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Broadband Coverage: Rural Areas

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 26 January 2023

I wish to echo your words about the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s important work, Mr Speaker.

We are investing £5 billion through Project Gigabit to deliver lightning-fast broadband to hard-to-reach areas across our country. Last week, we announced that thousands of people living in rural Cornwall will benefit from a £36 million contract. We have now awarded six such contracts, covering up to 681,000 premises. More procurements are in the pipeline and we have also upped our voucher scheme so that more premises can benefit.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Obviously, I am delighted that last week we secured nearly £19 million from the levelling-up fund for Shrewsbury town centre, but we will never really have levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom unless rural parts of our constituencies have broadband coverage commensurate with metropolitan areas in coverage and speed. What is she doing specifically to make sure that improvements are made in the county of Shropshire?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the importance of digital connectivity to the whole levelling-up agenda, which is why we are prioritising our procurement to some of the really tough-to-reach parts of the country that have been poorly served by broadband previously. I know that he has been campaigning hard on these issues since 2015. He has good superfast coverage now in his constituency, but I appreciate that gigabit is not where it should be in his county. I am pleased to say that our Mid West Shropshire procurement is going to be awarded in April to June this year, and I hope that his constituents will benefit from that.

The roll-out of rural broadband has made great progress in the past three years. Will my hon. Friend outline when the new framework and guidance for fibre community partnerships and the gigabit roll-out will be available, so that the roll-out can continue at pace across North Devon?

I thank my hon. Friend, because the progress has been substantial and she has been a key part of that by making sure that political pressure is maintained to get this kind of connectivity to places such as her constituency. On the fibre community partnerships, Openreach temporarily paused the registration while the supplier worked through the current requests. We have been working closely with Openreach to assist its review of that scheme. We hope it will be reopening it as soon as possible, but she will be pleased to hear that we are also on track to launch the Devon and Somerset procurements in April. Again, I hope that her constituents will stand to benefit from that.

I recently met people from CityFibre in my constituency to celebrate the roll-out of full fibre in Inverness. CityFibre is now moving into the rural areas, and it has taken the full fibre coverage from 0.8% to 60%. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that companies such as CityFibre, working in partnership with local councils and others, can continue to operate in this market as there is this competition, and that they have the ability to operate in and expand into rural areas?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention and question. CityFibre been fundamental in driving stiff competition in this area, which has really accelerated the roll-out. We thank CityFibre and other altnets and providers for all the work they are doing. We absolutely prioritise having a competitive framework, because we think it has been so crucial to making sure that areas such as his are covered.

As has been said, if levelling up is to mean anything, it would mean it in broadband. Often, what is needed is just a green cabinet and small amounts of money for rural areas. What confidence can people have that the Government will act in this Parliament? Other countries with a much worse topography have seen their rural areas get broadband years ago. What confidence can people have that the UK is going to act in the next two years—in this Parliament?

I am always grateful to hear from the hon. Gentleman. I know that his constituency is a very rural one with an island population, which creates particular challenges. Much of the broadband roll-out is being driven by the Scottish Government. Their R100 programme has had some problems, and I have spoken to Ivan McKee about how we can assist with those. We are keeping a very close eye on the matter, because we want to make sure that every part of our country is covered by this connectivity and is not disadvantaged by some of the local ways in which the projects are being managed.

The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme is not working as intended in the smaller rural villages of Tatton. The community groups have found that the scope of the local authority contract includes commercially viable areas, but excludes the remote areas. I thank the Minister for being very helpful, but, ironically, the more work that we did, the more we exposed the weaknesses. Will she meet me, representatives of Lower Peover and Building Digital UK to solve the issue?

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that she has done to make sure that Cheshire is connected. I have looked at the issues of Lower Peover. In particular, she highlights challenges with the voucher scheme. I want to assure her that we have upped the amount that can be claimed to £1,500 per premises. I am always happy to meet hon. Members on these issues, but I also hold BDUK surgeries regularly, so please book in for those, but, of course, I will meet her personally to discuss this.

I thank the Minister for her answers and for the help that the central Government at Westminster give to Northern Ireland for rural broadband. One issue is banking, online shopping and postal services. Has the Minister had the opportunity to assess how, in relation to rural broadband, these things impact on banking services in rural areas? We are moving forward to new technology and new times. We need help.

The hon. Gentleman highlights just how important good connectivity is to accessing all the services that are going online. One great thing about Northern Ireland is some of the progress that it has made on gigabit connectivity from its contract with Fibrus, and we thank Fibrus for all that it has done. I am happy to look into any of the issues that he raises, but, as I have said, he highlights very well just why it is so important that people do have that connectivity.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish to begin by echoing your words about Holocaust Memorial Day.

From April, families across the country will face a 14% rise to their broadband bills, but, even before that increase, there were already more than 1 million households struggling to pay for the internet. Expanding gigabit coverage is vital, but it is pointless if families cannot afford a broadband package. How will the Department work with Ofcom to examine the impact of mid-contract price increases and wholesale prices rising by inflation?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is right to highlight the cost of living challenges that are affecting so many households. We have worked hard on this. It is important that we have a stable regulatory framework that allows companies to invest, but we have hitherto had some of the most competitive telecoms prices in Europe and consumers have benefited from that. In relation to those who are really struggling with their bills, we have done a lot of work with telecoms providers on social tariffs. Unfortunately, the uptake of those tariffs is not where it should be, so I ask every Member of this House to help us raise awareness, because their constituents can get deals from as little as £10 a month. Trying to get them that connectivity is so important to people’s job chances, life chances and so on.