how Kensington and Chelsea would not allow BT to upgrade its network because it did not like the design of the green boxes. I have had rows with council leaders in south London who just did not like the people at Openreach and so were not prepared to move. I had telecoms companies coming to me saying that they wanted to deliver broadband to council houses but could get a wayleave from the council to do it. So much of this is about bad planning and straightforward bureaucracy.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Finally, the Government have already shown how forward-looking they are, under the stewardship of this brilliant Minister.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will tell you in a minute why that is, Mr Deputy Speaker, after I have taken this noisy intervention.
If I may interrupt the self-praise for one moment, I hang on the former Minister’s every word and I am worried. He said that he would make three recommendations. The second one was about giving his replacement more powers, the third was about more powers to BDUK, but the first escapes me. I am sure it will be earth-shattering, so would he mind helping me out with his first recommendation?
I call the honourable Edward Vaizey.
I call Edward Vaizey PC. Oh yes, your father was a peer.
Thank you for keeping me on my toes, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) has given me a chance to rehearse my entire speech again, but let me give him the edited highlights. My recommendations were: first, one annual robust data analysis of fixed and mobile broadband connections; secondly, more power for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture; and thirdly, more power for Broadband Delivery UK to help telcos to navigate the bureaucracy of councils.
Finally, I was going to say how far-seeing and forward-looking this Government have become, thanks to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Again, I heartily endorse the proposals announced in the autumn statement to invest in planning 5G networks. Let us be satisfied with where we are. We had a rural broadband programme that has delivered exactly what it said on the tin. We are going to see increased speeds come through new technologies such as G.fast, but the Government are now quite rightly pushing for the next phase, fibre to the premises and 5G networks. Let us start planning for a gigabit Britain.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey); he and I have had some knockabout over the years on certain issues. In this debate he has created a festive spirit, so I start by wishing you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all the staff of Parliament a merry Christmas and a prosperous 2017.
I am going to talk not about darkest Peru but about brightest Anglesey. I am going to talk not about the 95%, who are always talked about, but about the 5% who are left behind—the 5% who are not expected to get superfast broadband in the initial roll-out. This 5% are normally the ones without gas mains. This 5% will struggle to get a 3G mobile signal, let alone a 4G or 5G signal. This 5% will not, as a consequence of having poor mobile signals, get smart meters when they are rolled out, because they require a mobile signal. This is the forgotten 5%, and it does not have to be like that.
Major projects start by promising a 95% threshold. I think we should be talking about 100%. Then, if there is difficulty, let us deal with those areas, rather than allowing a 95% threshold every time there are major projects and major roll-outs. It is time to be more inclusive and more universal, so let us talk about 100%.
The 5% I am talking about actually pay more for their heating and other utilities. They pay—this is an important point—exactly the same as anybody who gets full 4G coverage and full superfast broadband. They pay exactly the same, and they should be treated the same, in my humble opinion.
These people are often in peripheral and rural areas. My constituency is on the periphery of Wales; it is predominantly rural. Yes, people choose to live there; people choose to visit the area and to move into it, and they are very welcome in north-west Wales and Anglesey, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a regular visitor. However, I am sure that you have difficulty in the coastal area of Anglesey in picking up broadband or a mobile signal. I have argued that, in the 21st century, we should have 21st-century technology across the United Kingdom.
I am going to divert somewhat from the right hon. Gentleman’s consensual approach and remind him, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) did, about the previous Labour Government’s promise to deliver a universal service obligation by 2012. I recall arguing for it when the coalition Government came in in 2010 and being told, first, that it was not ambitious enough, and then that it was not possible. Then, all of a sudden, about this time last year, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, stood up and said—I do not think he even consulted the Minister at the time—that we would have a universal service obligation by 2020. That was a complete U-turn, which I very much welcomed.
Labour promised 100% coverage of 2 megabits; it did not propose a universal service obligation that allows someone who does not have broadband to demand it. When the Prime Minister announced it, he had, indeed, consulted Ministers.
The right hon. Gentleman is leading with his chin. If he checks Hansard, he will see that he will have said the opposite on many occasions. He will have said it was not possible. He will have said that the Government were not going to deliver it. However, all of a sudden, it was not just their ambition but their flagship policy. I welcome that, but I want that flagship policy to come in as soon as possible.
I recently had a meeting—one of several meetings—with service providers, BT Openreach, and constituents and local business people who are finding it difficult to operate because of the poor broadband coverage. The chief executive officer of BT Openreach has agreed to visit my constituency to see the problems and the challenges. I have been out with engineers, and I do understand the topography and some of the other issues they have to deal with. However, I do not accept that in the 21st century, when we have put a man on the moon and I can talk to my daughter in Melbourne, Australia, we cannot get a decent signal. Rural, peripheral areas like the Faroe Islands can get 100% broadband coverage. If there is a political will, it is technically possible to do it.
I am at therefore at one with the new Minister in bringing in his Digital Economy Bill, but I do have a few questions for him. He has been talked up as the great successor to the previous Minister, and he has a real challenge on his hands to live up to his reputation, but I want him to go further and tell this House how the roll-out of universal broadband is actually going to work, because all we hear at the moment is words. Who is Ofcom going to ask to roll this out? Are we going to go to the market forces that have failed many areas of the United Kingdom thus far in relation to mobile? I have dozens of mobile operators phoning up and saying, “Do you want a connection?”, and when I tell them where I live they are unable to do it, so the market is not a magic solution. What secondary legislation will follow the Digital Economy Bill to deliver this? I welcome the Bill, which lifts our status as a country in moving forward in the digital age, but how will it work in practice?
