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Ultrafast Broadband: Devon and Somerset

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022

[CHRISTINA REES in the Chair]

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. That is in line with current Government guidelines and those of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the roll-out of ultrafast broadband in Devon and Somerset.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Although in many ways being the MP for North Devon is an immense privilege, our broadband connectivity is not one of the constituency’s finer features. On the doorsteps during the election campaign of 2019, getting broadband done was second only to getting Brexit done.

Ever since, I have taken every opportunity to raise the plight of my constituents’ poor connectivity. I have taken on chairing the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication, where we also campaign tirelessly for better connectivity in colleagues’ not-spots, including the majority of Devon and Somerset, which is more not-spotty than not.

The sorry state of broadband across Devon and Somerset stems back many years, many contracts and, in my mind, a decision by Connecting Devon and Somerset in 2015 to reject BT’s £35 million bid to connect our counties. BT was clear then that it could not meet the 95% superfast target by 2017; here we are in 2022, with south-west England still at only 92% and my constituency at just 87% connected. That decision set off a chain of events that I suspect colleagues across Devon and Somerset will also reference today. It has sent our constituencies to the bottom of the superfast pile. My constituency, at 607, does not win the race to the bottom in Devon and Somerset, with central Devon in at number 643. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) could not be with us today, but wanted me to ensure that I mentioned his concerns, with his constituency languishing at 631.

Although CDS does its utmost to connect us, the nature of the contracting process has not attracted the big boys of broadband to our contracts. We remain a technology roll-out behind much of the country, with confusion as gigabit rolls out alongside superfast. I am not sure many residents are clear which fibre is which, or how much we may be missing out on by not even having superfast.

CDS notes that the UK’s superfast programme was predicated on an assumption that the commercial sector would deliver for two thirds of premises, leaving the programme to deliver the remaining third. In the main, across the CDS region, that ratio has been inverted, with CDS needing to deliver closer to two thirds; in more rural parts of the region, CDS has on occasion delivered more than 80% coverage.

Bizarrely, our gigabit availability, relative to the rest of the country, is nothing like so poor, reaching more than 27% of the constituency, ranking us at 399. The commercially viable parts of my constituency, like so many all over the country, are being fibred—over-fibred—offering great competition to those constituents who live in conurbations. We need to find a way to connect rural Britain, as well. Why is choice only found in town or city? My concerns about being over-fibred are different from many. It happens when the CDS contracts overlap with an extended commercial build.

The complexity of the process of connecting Devon and Somerset cannot be overestimated. I know we have to look forward and cannot change the past, but the future looks as though it will go the same way—and that we can influence. Delivering gigabit-capable broadband to the depths of Devon and Somerset is a monumental engineering task. It is clearly not commercially viable, and reaching the ultimate target of 100% gigabit capability is not happening any time soon.

Pondering today’s debate, I was keen not to repeat the anecdotes about persuading Openreach to connect schools, charities and all of Lynton and Lynmouth, using the funicular railway as home for the fibre, but it would be remiss not to mention how the voucher scheme does work, as Lynton and Lynmouth have shown and Chulmleigh will show.

However, Lynton and Lynmouth were the subject of a special Openreach project. Together, they form the fourth biggest town in my constituency, yet they were an Openreach special rural build. Accessing the vouchers has worked well, but when a constituency has 93 villages, as mine does, it is difficult to know how many of them will access the voucher scheme and make it work.

Does my hon. Friend agree that local councils have an important role to play in promoting community fibre partnerships? West Devon Borough Council has recruited a community broadband officer, who is now recruiting broadband champions throughout the small villages of west Devon. Cannot local councils play an important role in promoting community fibre partnerships?

I agree entirely with my right hon. and learned Friend, who is my constituency neighbour. There is much that our local councils can do, and are already doing, to support the work of Connecting Devon and Somerset, and Openreach. Where it works, as it is now in Chulmleigh, in my constituency, it works incredibly well. My right hon. and learned Friend’s constituency shares many features with mine: we have lots of very small villages. I am concerned about these hard-to-reach areas, which I will come to.

I and many colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who could not attend the debate, are keen to pass on our grateful thanks to Openreach for its help with these partnerships and for extending its commercial build. We hope that Openreach will be able to extend further into the fields and moors of our beautiful constituencies.

The target of 85% gigabit-capable broadband coverage by 2025 leaves me fearful that Devon and Somerset could be the missing 15%. Our rural constituencies are not suddenly going to become commercially viable. The £5 billion funding pot is there, but the contracts, the engineers and the plan to infill is not. Project Gigabit is committed to deliver, and I know Building Digital UK and CDS are committed to delivering, but we cannot infill until we know where the commercial building will be, which is still years away. We need to find a way of looking at rural Britain to redefine commerciality for our rurality.

The very hard-to-reach premises, otherwise known as rural Devon and Somerset, are not currently served by any CDS contracts or commercial plans. They are the most remote and rural premises, and will not get any less so as time goes on. The voucher schemes and community fibre partnerships are simply not viable, as the cost per premises will far exceed the support available. Yes, there has been a consultation, but we need action and some creative solutions. I do not want to forecast that we will become the 15% that is not connected, but that increasingly seems to be the direction of travel.

CDS itself is keen to accelerate the deployment of resources from Project Gigabit, particularly relating to the very hard-to-reach premises. This piecemeal marketplace makes the entire situation more complex. CDS asks for clarity, alongside support for ever-smaller schemes and community-led solutions. My own hope is that one of the bigger players in the market will look at Devon and Somerset as an opportunity to show its understanding of the challenges we face in rural Britain, and sweep through to prevent us becoming ever more digitally divided.

When I talk about levelling up North Devon, the infrastructure I am talking about is not road or rail, but broadband. Our poor connectivity holds everything back. We are never going to get geographically less remote, but we could be far better digitally connected, making so many more things accessible. If we are to level up Britain, then levelling up rural access to ultrafast broadband is essential. I do not expect a six-lane motorway to Ilfracombe, but to unlock the potential of rural Devon and Somerset we need look no further than access to ultrafast broadband as the bedrock of our levelling-up journey.

