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Full-fibre and Gigabit-capable Broadband

Volume 669: debated on Thursday 16 January 2020

1. What steps her Department is taking to roll out full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business throughout the UK by 2025. (900200)

I begin by paying tribute to the former right hon. Member for Loughborough, who is now Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport from the Lords. She is still very much the Secretary of State, and following her elevation, she will shortly be watching us from the Public Gallery. She will take questions—[Interruption.] She will be here shortly. She will take questions in the Lords herself next week.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She asks about one of the few areas in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for which she was not responsible, but she knows how vital gigabit broadband will be across the whole country. Finally, I pay tribute to the British people for rejecting Labour’s economically and technologically illiterate broadband policy at the election.

The Government’s ambition for full fibre is to be applauded, but while coverage is generally good across the majority of my constituency, I still receive regular complaints from residents and businesses that are unable to access even superfast broadband, including in significant pockets of urban areas such as Chatham, Aylesford, Ditton and Snodland, as well as more rural villages, where residents are deeply frustrated at the lack of coverage. With so many people and businesses reliant on access to decent broadband, what assurances can the Minister give that the future roll-out of broadband infrastructure will address those more localised notspots and that they will not simply be left behind?

My hon. Friend is right that notspots are by no means confined to rural areas. Through the Government’s voucher scheme, we are covering all of the country, and the 2025 commitment to gigabit broadband remains. The crucial issue is the universal service obligation, of which she will be aware. Fifteen per cent. of her constituents get less than the 10 megabit limit. They will benefit from that later this year.

This is my first questions session shadowing the Digital Minister, who, as a former tech journalist, knows something of his subject—and as a former telecoms engineer, so do I. We both know that in towns, villages and cities, everyone is suffering the consequences of a wasted decade. Under Labour, we rolled out first-generation broadband to half of all homes within a decade. But today, full-fibre broadband only reaches a mere 10% of homes, and we languish at the bottom of all the international tables. The Prime Minister has promised full-fibre broadband for everybody in five years. Does the Minister have a plan for that? Who will be delivering it? How much will it cost? Will it really be fibre or just gigabit capability—or are Big Ben’s bongs the only telecoms infrastructure that he can plan for?

As an engineer, I think the hon. Lady will know that a bell is not telecoms infrastructure, but we will leave that to one side. The important issue that she raises is one on which there is some cross-party agreement. We are completely committed to rolling out gigabit-capable networks across this country. That means building on the work of the superfast programme to ensure that we deliver the infrastructure needed across the country. The plan for that will come forward. I hope she will welcome the news that, immediately after questions, we will be heading to No. 10 to meet the broadband providers, to ensure that the industry can come together to deliver the best possible infrastructure, which this country needs.

The universal service obligation is welcome to my constituents in Suffolk and to many rural residents, but for rural businesses, the basic service commitment may well not be enough. What more can the Minister do to support rural businesses that need a large amount of broadband capacity to support their staff and expand their businesses?

My hon. Friend is right to welcome the universal service obligation. Schemes such as our gigabit broadband voucher scheme allow businesses to access the far faster speeds that they need, and there is provision in due course to review whether 10 megabits is sufficient for the USO. I would like to see it go up as soon as it can.

Will the Minister congratulate my constituents who are involved with Broadband for the Rural North—B4RN—which prides itself on delivering full-fibre gigabit broadband, not just gigabit-capable broadband, to thousands of properties in my constituency? Phil Hughes from B4RN tells me that it is much cheaper sometimes to deliver this broadband in very rural areas than in semi-urban areas, where “in pavement” build is needed. Can the Minister clarify that the Government’s new gigabit voucher scheme will also work for smaller, community interest companies such as B4RN?

The hon. Member is absolutely right that B4RN does really great work and has been doing so for a number of years. It has a huge amount of expertise that I hope we can learn from when it comes to working across the country. One of the issues that we will be raising at the summit that I mentioned, which we will be heading to shortly, is street works. It is very important that that does not hold up works unnecessarily. She is of course also right to say that the voucher scheme needs to apply equally across the country in a way that works wherever people live.

My constituency of Banff and Buchan is among those with the lowest coverage of superfast broadband in the whole United Kingdom. Aberdeenshire Council applied to the UK Government for additional support. One of the reasons it was declined, it was told, was that it was assumed that that would be covered by the Scottish Government’s R100 programme—the Reaching 100% programme. Now that the Scottish Government have admitted that this is going to be at least two years behind, can we revisit the coverage in places such as Banff and Buchan, with support from the UK Government, to make up for the shortfall left by the Scottish Government?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the deeply disappointing delays to the R100 scheme administered by the Scottish Government. I will shortly be meeting my Scottish counterpart, Paul Wheelhouse, again to see how the Government can help the Scottish Government to go further and faster, because they certainly need to.