I want to make the new Minister an offer that I made to the previous one: for my constituency—on the periphery; rural, semi-rural and urban—to be a pilot scheme for the new universal service obligation. I am sure that, working with private companies and with the Welsh Government, we can deliver full coverage. At the moment, we have just 79.9% superfast broadband, 6.4% ultrafast broadband, and 14.5% below the speeds that we now call superfast broadband. There is a challenge there for the country as a whole, as well as in my constituency.
I support the universal service obligation and the Government’s intention to have it for 2020. I know the Minister is a decent person, and I ask him to give a gift to the people of Ynys Môn—the isle of Anglesey—today by saying, “Yes, we will look at having the isle of Anglesey as a pilot scheme for the future.” Then I will work with him and his Government to get the USO on Anglesey and across the United Kingdom.
I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for opening this debate so knowledgeably.
My constituency is one of the most rural in England. Earlier this year, on 11 May, I called on the then Prime Minister, the right hon. David Cameron, to honour his commitment that every home and business should have access to broadband by the end of this Parliament. I therefore warmly welcome the inclusion in the Chancellor’s autumn statement of a provision for the deployment of over £1 billion to boost broadband speeds with the help of a digital infrastructure fund which, I am ever hopeful, will provide the universal service obligation.
It is self-evident that today everybody needs a good broadband speed: it has become almost as important a utility as water and electricity. As the representative of such a large rural constituency, it would be useful to illustrate its importance to one particular group—farmers. The connection statistics for farmers compiled by the National Farmers Union make for poor reading. Over 30% of British farmers do not receive their internet via fibre-optic, and 58% experience a download speed of 2 megabits per second or less, well below the current national average of 22.8 megabits per second. Like any modern business, farmers require a fast broadband connection to do a plethora of tasks, including vehicle registration, basic farm payments, livestock movement records, and animal registration; and increasingly, like all businesses in this country, they will have to file their tax affairs online. By their very nature, single farm payment claims, including plans, require a large amount of data to be transferred. If the Government really want to support this country’s 212,000 farms, they must take that seriously.
I warmly welcome the Digital Economy Bill, which could provide a legislative framework to ensure that the UK can become the best-connected country in the world, but it needs to be bolder and introduce future and rural-proofed legislation. It is clear that the universal service obligation that will introduce speeds of 10 megabits per second by 2020 is obsolete and out of date even before it has been introduced. The minimum EU standard for 2020 should be 30 megabits per second. Indeed, world standards are now moving towards 100 megabits per second, so we need to be ambitious.
We also need to be more inventive. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness, all developments of more than 20 houses should have to install superfast broadband. As the previous Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) has said, we should be more inventive, and major public infrastructure projects should install superfast broadband.
My right hon. Friend also said that there has been good progress in Gloucestershire, and I praise him for what he did for my constituency and county. I have consistently campaigned for better broadband provision in my constituency, either by supporting private business to receive installation contracts or by lobbying the Government to increase public investment. Gloucestershire County Council, in conjunction with Fastershire, has seen almost 40,000 homes in my constituency receive superfast broadband over the two phases since it was introduced in 2014. That has been funded by a combination of funds from the county council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with a total investment of almost £28 million. I am glad to note that a further, third phase is soon to begin and will fill in any gaps and, I hope, leave most of my constituents with a reliable and appropriate internet connection.
In 2010, the coalition Government announced that Britain would have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2012, but that was postponed until 2015 and replaced by the less ambitious aim of having
“the fastest broadband of any major European country”.
I praise the Government for making progress. I have cited the Akamai tables, which show the UK’s position in relation to Peru, and those same international tables show that Britain is the 12th country in the league. Given that we are the fifth largest economy, we cannot be complacent about our broadband provision.
As with the introduction of any utility, cost-benefit analysis must be undertaken and considered. According to the Government’s own 2013 “UK Broadband Impact Study”, availability of faster broadband will add about £17 billion to the UK’s economy by 2024. The bulk of that money would come from improvements in productivity. In his autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was very keen to stress that we need to improve that. That would also safeguard employment in areas such as Wrexham, which would otherwise be left at an unfair disadvantage.
From an environmental perspective, a universal service obligation will offer additional benefits. Annually, 1.4 billion miles in commuting by car, 3.2 billion miles in business travel through increased use of online collaboration, and 1 billion kWh of electricity through broadband-using firms shifting their server capacity on to more efficient cloud platforms will be saved by the universal service obligation. All of that equates to a saving of 1.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
As I said, I strongly support the digital infrastructure fund announced in this year’s autumn statement. However, that investment will be severely diminished if there is no blanket improvement of mobile phone signals across the whole country. Although the introduction of 5G in major conurbations is warmly welcome, there are still great swathes of Britain, particularly rural areas, including in my constituency, that do not even experience an adequate 3G signal. Something must be done to improve the foundation of this country’s digital capacity.
The absence of phone signals—so-called not spots—should be a thing of the past in this country in the 21st century. In the Cotswolds, villages such as Great Rissington, Chedworth and Quenington are notorious for having a poor mobile phone signal. Indeed, there is a certain spot four miles from Cirencester on the A433—the Fosse way that goes through my constituency and a very busy road—where I know that my mobile phone is going to cut out. Surely in this country we should be able to do something about that. The mobile infrastructure policy is crucial in tackling the unacceptable problem whereby 20% of the UK is affected by not spots. One thing follows the other. If we have good broadband infrastructure, we can solve the mobile infrastructure problem.