Today, we are speaking about becoming gigabit capable, but what about the shocking fact that the south-west has almost twice the proportion of homes below the broadband universal service obligation than the national average? We have 4.2%, as opposed to 2.5% nationally. In west Devon, 12.4% are below the universal service obligation, which is the eighth worst in the country. The issue is the depth of this divide, the length of time it has prevailed and the fact there is not a clear plan to fix it. I know we have to wait for commercial builds, and I know more is being built this way than originally planned, but I have schools whose catchments are twice the size of Birmingham. The geography is immense. I would like to invite the Minister to come and see the challenges we are up against, as from Westminster it is hard to ever fully understand what rurality and a digital divide look like.

The complexity of connecting Devon and Somerset is not to be underestimated. I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who listens to me bang this drum: the suppliers such as Jurassic, Openreach, Airband, Truespeed and Wessex Internet, alongside the tireless work of CDS and BDUK. But just as a gigabit is really fast, we would like our rural roll-out to go a bit faster—100% superfast would be a great start.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for introducing the debate so well and so thoroughly. Let me reassure her and other Members that there is cross-party support for the introduction of high-speed, decent, accessible and affordable broadband internet right across Devon and Somerset.

North Devon and Plymouth have very different geographies and communities, but we all need the entire south-west region to be better connected not only by transport but by internet. The pandemic has changed the context—it is important to mention that. More people are moving to the far south-west, not only because we live in a beautiful, wonderful part of the world with a generous quality of life but because the high cost of living in big cities does not need to apply when working from home is increasingly the norm.

But many people who move to the south-west find that our slow internet speed is an inhibitor to their delivering the job they were hoping to do from the west country. That sets us back as a region. It also reinforces the stereotype that the west country is somehow slow, or slower than the rest of the country. That could not be further from the truth. We want to deliver growth, more jobs and a zero carbon economy. Faster internet is a foundation stone for all those things.

I echo the calls from the hon. Lady for greater political priority for this issue. The Government’s entire majority is built out of MPs in the south-west of England. I would like that voice to speak louder and clearer to Ministers, to tell them that we deserve our fair share as a region. Levelling up is not just something that should affect the north and the midlands. The south-west needs levelling up. Rural communities need levelling up. For the past two years I have been in the fortunate position of serving in the shadow Cabinet, speaking on rural affairs. As a west country lad, it is personal to me—my sister is a farmer in north Cornwall, where we have internet problems as well, although Cornwall enjoys faster connections than Devon, thanks to a lot of European Union cash in the past.

We need to ensure that the divide between urban and rural communities is closed. Otherwise, rural communities will not be able to achieve their potential. Young people will be priced out of not only jobs but housing and opportunities. Increasingly, people who want to get online will move out of those communities, creating a drain of the talent we need to prosper. Rural Britain really does deserve better, including better internet.

There are three aspects I want to touch on: first, there is no point having high-speed internet, be it superfast or gigabit-capable, if the families living in the properties that the pipes run alongside cannot afford to access them. That is an especially acute problem in the south-west, where we have high levels of poverty and deprivation. It is often presumed that rural communities are affluent, but you cannot eat a view.

In our rural and urban communities there is a real problem with people being able to afford devices. It is estimated that 9% of families in the UK do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. In Plymouth, especially in some of our poorer communities such as around Stonehouse or parts of Devonport, access to data as well as to devices is holding people back. During the pandemic, young people were unable to access Google Classroom online because they did not have a laptop in the family. An entire family of children sharing a single laptop to learn is one problem, but the family may be unable to afford the data that goes along with it.

Data poverty is something that worries me. The cost of rolling out broadband in the south-west would be, to a certain extent, passed on to the consumer—through not only public subsidy, but the prices that we will pay in our bills. I worry that high costs and the difficulty of connecting rural economies will eventually fall on the bill payer. That will force low-income families out of the opportunities that gigabit-capable internet provides. Plymouth City Council estimated that someone without access to high-speed internet during the pandemic would achieve one grade lower than they otherwise would have. That is a stark view of the potential for our children, and we need to address it.

My next point is, I realise, not quite within the scope of the Minister’s Department, so I hope she will forgive me. Not only should we look at laying more superfast and gigabit-capable pipes for properties and businesses; we should also consider our transport network. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and myself have been pushing the Department for Transport to look at using the GSM-R masts that run alongside our trainline. The trainline in the west country is very beautiful, and there is plenty of time to enjoy the beauty, because it is very slow.

The GSM-R masts are a safety feature that accompany the entirety of the UK rail network. GSM-R is basically 1G. The proposal we have been arguing for, on a cross-party basis, is that there should be work with Network Rail and its western route to upgrade the GSM-R masts to be either 4G or 5G capable. The signal would be targeted alongside the trainline. It would not be, as with a normal mobile phone mast, providing a full 360° coverage. For many communities in the west country, the railway is their connectivity. There are many communities alongside the railway, especially on the mainline, which connects Exeter to Plymouth. The GSM-R mast upgrade would provide not only high-speed internet for people travelling on the trains, but access to the internet for communities living alongside the railway.

We were hoping that the Department for Transport would approve that project. Network Rail wanted to run a £5 million demonstrator project to show that it would work. It had chosen Dawlish, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newton Abbot—a place that became famous when part of it fell into the sea during the storms of 2013—to demonstrate that the different topographies and technologies on that route would show it working.

Sadly, even though the money is within Network Rail’s budget, and even though the project was supported by Network Rail, the Department chose not to allow it to spend that money. That was disappointing. It would cost around £100 million to update all of our GSM-R masts in the west country, but we first have to demonstrate that it works. Could the Minister speak to her colleagues in the Department for Transport to understand why this project—which is non-partisan, would make a big difference and would speak to the Government’s levelling-up ambitions for the south-west—could not be explored further, especially when Network Rail and Network Rail Telecom themselves are keen to deliver it? It would be an opportunity worth exploring.

I would like to encourage the new shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), to be equally ambitious with the roll-out of rural broadband. There is always a temptation to believe that it is the norm for urban to come first and rural to come second. It should not be so. I hope that, in putting forward an ambitious manifesto at the next election, he will be as confident and bold with the connectivity ambitions for the south-west as he would be for any urban area.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be following an outside-in, rather than inside-out, approach? We are almost approaching the whole broadband issue back to front in order to get everyone connected.

