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Gigabit Broadband

Volume 708: debated on Thursday 10 February 2022

Gigabit broadband coverage has rocketed from 6% to 65% in the past three years. More than 80 different companies are now rolling out gigabit broadband, investing more than £30 billion between them. In hard-to-reach areas, we have already upgraded 600,000 premises, with a further 2.5 million premises in our procurement pipeline, as set out this week in our most recent winter update to Project Gigabit.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for her reply. I recognise the challenges of achieving nationwide gigabit broadband coverage, but it is essential if the levelling-up agenda is to be properly delivered. At present, the gaps in coverage in Suffolk extend to approximately 25% of premises predominantly in rural areas. What assurances can my hon. Friend provide that gigabit-capable broadband in such rural areas will keep pace with the wider drive towards nationwide coverage?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of good digital connectivity, and we want to ensure that there is no divide between urban and rural areas. There is already 97% superfast coverage in Suffolk, but we want to futureproof connectivity to take on board all the technologies that will be coming down the line. We are creating a competition friendly environment to encourage commercial roll-out in most areas, and we are then prioritising public money in areas where the commercial roll-out will not reach. Our regional supply of procurements is up and running, and I am pleased that Suffolk is in phase 1 of that programme. We are aiming to launch the procurement process by April.

With the Government’s levelling-up announcement confirming plans for the UK to have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2030, it is important that consumers in rural constituencies such as mine have access to every fibre internet service provider on the market, ideally via a wholesaler. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to help ensure that residents in North Devon and the wider south-west have, as consumers, fair and reasonable choices?

My hon. Friend is rightly back in her place and is holding my feet to the flames on these issues. Thanks in part to our gigabit strategy, there is a thriving market rolling out gigabit-capable broadband all across the country, but we cannot force providers to offer their services in specific locations. Where deployment is supported directly by publicly funded contracts, those contracts include requirements for wholesale access. For Project Gigabit, the procurement processes differentiate suppliers on the choice of retail offerings that they are able to bring. We are also supporting various industry initiatives to develop the wholesale market for smaller alt-nets.

In 2016, The Lee Parish Council in my constituency received an assurance about broadband provision from HS2 Ltd, that it would keep it

“updated on the outcome of discussions with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Broadband UK in relation to support for broadband provision for communities along the Phase One route.”

Apart from a few holding letters, The Lee Parish Council has not heard anything for three years. Will the Minister provide details about those discussions to reassure my constituents that they are indeed taking place?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for raising that. I am keen that any hon. Member should feel that they can write to me about issues in their area. We are trying to get a much better system up and running so that we can get such cases answered. I encourage her to write to me as I am very happy to look into her concerns.

May I take this opportunity to send our best wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for a speedy recovery from covid?

We have had a dizzying number of broadband targets, each weaker than the last. Which is the Government’s current target—is it nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 as they previously said, 85% coverage by 2025 as their national infrastructure strategy says, or the latest one of nationwide coverage by 2030? How confident is the Minister about meeting any of those targets given that the digital divide is growing, not narrowing, and she has no detailed plan for reaching communities that are not commercially viable?

I thank the hon. Member for probing me on these matters and send our best wishes to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). The target is 85%-plus by 2025, and we expect to have all our procurements under contract by the end of this Parliament. We are confident about meeting those targets which, given the increasing importance of digital connectivity to our prosperity, are vital to ensuring that we do not see digital divides emerge.

The Scottish Government have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in accelerating the roll-out of superfast broadband in Scotland, even though broadband is reserved. Will the Minister insist to Cabinet colleagues that levelling up plans must include finally delivering the funding necessary to roll out superfast broadband, as that is the United Kingdom Government’s responsibility?

I thank the hon. Member for raising the important connectivity needs of Scotland. This is a Union issue and the Government are keen to help. I recently had a productive meeting with Kate Forbes—incidentally, I congratulate her on her pregnancy—who is an excellent Minister. Ensuring connectivity across the Union is very much part of our levelling up plans, and I am happy to continue working with the Scottish Parliament on such issues.

The Government’s focus on gigabit roll-out is absolutely right and I am grateful that Buckinghamshire is included in the current public review of gigabit broadband infrastructure. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that there is a plan to tackle the problem in villages such as Mentmore in my constituency, where fibre has been installed but 20 commercially unviable houses have been left out, leaving those people and homes behind? How can we narrow that gap and ensure that once fibre goes into a village, it really reaches everyone?

This is a common challenge across the country. We are trying to focus public resource on premises that are not being connected by the commercial roll-out and ensuring that we share data with commercial providers so that we know which premises we need to cover in our contracts. I am happy to look into my hon. Friend’s area to ensure that we do that.