Vodafone, EE and O2 have all successfully worked across the country to erect and share masts, including seven in my constituency. The world is moving on. I recently met a major Chinese telecoms firm, ZTE, which plans to gain £2 billion of the £20 billion UK telecoms market by 2025 from a standing start, using mainly fibre and wireless technology. For BT, that does not bode well. It is over-reliant on outdated copper wires when the world is moving towards fibre and wireless technology. It must adapt, otherwise it will simply go out of business.
The Government and regulators need to be mindful of the danger that when broadband and good mobile phone coverage are provided by companies with bespoke solutions, some of the smaller companies increase the cost to customers by more than the cost of inflation. That is a new and growing scourge that my right hon. Friend the Minister will need to look at with regulators.
I conclude by encouraging all parties involved—nationally and locally, private and public—to proceed as rapidly as possible in improving broadband and mobile coverage. To that end, the universal service obligation is entirely correct to create a legal requirement for such a crucial service. We must be ambitious when it comes to internet coverage and speed if we wish to tap into our economic potential to export more goods and services, and if we do not wish to allow our rival countries to overtake us.
As this will be my last contribution in the House before Christmas, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I wish you, all the staff in the House—especially my own staff—and right hon. and hon. Members and their families a very peaceful Christmas?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this important and timely debate. I was struck by the speech made by the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who underlined some of the points that I want to make quite firmly about the position in Scotland, particularly rural Scotland. I think that some of the words of the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey)—he is no longer in his place—about connectivity, and particularly mobile connectivity, will ring somewhat hollow with a number of our constituents.
It is Christmas, or just about, so in the spirit of Christmas I would like to welcome the moves by the UK Government to provide improved digital infrastructure, but it is important to state that we do not believe that this goes nearly far enough. The USO and the Digital Economy Bill could and should do much more to provide the background for economic growth amid this time of deep Brexit uncertainty.
Our ambition in Scotland is for Scotland’s economy and our public services to have a digitally skilled and empowered workforce. The SNP Government are purposely ambitious in this area. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) talked about having a 100% commitment, and that is exactly what is happening in Scotland. Our 100% superfast broadband commitment far outstrips the UK Government’s plans, which are limited to the universal service obligation of just 10 megabits per second. Incidentally, the Government risk repeating a key mistake of the past, which is to deliver the minimum required for today’s needs when they should be delivering what will be needed tomorrow.
The SNP tabled innovative amendments to the Digital Economy Bill. We were concerned, as we continue to be, that the UK Government’s unwillingness to engage indicates a lack of genuine commitment to extending broadband coverage. Our ambition for Scotland’s economy and our public services requires a digitally skilled and empowered workforce. Digital connectivity is critical to opening up economic opportunity in every part of Scotland, and I know that that will be reflected in the other nations of the UK. A report by Deloitte for the Scottish Futures Trust in July made it clear that if Scotland became a world leader in digitalisation, GDP could increase by over £13 billion by 2030 and generate an additional 175,000 jobs in Scotland, while also improving health outcomes and helping to end the digital divide, particularly in rural communities.
To achieve that, we need to address the shortage in specialist digital skills that risks becoming a growth bottleneck. There is an immediate demand for women and men with strong specialist skills, and that sits side by side with the need to develop a broader pipeline over time. The Scottish Government are working with partners to meet the challenges set out in the 2014 digital skills investment plan. They are raising awareness, especially among girls and young women, with a curriculum that is relevant and responsive from school through to university, and continuing to create and highlight new pathways into these new and changing jobs.
As I have mentioned, the SNP tabled innovative amendments to the Digital Economy Bill, and we are concerned that they were not taken up. The Secretary of State could have introduced a broadband connection voucher scheme to allow the end user to access a broadband service other than that supplied by the provider of the universal service obligation under part 2 of the Communications Act 2003. That would have gone some way to addressing the issues raised by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness. I think that that should still be considered, so I hope the Minister will look, even at this late stage, at how to accommodate it. Such a scheme would provide a replacement for the previous UK Government broadband connection voucher scheme, which ran from 2013 to 2015, that encouraged small and medium-sized enterprises to take up superfast broadband. It was a good idea, and it helped over 40,000 SMEs. The Minister could also have committed, as his predecessor did, to extending the rights of consumers with mobile coverage so that they have the same rights of service in contracts as those with fixed broadband, yet he did not do so.
Rural Scotland’s poor mobile coverage stems from Westminster having treated it as an afterthought for decades. Although I give a guarded welcome to the support for 5G and the trials of it, there is a lack of ambition on that as well. The widespread uptake of smartphones and tablets has led to a very large growth in the demand for mobile data services. For example, between 2011 and 2015, mobile data traffic in the UK increased by 710%. Analysys Mason forecasts that by 2030 levels of mobile data traffic before wi-fi offload could be more than 45 times greater than in 2014.
Rural Scotland’s mobile connectivity is still suffering and struggling because the licensing of the mobile spectrum has been used by the UK Government as a cash cow and a way of making money, rather than as critical infrastructure development that is essential for our country. In the UK, the 3G and 4G spectrum auctions raised billions for the Treasury, but other countries have sought to prioritise greater coverage as a first port of call. The 4G licence auction required 95% coverage for each nation within the UK, which contrasts poorly with Germany’s “outside in” approach to licence obligations. Like the UK, Germany required an overall 98% coverage as an EU member state, but it also needed 97% coverage in each of the federal states. The consumer magazine Which? has found that Scots have access to a 4G signal only 50.4% of the time. Scotland, Wales and south-west England are the regions with the lowest access to mobile data in general, with access less than 80% of the time, which is a shocking figure. As of December 2015, nearly half—48%—of Scotland’s landmass had no data coverage whatsoever.