The hon. Member for North Devon has made a powerful case since being elected, and I hope she remains a thorn in the side of every Minister that holds this post to ensure that we get there. We do need to start with the ambition of every home and every business being able to access high-speed internet—be it superfast or gigabit capable. If we do not have that ambition, as a region we will be accepting a poorer deal, and we must never accept that. The south-west deserves the very best in the country, and we should not be afraid to call for it.

There is an objective here that can be met. The hon. Member for North Devon made clear in her remarks that the contractual relationship, especially for our rural areas, is not delivering—nor will it deliver next year, the year after, nor, potentially, the year after that. As we get further behind those deadlines, we are further behind other economies in the UK that could be outperforming us, simply because of access to the internet. That would put south-west businesses at a disadvantage.

To conclude my remarks, there is strong support in the west country for better internet. We are an ambitious region that wants to deliver the benefits that greater connectivity can bring, not only for business but for education and innovation. We have a strong case for it, and I hope the Minister will look kindly on the remarks that have been made, but also pick up with DFT colleagues on how we can get that train-line connectivity. If our train journeys are to be slow, let us at least make them productive.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who made many important points on an issue which affects so many across the south-west, particularly in more rural areas. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this debate. In many ways, I wish we did not need to debate this issue. We have been here many times before and we need to get it well and truly sorted.

To me, this is an issue about competition. The south-west needs to compete with the rest of the country. Three-quarters of our young people leave Somerset after their education. Our businesses tell me that to stay in Somerset they need to connect not just through better roads and rail services but through the digital highway. Those businesses and the young people they employ will remain with us only if they can achieve their dreams rendered in full digital glory.

If I may digress, looking across Somerset we see dozens of little hills dotted around; mounds bulging out of the earth. I am sure Members will know that these beacon mounds gave Norman Britain a natural early warning system. When a threat was seen, they would light a fire on top of the nearest beacon and broadcast their concerns across the county in minutes. People would stop their wattling and daubing, grab a pitchfork and be battle-ready in moments. You would think that, 1,000 years later, communications would have improved, but for many homes and businesses you would be wrong. It would probably be quicker to use these ancient beacon hills to deliver a message than to try to fire up their broadband router.

With endless faults and starts, an ever-changing roll call of companies involved in rolling out ultra-fast broadband across Somerset has achieved much, but there are still many pockets of resistance. Many areas across my constituency lag far behind. A lot of work has been done. I think that 46% of premises nationally in the UK are gibabited up, but Devon and Somerset fall way behind. In my patch, only 13% of premises are fully connected. In my constituency, Cury Rivel, Sparkford and Langport fall into the worst 10% of areas for download speed and connectivity. They literally lag far behind, and I see this frustration in my inbox every day.

The pandemic has highlighted the huge productivity gap between urban and rural areas that we have heard about. With ever more people working from home, digital connectivity should be like water or electricity—an essential utility.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree with me that the border area between our constituencies—places such as Lopen and Over Stratton—are perfect examples of areas that are falling between the cracks and that there is sometimes a lack of understanding between what the universal service obligation can bring and what can be done through vouchers? Getting people on to the proper gigabit service through vouchers is what they need to be able to engage with the digital future that my hon. Friend mentioned earlier.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. I think people are very confused about the voucher system. We continue to lag behind in developing these schemes. A great many small and medium-sized businesses in those areas drive the economy, and their entrepreneurial zeal needs to be fully unleashed. Connecting Devon and Somerset has achieved a great deal. Apparently, we have more premises connected than any other English programme. Coverage is now 90%, and more than 300,000 homes and businesses do have decent broadband, but there is still a great deal more to be done. Rural communities suffer from a productivity gap compared to urban areas, and the answer lies in technology and infrastructure.

The Government were elected on a promise to level up the UK, and I hugely welcome the investment we have had in physical infrastructure across the south-west; we are beginning to see the results of that. We are starting to bridge that physical divide, but it is bridging the digital divide that will really unlock our counties’ vast economic potential.

The problem is that every day that divide grows and we lag further and further behind, which makes it harder and harder to catch up. I say to the Minister that our entrepreneurial zeal needs to be fully unleashed, and digital connectivity is the fibrous ligament that binds us together and acts as a springboard to the future. Like our Norman beacon hills linking villages across the west country, those ligaments strengthen us, our businesses and our communities. They will allow us to react and respond to the needs of tomorrow, so let us grab that opportunity.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). She has been a fastidious campaigner on this issue and has made extraordinary moves to bring to the attention of the Government the digital connectivity deficit we have in Devon and Somerset.

Over the course of the past two years, digital connectivity has been more important than ever. From working at home, to speaking to loved ones, to providing at-home education, the internet and digital connectivity are not luxuries but necessities. The pandemic has highlighted the blackspots and notspots all over our respective constituencies. Thankfully—there must be something to be thankful for over the past two years—that has created a better understanding of the need and the scale of the challenge we all face.

If I can be nakedly focused on my own constituency during this debate, Totnes in South Devon has 52,500 premises, which breaks down as 19,023 residential properties and 23,608 commercial properties with superfast broadband. If my maths is correct, that leaves an estimated 9,056 premises in need of improved digital services. I always feel rather guilty mentioning those statistics because they are considerably better than my colleague’s in North Devon, but they do point to the need and lack of digital connectivity for so many of my constituents.

I understand that Connecting Devon and Somerset is looking to cover those premises through a new £38 million programme, plus the £18.7 million of Government funding. That is all very welcome, and the take-up of those services is essential, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) just mentioned. In so many instances, we have seen Openreach and other providers create the network for people to plug into, but they have yet to so do. As I understand it, in Devon there is a 70% take-up, which is considerably better than the national average of 61.4%. While that has increased, how will the Minister encourage people to take up the internet connectivity available to them and how can we close that gap of 30%?

