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Broadband and Digital Connectivity: Rural Areas

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021

The Government are making huge progress on our ambition to deliver gigabit broadband across the whole country. Only last week, Openreach increased its planned investment target and it has set itself a target of 25 million premises to connect in the next five years. Some 40% of UK premises can already access gigabit broadband, and we expect that to rise to 60% by the end of this year. That is on top of the shared rural network commitment that will see mobile coverage increase across the whole country.

A number of rural areas have been recategorised as urban for the purpose of broadband community vouchers. While the majority of premises will retain their eligibility under the new voucher conditions, premises in an area where Ofcom believes a gigabit-capable network is likely to be built commercially—including Ofcom area 2—will not be eligible for a voucher. Does my hon. Friend agree that that lack of certainty risks villages such as Three Oaks in my beautiful Hastings and Rye constituency ending up being missed out? What steps can he take to ensure that this cannot happen?

It is of course welcome news that a commercial roll-out will reach more of the country than ever, but my hon. Friend raises an important point. This Government will make sure that no part of the country is left behind on that roll-out, which is why there is flexibility in the voucher scheme that she describes and why Project Gigabit is there to scoop up all the remaining premises. I am happy to discuss the villages that she mentions in person as well.

I am pleased to see the Government delivering on their pledge to level up connectivity across the UK, including through the £1 billion deal to bring better mobile coverage across the country and banish rural hotspots. That will greatly aid constituencies such as Wakefield, which suffers from poor mobile coverage in some rural areas. Will the Minister confirm that his Department has already begun using this funding to improve mobile coverage in rural areas?

It is good to see that working from home can provide a grander backdrop than this place. My hon. Friend is right to welcome the shared rural network. The roll-out has already started to benefit a large number of constituencies. It began in Wales and we will be talking in the coming weeks in much more detail about where it is going to benefit in coming years.

Residents in the rural part of Ashfield suffer from a lack of access to superfast broadband and feel that accessing it through the community fibre partnership scheme is far too expensive. When will areas such as Teversal in my constituency get access to this much-needed service?

My hon. Friend is right to say that community fibre partnerships, although they work well in some places, do not work well everywhere. That is why Project Gigabit is so important; that £5 billion of Government money will be coming down the tracks very quickly. We published plans in April and there will be more detail in June, and Ashfield certainly will not be left behind.

I thank the Minister for his helpful answers so far in response to the substantive question. I want to ask him specifically about access for homes in very rural areas, which have historically had not much better than dial-up speeds. How will he help those homes? In Suffolk, we have found that fibre-to-cabinet is not adequate in improving broadband speeds in many of our more rural parishes and villages. What will he do for very rural areas that need better than fibre-to-cabinet?

The universal service obligation is a help in the situations my hon. Friend describes, but of course we need to go further. That is why the Government are consulting on what we do in the very hardest-to-reach premises, and I look forward to talking more about what satellites and other solutions can offer in the near future. We have already seen some commercial roll-out, for instance, from Starlink, and interesting work is being done by OneWeb to make sure that absolutely no premises in this country is left without the connectivity it deserves.

I strongly welcome the Government’s commitment to rolling out faster broadband, but I constantly get letters from people in parts of my constituency, such as Barlborough, Clowne, Heath and Shirebrook, saying that the broadband connections are not good enough. Will the Minister meet me to discuss those areas and what more we can do to improve their broadband connections?

I am of course happy to meet my hon. Friend, but he will also know that in the Project Gigabit plans that we have laid out Derbyshire is very much already on that road map. That is good news and I look forward to talking about it in more detail with him.