Reliable and high-quality fixed and mobile broadband connections support growth in productivity, efficiency and labour force participation across the whole economy. That is why the SNP Scottish Government have made progressive pledges on expanding fixed-line broadband. Action taken by the Scottish Government means that we are on track to delivering fibre access to at least 95% of premises in Scotland by end of 2017. We are working with mobile operators to improve and increase 4G coverage across Scotland, and using the dualling of the A9 to put in 4G is helping us to move that on. By the end of 2017, all four mobile operators—EE, O2, Virgin and Three—will provide 95% of premises in Scotland with indoor 4G coverage. The Scottish Government have less control over mobile connectivity than fixed-line broadband, as the spectrum policy and other important levers remain reserved to Westminster.
To conclude, rural Scotland must not be an afterthought again. As we move on to 5G, the UK Government must prioritise rural areas as part of the 5G licence spectrum auction.
We have two speakers to get in before half-past 4. If they could split the time, it would be very helpful.
Thank you for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I was not here for the opening speeches.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing such an important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who said that he was now in festive mode. All I would say is, for the sake of the family, step it up a little before next Sunday.
Members will see very rapidly what ambitions I have. Much of what was said by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) was about how badly served their areas are. I, too, have those problems. I, too, have businesses without connectivity and so on.
I am also a neighbour of the Minister. We share roads that go through villages that sit next door to one another and we, too, have these problems. I therefore point out that he knows only too well how difficult it is to deliver broadband in rural areas. Given that Ofcom writes about some of our postcodes, “Ofcom does not currently provide any information on this because the speeds are so poor,” I think we are more than aware that work needs to be done on this.
I am interested in what the legal right to broadband actually means. As the Digital Economy Bill progresses and we roll out the universal service obligation, I am interested to understand more explicitly what that means. I welcome the broadband universal service obligation and was pleased to hear the Minister say in Culture, Media and Sport questions that the same thing would happen for mobile connectivity.
Better Broadband for Suffolk is on track to deliver 96% coverage, which is one point above the national average. However, my constituency will only reach somewhere in the upper eighties. That will leave an enormous number of my constituents without mobile and broadband connectivity. A recent survey that I have collected in the last six weeks, which have I sent to the Minister, shows that 55% of people do not have adequate broadband coverage. The coverage in the constituency is 0.4%. People cannot bank online. The Government expect people to do more and more online—complete their tax returns, register their cars and so on. If they cannot get online or if their connection drops off, it is very hard to do those things. Broadband should be the fourth utility.
Rural communities are affected more than most. We have heard about farmers and I will not go over the same points again, but they are innovators. Farmers need connectivity, not only for their health and safety, but to work the topography drones and so on that allow them to seed their land as they want to. They need it for their basic payment schemes, which often collapse when they are trying to enter the data. We are encouraging people to have rural businesses. If there is no connectivity, people do not want to go to the bed and breakfasts and enjoy what Suffolk has to offer.
There will also be health issues as we start using telemedicine. For example, there are insulin pumps that upload information to the cloud all the time. That cannot be done without connectivity and that will affect the health of individuals. Nobody minds how connectivity is given to them on phones or on broadband—they just want it. They do not want to hear statistics, they want action.
The survey I conducted showed that 56% of respondents had difficulty with broadband, 55% said that mobile coverage was poor and 70% experienced failure. Bury St Edmunds has 4G only 51% of the time.
As we move forward, could we show a little bit of initiative, locking enterprise zones into hard-to-reach villages, such as, for example, Creeting, out of the back of Stowmarket enterprise zone, and Moreton Hall out of the back of Bury St Edmunds? Could we also take up the churches’ offer of masts on churches? Mostly, could the Minister consider Suffolk, with the A143, the road with the worst coverage and the most not spots, becoming a pilot and thereby the true exemplar of how to do it?
People consider broadband to be the fourth utility. Just as they turn on a tap and get water, flick a switch for electricity or turn a dial for gas, people’s lifestyle and expectations have been geared to broadband. It is not sold as a luxury, it is a requirement for entertainment, education and trade.
Few people have any real concept of the journey or technology behind water, electricity and gas before it is presented as a consumer product. It is no different with broadband. Consumers may not know the technical details of how these utilities work, but they know that dirty water is unacceptable. Broadband that is too slow fits into the same category. All the technical babble belongs to the technicians. They use it, maybe ironically, to speed up conversations. The customers, in their house or workplace, do not want excuses or apologies, they just want broadband to do the job.
We have progressed from speeds of 56 kilobits per second, which allowed us to access the first basic web browsers. We have transitioned to the introduction of wi-fi services and the rapid growth of users accessing the internet via mobile devices. We no longer live in a world where families crowd around the wireless to listen to “The Ovaltineys”. Families expect to be able to watch a movie, surf the internet, interact on social media and play games with people across the globe, all at the same time.
In 2006, BT introduced broadband services of up to 8 megabits per second. Now many homes and businesses can access 200. Ten years from now in 2026, after another 10 years of progress, will we be able to say that our technology has advanced faster than in the past 10 years? It may be difficult to predict, but we need to identify what the internet will be used for in the future.