I am delighted that Openreach has launched an ultra-reliable gigabit-capable full fibre programme for Dartmouth. Work is already under way, and I look forward to seeing the other areas around South Devon included as the programme expands. Digital connectivity is essential to modern living. Its roll-out helps businesses, attracts investment, and, perhaps most important, connects us all with those we have been so far from over the past two years. I look forward to hearing what more can be done.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked that Conservative south-west MPs speak with a loud voice. I would say that Conservative south-west MPs have spoken with an incredibly loud voice on road and rail infrastructure; on levelling up; on second homes; on fishing and farming. We will happily continue to speak with a unified, loud voice to ensure that the south-west is not overlooked, that our networks are improved, and that the opportunities that come with improving them can be delivered for all.

I, too, am delighted that we are having this debate today, because broadband and the connectivity it gives us in the west country is crucial because we are significantly underserved in just about every other infrastructure one can possibly conceive. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has articulated some of the challenges on our railway. It must not be forgotten that we have one railway line, and that is it—so the points that he makes are even more important. Communication and connectivity across all infrastructure is mission critical for us in the west country. This is not something that is just a nice-to-have; it is, almost, not a must-have, because in all of this, Devon and Somerset have become left-behind counties in so many ways. A broadband solution to this problem would significantly change the position that these two counties find themselves in.

We are left behind economically. We have some of the lowest productivity rates in the country and some of the lowest skill levels in the country. As I have said, we also have some of the most challenged transport links. Buses are lovely if you can get one; if you think you can come back the same day, dream on—it will not happen. People are therefore very isolated. It is not just those people who have chosen to retire—elderly people who have maybe lived there with their families for all of their lives—but also our working-age community. It is those such as our farmers and policemen who, without connectivity and communication, are disadvantaged, not only in terms of doing their job but in terms of their mental health, never mind their physical health. We have one of the highest rates of mental health challenges in the country.

We are the most challenged, and there is one thing that we can do nothing about: distance. We are where we are; the roads are where they are and the train line is where it is—we are the left-behind counties. The Government policy on broadband is not up to scratch, and does not address this problem. If levelling up is to mean anything at all, then that has to change.

What is it that has to change? Hon. Members have made a number of very important detailed suggestions, and all of those should be taken forward with willingness and energy. However, the priority needs to change. The priority must be the disadvantaged, not the easy-to-fix; it must be the hamlet that seems to be completely unreachable and—dare I say it—in the minds of the Government, unimportant. That is the wrong mindset. We know that these people matter, and we know that more and more people actually want to live in our beautiful countryside. Why should they not be able to achieve that? We are not going to do this in a cost-effective way without a very different approach to investment in innovation.

When we look at the problem, it is not just about fixing broadband or broadband roll-outs and all the challenges of technology associated with that; it is about asking what new technologies would better enable communication. We increasingly see a merging of what is happening in the mobile sphere and what is happening with broadband—the two are coming together. Indeed, if we really start blue sky thinking, I am sure that there will be a third piece of technology to solve this interesting but very challenging problem. I would urge the Government, whatever they choose to do, to be forward looking and look at broadband, mobile technology and everything else that is out there with a view to speed, efficiency and economy, and to look at those who are hardest to reach and most adversely affected as a priority.

In the short term, we must look at what we are going to do to meet this broadband challenge. I suggest that with the best will in the world, fixing fibre to cabinet is only the beginning of the problem, because as we all know, people’s distance from a cabinet is the real challenge. In rural communities, that distance is even further, and that issue—“Who is going to pay for it, and what are we going to do about it?”—has to be addressed. At the moment, we are looking at old-fashioned technology and how we replace copper. Those innovative, very clever scientists must have a better way of dealing with this. They must come up with that solution, and the Government must invest in it very soon.

In the end, this is about mindset, and it is more important than anything else that the mindset changes to “It can be done, and it does matter.” We must see investment in broadband as an investment for growth; for greater productivity, which benefits the country as a whole; for better education; for a higher-skilled workforce; and, most importantly, for better health outcomes. A change in direction on the Government’s part is the right thing to do. It is not an optional extra: life chances literally depend on it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and to see the Welsh so well represented in a debate on Somerset and Devon. I will start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby): I can sense her frustration, and that of many other colleagues on the Government Benches, with the scale of the challenge that is faced across rural communities in Devon and Somerset and beyond. We could talk to many Members from rural parts of the United Kingdom—whether the north of Scotland, the south coast, or the beautiful counties of Somerset and Devon—who would express the frustration of their constituents with the delays in rural broadband roll-out.

As I said to the Minister just last week, I want to be clear that as the newly appointed shadow Minister for media, data and digital infrastructure, I will do all I can to bring together Members from all parties in this place to help deliver the digital revolution our communities are crying out for. Simply put, we cannot sit idly by while other nations outflank and out-manoeuvre us in the cyberspace race. As Members may know—I will come back to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised about the ambitious manifesto that we have put forward—I have long campaigned on digital safety and connectivity. Indeed, speaking as a Welsh MP with a semi-rural seat, the constituency of Ogmore, the digital disparity in Britain could not be more stark from my own casework and lived experience of living in my constituency. In Ogmore, download speeds lag behind the rest of the UK, with gigabit availability paltry at 13.3%: downloadability is further behind in my constituency than in that of the hon. Member for North Devon and many other MPs who have spoken today. I say to the hon. Lady that in a very genuine sense, I get it, and really want to make sure that when Labour forms the next Government, we improve connectivity and broadband roll-out across the United Kingdom.

As has been mentioned, the pandemic has accelerated our economy’s digital evolution in ways that we could not have foreseen, especially in rural communities such as those in Devon and Somerset. Businesses, families, schools, and a plethora of previously in-person clubs and gatherings have had to embrace the virtual realm—some to thrive, others to survive—and amid that mass migration online, all Members taking part in this debate will have first-hand experience of constituents contacting us about poor broadband connectivity. Poor rural broadband is no longer a mere frustration—a first-world problem, as such things are often badged on social media. Poor connectivity does not just impact the ability to stream entertainment or to game online: it is now a barrier to learning, healthcare or running a household. In many cases, the internet is people’s sole means of engaging with friends and loved ones, so the anger of those who have shoddy connections comes from a place of deep disappointment, now transformed into a source of real anger. After years of being promised ultrafast broadband, swathes of the country are still without. It is imperative that those promises are delivered across all nations and regions of the UK. Only when that happens can the Government talk meaningfully about having levelled up our infrastructure.