Will the internet be used to control a greater range of household items that integrate with each other, or perhaps to experience the next generation of augmented or virtual reality? Predicting the future is not easy. Back in the 1960s, I was promised we would all have jet packs. To my eternal sadness, that did not happen. [Interruption.] I definitely did not get mine. We can only make educated guesses at some of the uses, but we can categorically guarantee that 10 megabits per second will not cut it. It shows a staggering lack of ambition and absolutely no foresight.
Scotland is proposing 20 megabits per second, Europe is working towards 30. Up and down the UK, we are still enlarging roads built in the 1960s because we never foresaw the amount of traffic that they would carry. We need to be clear sighted and understand that the broadband strategy we are developing now will affect our capabilities in 20 or 30 years.
With our current level of knowledge, we have no excuse not to build a super-broadband highway that can carry superfast broadband to every user. Importantly, it must be built so that it can be shared by suppliers and is easily accessible for upgrades. The problem is not in the laboratories and it does not lie with the technicians or scientists; it is about digging up roads. A utilities tunnel that carries all utilities and can be partitioned off so that each is separate would help.
How many times have constituents said, “Last week the electricity board came and dug up the street, the month before it was the water board, now it’s broadband. Don’t you guys talk to each other?” The answer is no, they do not. Historically, our approach has been too ad hoc, too focused on the immediate job in front of us instead of the wider needs. Over time, that lack of strategic planning has been very costly. Can the UK Government honestly say that a USO of 10 megabits is ambitious? I think we can do better. That is why I want the UK Government to take responsibility. Simply facilitating greater competition within the market will not necessarily lead to all the results we want on the ground. Many of my constituents are not getting the best possible broadband infrastructure because service providers have deemed that certain areas are not commercially viable.
My constituents expect results, and they are impatient at being left behind. A broadband USO should be something exciting—a policy that represents technological innovation and an ambitious drive towards the future. If we settle for just 10 megabits per second, I am sorry to say that the UK Government’s USO will be remembered only as an “unsuitably slow option”.
Scotland aims for superfast, and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) demonstrated how we will make that happen—fantastic! I take it, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I have 10 minutes to make some points. I will reflect on the debate only very quickly, as there are a number of points I would like to cover that we have not got to.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) not only on securing the debate but on his fine balancing act of calling for more while not talking down his Government. I am sure that the Ministers past and present were both grateful. We then heard some very interesting points, which I will touch on. I agree with the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), who emphasised that the regions and devolved Administrations are particularly badly affected because of our rurality. As usual, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) turned up, made some noise, praised himself and then went off to see what had been said on Twitter about it, but he raised some interesting points. I agree with him in particular on the need for digital and on the need for the Minister for Digital to have a higher profile and more responsibility in Government.
That is the crucial point. Our Minister for Digital is separate from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The two of them really need to work hand in hand, so I struggle to understand why that ministerial post does not rest with the other key levers of the business and economy agenda.
I thank my hon. Friend, the other Callum in the House, for that excellent point. Telephony and IT used to be relegated to a subdivision of corporate structures but have now been elevated to board level. Exactly the same thing should happen to digital within Government.
With the forgiveness of other hon. Members, I will move on to some of my own specific points, simply for the sake of time—I am sure we are all dying to hear what the new Minister has to say. First, I agree that the USO is a good idea. I will agree with anything that puts more money into infrastructure and connectivity. The Government say their intention is:
“The design of the broadband USO must put people and businesses throughout the United Kingdom at its heart in order to secure the benefits of digital connectivity for as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that ambition, but question whether we are on the right track to meet it. In the same Department for Culture, Media and Sport document, the Government go on to say:
“The concept of universal service in telecoms is a long-standing principle, dating back over three decades”.
I also agree, to a point. But we are not talking about simple telecoms. Telephony is a binary service: it works or it does not. As we have heard very clearly, broadband is far more complex than that. I recognise that the Government, the DCMS and Ofcom understand that. A document produced alongside the Digital Economy Bill mentions upload, download, latency and other factors critical to the design of an effective USO. But there are still fundamental choices to be made about the design of the universal service obligation.
Ofcom’s summary of responses highlights two paths open to the Government. It says that respondents fall into two groups: those with a vision for a more highly specified service for all and those with a belief that people and businesses simply need a safety net. Are we talking about a vision or a safety net? My fear is—in fact, it is not even a fear, because it is clear—that to date the Government have talked about option two, a safety net.
Let us consider what the USO will look like if we stick to the current path. First, we have the fact that 10 megabits per second has been specified. We can argue whether that is the right speed. I firmly believe that it shows a lack of ambition, but I accept that some industry players say that at the moment it is fast enough. The Government need to raise the bar, particularly given their recent announcement in the autumn statement. As the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) said, 10 megabits will very quickly become out of date.
When used with old-fashioned copper wires, 10 megabits can become a lot less than that. We need a superfast fibre infrastructure instead of copper wires.
I agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point.
The danger is that we are following a path similar to that taken in relation to BDUK. It is pragmatic about how much we can do for the money, instead of giving a vision of what we want to have, which is fundamental: critical infrastructure. There is also a real challenge about the ability of the USO to be upgraded. Yes it will be reviewed, and there were some excellent suggestions as to frequency, but I have serious doubts about how it is going to work.
Before I come on to that, let us talk about the telecoms elephant in the room: BT. Let us be clear that BT is the one provider that has said it will do the USO. There is a danger—if I can use that word—that it will all be given to BT. If that is the policy, so be it, but let us do it with our eyes open and be clear about whether that is the right thing to do. I can tell Members that not all my constituents would be particularly enamoured with that. We should all reflect on BT’s submission:
“Existing technologies such as Fibre to the Cabinet and new technologies like long reach VDSL can offer cost-effective solutions for a 10M service but would require further investment if the requirement increased significantly, e.g. to 30M.”
That highlights my point. If we settle for 10 megabits today, what happens when it gets upgraded to 30 megabits?
Let us consider another aspect to this: what does a universal service mean? The documents from Ofcom and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport do not hide the fact that it means something cost-constrained like the telephony USO, where a line can be installed up to the cost of £3,400 and thereafter one pays the difference. Imagine applying that in our constituencies, where the cost of broadband is significantly higher than that for telephony. Imagine I am in need of the USO. I have 2 megabits and upgrade to 10 megabits. I may have to pay, maybe I do not. What happens when we upgrade the service to 30 megabits? Do I have to pay again? Maybe I would have preferred to go to 30 megabits in the first place. There are fundamental flaws and traps ahead of us in terms of design.
The Government have choices. As I said, it feels like they are heading towards a safety net when they need to be more ambitious. Actually, was the autumn statement not a revelation? The Minister announced at the Broadband World Forum that fibre was the future and we all went, “Hurray! The Government get it!” In the autumn statement, they put some money where their mouth is. The broadband investment fund—granted, the previous Chancellor announced it—suddenly got £400 million. There was talk about a fibre spine backbone. What we have there is ambition.
The Robert Kenny report challenges assumptions about fibre and says: pick where to put in fibre first and do not do “blunt” FTTP—fibre to the premises. I think it lacks ambition in itself, but it is right in one regard: fibre has more impact in rural areas. In the Government schemes, I see absolutely nothing that will help rural areas. I see rural areas getting fobbed off with 10 megabits, whereas they should be getting fibre. If I am in an urban area with 30 megabits and go to 100 megabits, that would be fantastic but it will not change my life. If I am sat with 0.5 or 1 megabit, it would be transformational. The Government need to revisit the USO and show the same ambition.
I would like to make one final point about how this can be done. If we stick to the current path, the USO will mean nothing in Scotland—absolutely useless. We are aiming for 30 megabits. A 10 megabits USO might satisfy one or two, but that will be it. In the regions of England and in the devolved Administrations, it will mean very little. We can save the USO, however, by turning it into something more flexible—what David Cullen, chair of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association, said was a universal service opportunity. I put forward an amendment for vouchers. Vouchers would unleash the collective powers of our devolved Administrations and our country. I urge the Government to belatedly get behind that idea, because fibre is the future for rural as well as urban.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr), the Scottish National party spokesperson, who always speaks with such passion on this subject, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this welcome debate. He brings considerable expertise in this area to the House.
The starting point for all hon. Members is that everyone must share the benefits of our modern digital society. That is an issue that Members on both sides of the House have championed for many years. The message has come out from this House loud and clear today that broadband and mobile coverage are no longer nice-to-haves but essentials. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness gave an excellent overview of the debate, but he made three particularly important points: first, that we need a plurality of providers in the procurement process, and that one size clearly does not fit all, given the various challenges that the universal service obligation will bring; secondly, that the USO should be extended to road and rail across the UK—I would add waterways—and thirdly, that we must have publication of address-level data. I, too, commend the Ofcom app that helps to collect those data.
My hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) clearly demonstrated which areas have been left behind when it comes to investment and the consequences of failing to give rural issues the same priority as those in the rest of the country. As they made clear, digital exclusion has implications not just for our digital economy but for society; for example, it excludes people from the internet of things, and they therefore face higher costs and greater exclusion. The right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who is not back in his place, made two important points: one about increased powers for BDUK, which we support, and another about promotion for the Minister for Digital and Culture; no one could disagree with that, not least because it would mean a promotion for me as well, so we will go with that.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) made a very important case on mobile not spots; that raises important issues for the 5G auction, which I hope that the Minister will address. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) made an impassioned speech about digital skills. I hope that the Government’s digital strategy, when they finally produce it, will address his points at length. The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) explained the dire and shocking levels of access in her constituency. I am sure that the Minister will want to address her points, given that he has the neighbouring constituency.
Finally, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) set out the staggering lack of ambition in the USO. The lack of ambition in today’s announcement is a particular concern. BDUK estimates that as of March 2016, there were still over 3.1 million premises without the capability to receive superfast broadband. That is expected to decrease to just over 1.9 million by the time BDUK ends, but 5% of premises will still be incapable of receiving speeds of just 10 megabits per second or above—nowhere near that superfast range. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that figure is even higher, and in rural UK, it is 24%.
The Government have been forced to revise their target for their broadband commitments a number of times, despite the claims from the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wantage. While we might not be a digital desert, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds was right to warn against complacency. We should be much higher up the international league table.
The broadband investment fund, which was trailed by the former Chancellor in last year’s autumn statement, will take the UK from 2% full fibre coverage to just 7% by 2020; that will reach 2 million of the 27.1 million households in the UK. Full fibre coverage is so poor that the UK does not even warrant a place on the annual European league table. The pledge to reach 7% of households will mean that the UK will finally have the same coverage that Latvia and Lithuania achieved in 2012. It is therefore right to ask the Government about the roll-out of their USO, and we will monitor them closely as it is delivered.