The Labour party has long embraced the white heat of technology. We know that harnessing the power of the perpetual digital revolution can unlock people’s aspirations and transform our nation’s economy for the better. Labour knows that because in Government we did not just talk a good game, we delivered on it. The last UK Labour Government established the Communications Act 2003, charting a path for the UK’s emergence into the digital world for the decade. By 2009, Labour had overseen the roll-out of first-generation broadband to around 13 million UK households at a pace that few believed possible. We did that with an unapologetic focus on growing connectivity and a clear story about why we were doing it: to create wealth and prosperity for all parts of the UK, including communities in Somerset and Devon.

Since March 2020, we have lived through a period of extraordinary change in how we interact with each other, and how we work and do business. Digital networks have enabled us to see loved ones, access school resources and book our weekly shop virtually. Words such as “Zoom” and “Teams” now act as shorthand for meetings, whether or not we enjoy them. Had this pandemic struck 30 years ago, none of this would have been achievable. In truth, if it had struck 20 years ago, we would have been similarly hamstrung. It is therefore unconscionable that some communities are still living in the 1990s when it comes to their internet connections.

A Government failure to harness the power to direct rapid roll-out of superfast broadband continues to blight our country and many rural communities. When the Conservative party came to power in 2010, it inherited a world-leading position from the UK Labour Government. What followed was a decade of shambolic mismanagement, writ large for all to see, with false promises, missed targets and shifting goalposts—goodness me, there have been many! There were dial-up solutions when high-speed decisions were sorely needed.

The much-heralded reset that was pledged in 2019 by the then incoming Prime Minster turned to dust in record time. We were promised full-fibre broadband by 2025, and the previous target of 2033 was branded “laughably unambitious” by the Prime Minister. As has become the norm with this Prime Minister and his Government, however, their target was subsequently downgraded to full gigabit broadband by 2025. Although Ministers assured the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that the commitment was still there, within weeks that target was again downgraded to 85% gigabit broadband by 2025. That decision would be laughable if its impact did not seriously affect so many communities.

Rural broadband roll-out is yet another example of incompetent management by the Government. Not too long ago, the Government waxed lyrical about their fabled rural broadband scheme and gigabit voucher scheme, but as the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned, those schemes have more relaunches than users. Things that looked good on paper, such as grants of up to £3,500 for small and medium-sized enterprises and £1,500 for residents, were in reality more akin to pyramid schemes, as they were dependent on onerous administration and were available only to support group schemes where residents came together.

Isolated households in more rural communities are still being excluded from the scheme. Whether in my rural constituency or in those of other Members who have spoken, I can tell the Minister that the voucher scheme is not working for many communities—not just for isolated stand-alone properties, but for small hamlets and villages. There are just too many examples of the scheme not working, or of constituents thinking that they can be part of the scheme but being told that they cannot or that it does not work in that particular area. I say sincerely that the Government need to resolve this issue, because it is one of the biggest obstacles to communities coming together to improve the broadband roll-out.

Even more concerning are the National Audit Office reports, which suggest that when the superfast roll-out programme was launched in the UK, it enabled suppliers to prioritise easier-to-reach premises, leaving rural areas—the hardest and most expensive places to reach—as de facto second-class locations. We have heard during the debate, particularly from the hon. Member for North Devon, that we should perhaps be looking at roll-out from the outside in. In Devon, broadband is better in the two cities, Exeter and Plymouth, but outside those places, the rate drops off. Is there any correlation between the idea that rural communities are simply left behind by this Government and the idea that they are not focused on for improving broadband output?

Such an approach will only continue to increase and widen the town and city divide. Members should note that in January 2021, the Public Accounts Committee published its “Improving Broadband” report, which highlighted that more than 1.6 million households—mostly in rural communities—cannot yet access superfast speeds. There is now a genuine concern not only that rural areas will have access to gigabit broadband speeds later, but that they will have to pay more as well.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, it cannot be right to install the pipework if residents are unable even to purchase the box to have the broadband, let alone the equipment to use the services. The Government must acknowledge that if we are to improve the superfast roll-out, there must be the availability and resources for constituents who are living in poverty in rural parts of the United Kingdom such as Somerset and Devon. The resources must be made available to them to ensure they can access the improvement, if it is there.

How can it be right that small villages and towns have to pay the price for the Government’s failure? Some £5 billion was promised by the UK Government to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to the 20% of premises in the UK that are hardest to reach. We would welcome that ambition with open arms, if it was real, but, as with everything from this Government, it simply is not. It is an unholy mess of snake oil mixed with smoke and mirrors. A fraction of the promised cash—£1.2 billion—is now slated for use. Were I feeling unkind, that could be described, using the Prime Minister’s own words, as “laughably unambitious”.

Meanwhile, it grows ever clearer that legislative changes made in 2017 are holding back 5G connectivity in many communities across the country. Those who perpetuate the myth that superfast broadband can rest solely on the laying of fibre-optic cabling are as misguided as they are wrong; 5G is a crucial pillar to support any decent broadband infrastructure. I join the calls of the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for the Minister to take back to the Department for Transport the idea of improving connectivity along the railway line that leads into the south-west. That sounds like a very good scheme to me, and it would be good to support it on a cross-party basis.

The Government have set their own target for the majority of the population being covered by 5G by 2027. Stop me if you have heard this before, Ms Rees: the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has warned that parts of the country may be left behind, with poorer mobile connectivity exacerbating the digital divide. How can we believe that the UK Government will get to grips with this issue when cross-party Committee after Committee points out missed targets and overhyped rhetoric? Indeed, shockingly, 8% of the UK still has no 4G coverage. The Department does not have the ambition to bring about the change that is so desperately needed. We talk about superfast broadband, with some communities having connectivity issues that go back some 20 years. When it comes to improving mobile technology, many communities do not even have 4G. It is simply unacceptable.

Digital inequality is stark not just between areas and regions, but within them. Research from Citizens Advice last summer found that 2.5 million people were behind on their broadband bills, with young people and those with children under 18 three times more likely to be behind. That statistic is particularly worrying given the central role, mentioned by nearly every Member today, that digital connectivity has played in children’s education since the onset of the pandemic. The fundamental unseriousness with which the Government approach the issue is shown by the fact that their last digital inclusion strategy was published in 2014, which was a totally different era given the speed and complexity of technological change.

Given the utter lack of ambition shown by the Conservative Government, it falls to the Labour Party to deliver the new and fresh ideas on how to fix this problem, and we stand ready. As part of the “Our Digital Future” report, we consulted with industry groups, experts and a broad range of stakeholders to ensure that our country is at the forefront of digital accessibility and the cyber-space race. Our report set out how we can reduce digital inequalities by placing greater emphasis on data research and analysis in the curriculum, and treating broadband not as a luxury, but as a right, as we do water and electricity. It is about time that broadband became part of the statutory requirement for buildings, as important as electricity, water and gas.

The tectonic shift that the world economy has faced due to the pandemic should act as the wake-up call needed for this Government. Business has changed and new opportunities have arisen. According to the annual TechNation report, our tech sector contributes £149 billion, which underlines its importance. If we truly want an innovation-led economy in a world that continues to shift online, having reliable and accessible broadband is paramount. Labour is embracing this new future and is committed to reducing digital exclusion.

Without digital literacy, our security is threatened by cyber-criminals who exploit the transition to online payments and banking. In a connected world, our prosperity is at risk when thousands of businesses and millions of consumers do not have access to the internet at ultrafast speeds.

Finally, when the Government plan to deliver less than a quarter of the money promised to roll out gigabit-capable broadband to rural areas, they do not treat those areas with sufficient respect. We also call on the Government to review the electronic communications code 2017 to assess its impact on 4G and 5G roll-out and on the sports clubs, volunteer groups and churches that host phone masts to ensure that any new legislation introduces a level playing field to speed up—not hinder—the roll-out of new telecoms infrastructure.

Ultimately, my party and I place security, prosperity and respect at the heart of everything we do, but the UK Government’s shortcomings risk our country falling short of those guiding principles. We do not need any further bluster. We do not need any more eye-popping promises that wither away by the end of the day’s news cycle. We certainly do not need any further denial of the scope and scale of the problems we face.

We hear the frustration from the Minister’s own party at the inactivity of 11 years of a tired Conservative Government, who have simply not delivered on what was inherited from the last Labour Government. They could do so much better at delivering on broadband, for not just these two counties but rural communities across the United Kingdom. It must be a national mission to fix Britain’s endemic connectivity problem and finally to harness the transformative power of superfast broadband to bring us together, secure our individual aspirations and deliver greater prosperity for every part of every nation and region of the United Kingdom.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this debate, and for her proactive engagement with my Department on behalf of her constituents and in her role as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication. She does tremendous work and I commend her for that. I am always grateful for these opportunities to speak to hon. Members because we have a shared goal of delivering fast and reliable internet to everybody in the UK. I genuinely welcome problems and challenges being highlighted along the way so that I can seek to address them with officials.

As many hon. Members have said, the pandemic has really highlighted the importance of digital connectivity in how we live and work, which, as technology advances, will only become more profound. Several hon. Members have highlighted that there is a risk of a digital divide emerging, and I agree. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) talked about the movement of people into the region and, therefore, the additional importance of productivity gains coming from digital connectivity. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) highlighted the issue of economic competitiveness for the region, which I am very alive to. I enjoyed his beautiful analogy of the beacons on the mounds—I hope that we have moved some way beyond that in the last few hundred years, but I am happy to look into any concerns that that is not the case. Other hon. Members highlighted the importance of levelling up and the work that they are doing as a group of MPs to highlight connectivity issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) made some interesting comments about needing to prioritise those who are hardest to reach, and I wish to assure her that that is what the Government are doing. I will come to some of the issues relating to her region, but one of the first procurements we are looking into, which has already launched, is for Cumbria—which, as I hope hon. Members will appreciate, is one of the hardest-to-reach areas. Learning lessons from the Cumbria procurement will help us to manage the roll-out in other similarly difficult-to-reach regions.

I wish to assure all hon. Members that the Government are not leaving the knobbly bits until last, but trying to deal with them early in the process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot says, these people really matter. We want to make sure that everybody is connected, not least because this matter now affects people’s life chances in terms of education, the economy and so on.

I want to address some of the other interesting points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot about innovation and how we need to look at all kinds of technologies, not just fixed fibre. It might interest hon. Members to know that I conducted the UK’s first ever call on Open RAN technology earlier today. Hon. Members will be aware of some of the challenges we have had in removing some of the kit from higher-risk vendors following the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021, which has left us with questions on the resilience of the technology we use. We are trying to increase the range of supplies in our network, and we see Open RAN as one of the solutions.

I am keen to work closely with partners such as Vodafone and small and medium-sized enterprises to roll out that technology so that our networks are not only wide reaching but resilient. That ties in with some of the work that we are doing on the shared rural network. We hope those things will tally, because the Open RAN technology is being tested in some of those rural areas first. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

The roll-out of gigabit broadband and the work we are doing on 5G is for me, as Minister for Digital Infrastructure, as much about future-proofing our economy and society as it is about delivering faster internet speeds, as important as that is. We will achieve that primarily through Project Gigabit, with several billion pounds of investment to support nationwide gigabit-capable broadband. The commercial aspect to that gigabit roll-out is the key part of the programme. We want to support commercial activity to go as far as it possibly can, and only then use taxpayers’ money to intervene where it is necessary.

We want to use as much capacity from the market as possible, and maximise that pace of delivery. Our interventions include local, regional and cross-regional procurement. We are looking at Cumbria as one of the first of those. We are looking at gigabit vouchers, which have been pretty successful, and giga-hubs, where we invest in public buildings, such as schools, and gigabit delivery via the remaining projects under the superfast broadband programme.

All suppliers have the opportunity to bid for procurements at all levels, and to get involved, working with communities to use gigabit vouchers in areas where no other delivery is currently planned. In the spirit of the cross-party working in which we all wish to engage, and the fact that this is a collective endeavour, I encourage all hon. Members to highlight the voucher programme to constituents who might not be aware of it, and to encourage suppliers to get involved in those critical procurements.