We have yet to see the Ofcom report. Its consultation was not very promising, as it found little industry appetite for delivering the USO. If the process is to be trusted, transparent and fair, all the information should be in the open and part of the procurement process, so that as many providers as possible can participate and we can ensure that the playing field is as level as possible. I cautiously welcome the Government’s statement of their intent to consider different types of providers, such as regional providers and smaller ones using innovative technologies, but I am afraid that they are cautious, given the serious failures around the BDUK procurement. Those failures left BT as the only supplier, and the process was condemned by the Public Accounts Committee for failing to deliver meaningful competition or value for money. It is important that the Government give a clear commitment today that community providers and those with different innovative solutions will be consulted and made firmly part of the USO process.
As we have previously discussed, there is no doubt that there is a coalition of support for a much more ambitious USO. That is why we support resetting the USO, through secondary legislation, when it becomes outdated, as it will in the very near future; the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness termed this “digital inflation”. The Minister should bear that clearly in mind. We fully support the proposal from the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness for Low Pay Commission-style oversight of the level of the USO, and we absolutely need more detail today on how often and how it will be reviewed.
As we have seen all too often, businesses and residences see a particular speed advertised, but there is no correlation between that and what they are actually able to download, so we would appreciate an update on the Minister’s work with the Advertising Standards Authority on advertising speeds.
As the Federation of Small Businesses notes, small businesses are disproportionately less likely to have access to acceptable download speeds. Some 46% of businesses in postcodes that cover only small and medium-sized enterprises—namely, business parks—had broadband connections with a maximum speed of less than 10 megabits per second, while 24% had maximum speeds of less than 5 megabits and 12% less than 2 megabits. We fully support the right of small businesses to request a USO themselves—and, crucially, an information campaign to make them aware of those rights. Clarity about how the USO relates to businesses would also be welcome.
On the detail of the USO, we know that connections will be subject to a cost threshold. Are we any closer to knowing what that cost threshold is likely to be, and to how many properties it will apply? The Minister knows—we have discussed this many times—that we fully support the intent of the Government. As the Digital Economy Bill makes its way through the other place, I hope Ofcom will have produced its report, so that it can have a much better idea of where this obligation is heading. We urge the Government to take into account the many views of hon. Members in today’s debate. Above all, what I think we have heard is that it is time to be more ambitious, and we certainly need more detail.
Finally, the benefits of more of us being online and more things coming online are clear, but that also presents challenges. It was disappointing that the Digital Economy Bill failed to cover two major areas that we are grappling with in our digital economy: online abuse and data protection. We must make serious progress on tackling online abuse and the responsibility of social media sites. Obviously, we have had some debate around child protection, in terms of accessing age-inappropriate material, but the threats to children and indeed adults are much broader, and it is disappointing that sites such as Facebook continue to take a sincerely hands-off approach, defending themselves as platform-only, whether that is on the sharing of fake news, bullying and abuse, or taking money from organisations with extremist ideology. I note the Parents Portal that Facebook launched this week, which is welcome, but I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what progress he is making in this area.
On data security and privacy, the rise of big data, particularly around the internet of things, presents huge issues around consent and ethics. We must urgently get to grips with the parameters of big data, and with where consent begins and ends in this changed landscape of data protection. I hope that the Minister will be able to announce some progress on this soon. We are happy to support the Government’s intent; we would just like to see the Minister be a little more ambitious. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to today’s debate.
I join everyone else in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate, and on bringing his serious background and experience from before he was in this place to bear on a very important subject. It is unsurprising that all of us here to discuss this think it is important; that is why we are here. The debate is particularly timely as Ofcom is tantalisingly close to publishing the analysis we commissioned on the factors that will inform the design of the broadband USO.
We are committed to building a country that works for everyone; that means ensuring that nobody is digitally excluded, and “everyone” means everyone. That is one of the motivations underpinning our drive to have a USO. This requires us to ensure that the UK’s digital infrastructure meets not only today’s broadband connectivity needs, but those of tomorrow; that is crucial. Let us be clear: the delivery of fast broadband, particularly in rural areas, is an economic imperative, not simply a “nice to have”—a point made passionately and eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown).
Online abuse was mentioned from the Opposition Front Bench by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh); I know that she personally has received some horrific online abuse. Offences offline are also offences online, but we continue to work hard, especially with the platform providers, to ensure that they take appropriate responsibility for abuse that happens on their platforms. Ultimately, however, it is those who write abusive content who are committing an offence, especially when it is a threat of physical violence or a death threat—something that too many Members of this House have suffered from.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) is of course right: great progress has already been made in this area, and there is still lots more to do. We are on track for 95% of premises across the UK having access to superfast broadband. Some £1.7 billion of public money is being invested. That funding has created more than 4 million potential new superfast broadband connections to date. As a result of this investment and ongoing commercial roll-out, 90% of UK premises can now access these superfast speeds. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) was absolutely right that commercial roll-out is part of the answer, but it is not the whole answer. That is why we have Government intervention as well as commercial roll-out; we need a mixed economy of solutions.
We have been talking today about the access figures. Does the Minister have the take-up figures, and will he make them available in the Library, because many areas that are getting the infrastructure are simply not getting the message out to people to connect up?
That is an important point. The latest take-up figures are about to be published by Ofcom, but the message that needs to go out on take-up is this: in a BDUK area, the more people who take up the connection, the more money goes back into providing more connections for other people. It is incumbent on us as local representatives to get that message out.
We should also get out the message made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) about the Ofcom app, which I have downloaded, so that Ofcom gets the real data from the ground about connectivity in each area. My hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and for Witney (Robert Courts) also made the point that connectivity matters more than technology.