At a local level, communities from across the UK have seen massive increases in gigabit broadband coverage, spurred by commercial investment. Through listening to industry and working closely with Ofcom, we have made a made a number of policy and regulatory changes to stimulate the market, including Ofcom creating a new pro-investment, pro-competition regulatory system for telecoms in the UK that was introduced early last year. Our 130% super-deduction on qualifying plant and machinery investment means that we expect more homes to receive coverage by 2025 without a Government subsidy, which is critical if we are going to make best use of taxpayer cash.

We have also changed the law to make it easier to connect premises in blocks of flats. We are piloting innovative approaches to street works, which we think can speed up build by between 10% and 40%. We are also working with industry to set up a gigabit take-up advisory group to review how to increase consumer demand for gigabit, and incentivise further investment from the private sector in gigabit roll-out. Although many homes are able to get connected to gigabit, they do not always do so. We need to make households aware of the importance of gigabit connectivity.

On connecting buildings, does the Minister have a view on the progress made on allowing new operators—such as CityFibre, which is rolling out the fibre network in Plymouth—to use historic wayleaves, so that they do not have to negotiate afresh with landowners where there is an historic wayleave that would allow access and speed up the roll-out, especially in buildings where there is a lower speed but an established connection?

I assure the hon. Member that we have just introduced legislation that we hope will deal with some of those issues. We are in close contact with some of the operators, asking what they need to speed up the roll-out. Factors such as wayleaves, as he highlighted, are among them. I encourage him to support the legislation on Second Reading.

There has been an unfair amount of gloom about the progress we are making in this area. Although I welcome the Opposition’s commitment to cross-party work on this, I push away some of the more partisan points made by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). As a result of the measures we have taken, the UK has seen more than £30 billion of private sector investment committed, and one of the fastest gigabit broadband roll-outs on the continent. Today, more than 65% of premises can now access gigabit-capable networks, which is up from one in 10 in November 2019. I hope the hon. Member will acknowledge the good progress we are making.

On concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon about rural areas missing out again, I emphasise that it is not just towns and cities that have seen increases in coverage. Since 2018, we have provided gigabit coverage to more than 600,000 rural premises, which has made a huge difference to the work and home lives of local people. In Devon and Somerset, 66,000 further premises now have gigabit-capable coverage being delivered, as part of our superfast broadband programme, which is managed by Connecting Devon and Somerset. On the broader picture, some of the tricky areas are among our first procurements.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon stated that the south-west had 92% superfast capability and that her constituency had 87%. I am pleased to report increases in both, with the latest thinkbroadband statistics estimating a figure of 94% in both Devon and Somerset and nearly 92% in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That regional statistic will also increase to more than 96% once the current contracted delivery is completed. Even though those improvements are coming, I recognise it can be a long wait for many and that is a frustration for all of us, and some premises will still not be included in those plans.

BDUK is working in partnership with local bodies on the ground. We are working to make sure those relationships are functioning well, and we have a good amount of shared data on where coverage is happening. Nevertheless, most hon. Members are aware that delivery in Devon and Somerset has been slower than we would have liked because of the challenges faced by Connecting Devon and Somerset, which is the joint team resourced by a number of hon. Members’ councils. I do not think those challenges are typical, notwithstanding that other rural areas also share issues regarding the complexity of some builds.

I do not wish to go over old ground, but the previous contracts collapsed and that followed procurement by CDS in 2015, which failed to complete owing to an inability to agree terms with the supplier, which in that case was BT. Subsequent to the previous contracts being terminated in 2019, CDS will have had to undertake a new open market review and public review with suppliers to confirm which premises are not within any commercial plans and therefore require subsidy. That has been a lengthy process and it is important to minimise that risk of overbuild of other commercial networks, which has also been regularly highlighted by my hon. Friend and which was also a requirement under previous EU state aid rules. CDS then had to follow that with a compliant public sector procurement process, meaning that the new delivery contracts were agreed only at the end of 2020.

The same processes will also be required for contracts taken forward under our new gigabit programme, but rather than local authorities, BDUK will be in the lead for that process. BDUK brings together central resources and expertise and we hope that will mean we get a more consistent national approach to delivery while still working with councils to deal with local implementation issues. BDUK is currently part of the Department, but it will be spun out as a separate executive agency this year. That will give it greater autonomy and greater scrutiny from a new board. That is going to be an important step in focusing and giving greater priority to ensure a good gigabit roll-out from now on.

My hon. Friend talked to BDUK officials just yesterday. Other hon. Members have spoken about making the west country a priority area for connectivity and that connectivity-related issues are not just nice-to-have things to address. I assure them that I have had my own discussions with BDUK to see what more we can do for the region, because I appreciate that hon. Members have particular frustrations that need to be addressed. I want to work together to do that. We have officials in the room, so I wonder whether we can look at the GigaHubs programme as well to see if there is anything more we can do.

I also wish to address the point made by the hon. Member for Ogmore about Wales and his constituency. It is going to be important that we work closely with the devolved Administrations. I am meeting Kate Forbes MSP this week, and I will be holding similar meetings with counterparts in the Welsh Administration and will be happy to look into his constituency. The hon. Gentleman raised points about the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, which includes measures on the electronic communications code that regulates agreements between landowners and telecoms operators. We are looking to try and deal with some of the problems that came after the 2017 changes, trying to move to a position where we can have more arbitration rather than litigation and getting better relationships between landowners and mobile network operators so roll-outs can happen much faster. I hope the hon. Gentleman will support that legislation.

Returning to Project Gigabit, we only want to intervene when it is necessary. The same applies to delivery under the superfast broadband programme by CDS. That is why the open market review and the public review process I referred to earlier has to be followed, even though it can take a significant amount of time. As I say, I appreciate the frustrations. CDS has followed that process and is now only intervening in premises confirmed as eligible for public subsidy. However, we recognise that commercial plans will be changing and to maximise that value for local bodies, we should take reasonable steps to make way for new commercial investments.

That is easier said than done and CDS will be mindful of the risks to some premises of descoping to make way for a commercial build if that then leaves other neighbouring premises without viable coverage. Those are tricky issues that I know my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon will appreciate. I simply encourage all local bodies to be open and transparent in their dealings with commercial suppliers and to make way for new commercial builds if they can, and BDUK will continue to reinforce that point to local bodies.

Conversely, although I welcome new commercial build plans, I urge commercial providers to target investment at areas that are currently not in scope for any other coverage. BDUK is also making this point with suppliers. That will help increase the number of premises that have gigabit access from at least one operator, rather than having fewer premises with multiple providers.

Several hon. Members talked about the voucher scheme, which is one of the mechanisms that we have to incentivise and encourage suppliers to provide coverage to areas not covered by any other plans. I encourage all commercial suppliers to use that scheme as much as possible, and I encourage everybody in this Chamber to highlight the scheme to their constituents. The voucher scheme can be hard work for communities, and it runs the risk of delivering a patchwork of coverage. However, it is a relatively quick means of supporting delivery in particular communities and has been used successfully by many suppliers, including some of the largest, to provide gigabit coverage in communities across the country.

Many areas of Devon and Somerset are making good use of the voucher scheme. I am pleased to say that 5,466 premises in Devon and Somerset have gained a gigabit connection because of it, and a further 2,645 premises are awaiting connection. That is a combined total of over £12 million of investment. In the North Devon constituency, 299 premises have gained their gigabit connection as a result of that scheme, and another 208 premises are awaiting connection. That is nearly £1 million of investment by the voucher scheme in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon.

We have deliberately designed Project Gigabit to ensure that coverage is delivered in every area of the country, and not to leave those harder areas until last. We think that that will add to the gigabit coverage currently being delivered through superfast contracts. We want to reach as far as possible beyond 85% gigabit coverage by 2025, and every area of the country will be under contract by that stage. However, it is not the case that rural areas will be left with no coverage once that has been completed. The latest stats from thinkbroadband show that North Devon currently has 32% full-fibre coverage. That is ahead of the UK average of 30%, so when it comes to gigabit there is a good story to tell, and a good start has already been made.

I thank the Minister for her clarifications this afternoon. We have already talked about the low take-up of gigabit in some areas. Is she able to clarify whether that is because some of my constituency is served by small providers who are not wholesalers, which is not the same as having Openreach or CityFibre and is therefore further reducing take-up?

I am afraid that I do not know enough about the commercial relationships and situations in my hon. Friend’s constituency to be able to provide a detailed answer; I will have to go to BDUK and get further details.

Many people are satisfied with their superfast speeds, and question why we need gigabit. Gigabit is actually about future-proofing homes and businesses across the country. Constituents across the country should understand that, although technology is advancing quickly, it is going to be taking even greater strides in future. We may see the delivery of more healthcare requiring fast speeds and new types of factories requiring really great connectivity. We need to ensure that we are thinking not just about speed, but about capacity, resilience and connectivity. We need to ensure that, when more applications and technologies require this kind of digital infrastructure, it is there, ready and waiting to be used.

In March 2020, the Government announced that they had agreed a £1 billion deal with mobile network operators to deliver the shared rural network—this relates to my hon. Friend’s concerns about notspots. The deal will see operators collectively increase mobile phone coverage across the UK to 95% by the end of that programme. That is underpinned by legally binding coverage commitments. In the south-west, 4G coverage from all four operators will increase to 87% from the current 75%, and from one operator from 97% to 99%, thanks to the shared rural network.

I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport on the trainline piece of work. I believe that that may be happening in other parts of the country, but I am happy to look into this particular project for him and see whether there are any conversations that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport needs to have with the Department for Transport. I recognise that the current roll-out will still leave some premises in the region with sub-superfast speeds, and in any case we now want to increase access from superfast to gigabit.

In our quarterly Project Gigabit delivery updates, which I hope hon. Members have received, we set out a target timetable for our regional supply procurements. For Devon and Somerset, we are targeting a procurement start in February to April 2023, with contract commencement early in 2024. This procurement is currently set up to include 159,600 premises, but the number could change depending on the market’s build plans.

The timetable for procurement was drawn up after extensive consultation with industry and local bodies and reflects the need for coverage from current contracts to be clear. Unfortunately, that is where hon. Members are seeing some of the challenges that their region had previously under superfast have an impact on how quickly we can get going with the gigabit stuff, which I regret.

It also increases the chances that the suppliers in the current programme will be able to bid for projects and continue building once their current deployment ends. We must be cognisant of the fact that only a certain number of people have the expertise to deliver some of this work. If those companies are engaged in superfast work, they may not have the capacity to bid for some of those gigabit contracts, which is regrettable.

All the procurements will, of course, be open to every interested supplier and I hope for good levels of competition. Our approach keeps open the potential for using smaller local supply procurements and the larger regional and cross-regional procurements that I think we want the likes of Openreach to be bidding for. We will seek to use each of those options as effectively as possible.

While we all welcome a large single supplier volunteering to complete coverage in Devon and Somerset commercially, we will need to see what results from the competitive procurement process. We should all welcome competition. It is positive that many more broadband network providers are now able to deliver significant levels of coverage, compared with the position in the past when only one national operator was undertaking a new roll-out. That is where our efforts to get a really good commercial market going are reaping dividends.

I am confident we will be successful in ensuring coverage through these procurements. I very much look forward to working with my hon. Friend and others in this Chamber, all Members from Devon and Somerset and all other interested parties, so that we can get the connectivity that is not only important to speed and life chances now, but ever more so into the future.

I thank the Minister for listening to the chair of the APPG on broadband and digital communications. I thank colleagues from both sides of the House from Devon and Somerset for joining us this afternoon. I think we have all raised the same concerns. We have heard them before and it is always a pleasure to hear that so much work is going on at BDUK and CDS behind the scenes. I look forward to hearing from the Cumbrian project, which will mean significant changes for us down in the south-west. Perhaps some of those dates can be sped up before the next technology is upon us, which I think is what we all fear. If we never catch up now, everyone else will be on 6G and 7G before we are even able to use our mobile phones in the south-west.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the rollout of ultrafast broadband in Devon and Somerset.

Sitting suspended.