I want to return to the point about farmers made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds— he is sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who also cares a lot about farmers. I loved the phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds: it is important that we have both a future-proof and a rural-proof approach. In introducing the USO, we have said that 10 megabits per second is an absolute minimum. The legislation provides for that to be revised up. The Scottish Government have chosen to have a fixed figure; I think it is better to have a figure that can be revised up as technology changes.
My right hon. Friend is making a fantastic contribution on this USO, but the problem with the 95% target is that in rural areas, it will not be met for many more than 5% of customers.
Of course. Topography means that it is harder to deliver in rural areas, so we are introducing a universal service obligation to ensure that everyone can get hold of broadband.
I let the Minister away with this bizarre comment in Committee, but he really must stop saying that 10 megabits somehow shows more ambition than 30 megabits. The Scottish Government have a target of 30 megabits by 2021. The UK Government target is 10 megabits by 2020. I know which I prefer.
We have been through this before; 10 megabits is our approach for the minimum. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see what Ofcom has to say.
I will address a partisan point that was brought into an otherwise pretty harmonious debate by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). The previous Labour Government did bring in a universal service obligation for connectivity that was set at 28.8 kilobits, but it was unenforced. The hon. Gentleman should stop his point scoring and stick to the bit where he said how brilliantly we are doing now with the ambition that we have put in place.
I gently point out to SNP Members that the Scottish Government are responsible for procurement in Scotland, and it is a pity that procurement there is behind almost every other area of the country. We have been doing everything that we can to push them along, but they really ought to answer for slow provision in Scotland, and I am sure that they will.
I turn to the future and the two f’s: fibre and 5G. Only 2% of premises in the country have a full fibre connection. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) talked about high levels of fibre delivery in Scotland, but that is not true. We have high levels of part-fibre delivery across the UK—it is 90% now, and it is going up to 95%—but that is not full fibre or fibre to the premises. More full fibre is being delivered elsewhere, and we are determined to match that. The autumn statement announced £1 billion for broadband and 5G, and we will consult shortly on exactly how that will be spent.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way; it gives me the chance to thank him sincerely on behalf of my constituents, because my constituency has gone from 25% to 70% fast broadband. Does he agree that we may need creative ways of ensuring that the 5% or 10% of areas, including the most rural, that may never benefit from fibre can get alternative provision?
My hon. Friend is completely right. We should be open-minded about technologies such as wi-fi. I have two and a half minutes left, so I am going to rattle through some more points.
I congratulate BDUK and Chris Townsend, who has run it for a good period of time, for their incredible delivery. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley was not right to say that BDUK delivers only via BT; there are now six providers. BDUK has done a magnificent job since it was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage. Getting mobile connectivity on roads and rail is also incredibly important, and we are pushing that hard. EE has a contract to reach every inch of road in the country by the end of next year. Finally, several Members mentioned business; part of the £1 billion announced in the autumn statement is for ensuring that we have much better delivery for business. That drive is broadly supported.
I hope that I have answered as many points as possible. We will set out further details on the USO shortly. We look forward to working with Members from across the House to ensure that everybody gets the connectivity that they need.
I have 80 seconds to sum up this debate, and it is fair to say that there is absolute consensus that Britain must be ambitious if we are deliver on the potential. As the Minister said, the universal service obligation is a starting point, not an end point, for speed and the transformational possibilities. Whether it is wi-fi or fibre that will provide the universal service that we all believe our constituents deserve, I am pleased to see clear agreement that diversity is an important part of the solution.
The Minister is right of course not only to point out that Britain has made huge progress in relatively recent years, but to be ambitious in trying to make even faster progress as the next years creep up on us. We know that our competitors are putting huge amounts of money, time and research into what will be a transformational period in global history, which will be powered by the internet. That leaves me with seven seconds in which to wish the whole House and, in particular, you, Mr Deputy Speaker, a very merry Christmas.
That is very kind of you.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. As you know, both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee are concerned about the proposed closure of the BBC Monitoring service headquarters at Caversham Park and further reductions in the size of the service. Earlier this afternoon, I received informal information, not yet subsequently confirmed, that the scheme to go ahead with this may be signed between the Foreign Office and the BBC tomorrow. However, in written evidence given to the Defence Committee, the Foreign Office said:
“The new Monitoring Agreement is still in draft, pending signing and any recommendations from the Parliamentary Committees that are holding enquiries into the issue.”
At the beginning of this week, we told both the Foreign Office and the BBC that our report would be coming out at the beginning of next week. Do you agree, Mr Deputy Speaker, that in the light of the undertaking given to our Committee, it would be utterly unacceptable for this agreement to be signed tomorrow, given that the Foreign Office and the BBC know that our report is about to be published? Have you had any indication that a Foreign Office Minister will be coming to the House to make a statement?
I have a couple of points to make. First, I do not think it is correct to circumvent the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee in the way that they have proceeded. On the other matter, I can say that I have absolutely not had any notification from the Foreign Office about a Minister coming here. We both know that it is on the record, and I am sure people are listening very carefully now. It is a very important matter, and if commitments are made, we know that they should be kept. But what I do know, Dr Julian Lewis, is that you will not shy away from ensuring that this is raised, and perhaps an urgent question before the recess could be a route to take.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I would like to make a correction to an inadvertent error made as this morning’s Culture, Media and Sport questions. We are proud that 20% of DCMS appointments to public bodies since the reshuffle in July have been people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. I said this morning that the figure was 24% and I wanted to correct the record for the House at the earliest opportunity. We are strongly committed to diversity in public appointments, and I think this figure demonstrates that fact.
I think the House welcomes that correction, and I am sure the Minister will sleep better tonight for it.