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Broadband and Mobile Coverage

Volume 751: debated on Thursday 30 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made with the rollout of broadband and mobile coverage across the United Kingdom.

In October 2013, superfast broadband was available to 73% of premises—up from 46% in 2010. By the summer of this year, an additional 40,000 premises a week will have superfast broadband available to them. The aim is to reach 95% of premises by 2017. More than 99% of UK premises are covered by one or more mobile networks. All four mobile network operators are rapidly rolling out 4G mobile broadband.

My Lords, truly comprehensive broadband offers a unique opportunity to create a vibrant national market by increasing competition and access for small businesses and consumers and by helping economic development. I thank my noble friend for his answer, but can we be more ambitious and set a target date of, say, 2015, for achieving comprehensive broadband coverage and eliminating those “not spots”—a rather ugly new term—throughout the whole of the UK?

My Lords, the UK broadband impact study found late last year that for every £1 the Government invest in broadband, the UK economy will benefit by £20. The broadband infrastructure will have a very positive impact on the growth of the economy and across communities within the country. Indeed we are ambitious. The Government have invested a further £250 million, in addition to the initial £530 million and, even more recently, £10 million in a scheme to reach out to the most remote areas.

My Lords, I declare as an interest my employment at Imperial College and my connection with the outreach educational facilities at the college. In proceeding with all alacrity with broadband, will the Minister take into account the huge need for educational fast transfer, which is going to be of growing importance in education? Increasingly, young people use the web much more than they use television, and it will be an important educational facility, both for universities and indeed for schools.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. The education sector is one where superfast broadband is going to be very important indeed. I am very pleased to report that 43 of the 44 projects involved in the rural broadband scheme are now in delivery. One more will be signed up shortly in Northern Ireland. This is all about rolling out as much as we can, to as much of the country as possible, as fast as possible, so that all communities and all age groups can benefit from this advance.

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the report that nearly half a million children of school age have no access to broadband whatever and that this is affecting their achievement in education? What steps will the Government take to deal with this appalling phenomenon?

I very much hope that if my noble friend were posing this question in 18 months’ time, we would have a different result. Particularly the rural broadband scheme which is reaching out to remote areas, but also the super-connection for the 22 cities, is all about providing to schools and businesses the opportunity to take advantage of the internet.

My Lords, the Minister will know that there has recently been a damning NAO report which identified that, far from promoting market competition, BT is now expected to win all of the 44 contracts on broadband. What are the Government doing to intervene on this issue, given that the NAO report also says that it does not have a strong assurance that the costs, the take-up assumptions and the extent of contingency contained in the BT bids are reasonable? What is being done to get value for money for the taxpayer on this issue?

My Lords, I should first declare that I own a few BT shares—I emphasise, a very few.

BT is in that situation because Openreach has so much of the infrastructure. There are arrangements and regulatory environment requirements through Ofcom on price and also on other operators using BT property. There are very important safeguards for the consumer through Ofcom, and that is why we are in the right position.

My Lords, while welcoming the extra money that my noble friend has explained to the House, will he tell the House whether the additional rollout will take place in a more flexible and competitive manner than has hitherto characterised the rollout thus far?

My Lords, I certainly think that the rollout is gathering pace in those parts of the country that have not had the advantage that other parts have. We certainly want to ensure that the Government’s investment, and indeed the commercial investment, is sufficiently flexible that as many people as possible gain advantage as soon as possible.

Will the Minister say when Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly will get this? I thought they were a priority area. They are a rural area and they should be a priority, but the Scilly Isles do not even have 3G yet.

That is very interesting. I will look at it in even more detail because, funnily enough, I was meeting some people from Cornwall only two days ago, who said that in fact Cornwall has been very successful and that there is quite a good degree of capacity there because it has a great tourist interest. There has been a great increase in the number of visitors, and we need to accommodate that. However, I will look into that because one of the assurances I had was that Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly were well provided for.

Is my noble friend aware that in many rural communities, from Droxford in Hampshire to Harbottle in Northumberland, there is great uncertainty about their potential access to speedier broadband and the speeds that they will experience in future? Can he tell us what further plans the Government have to improve communications with these communities, and whether they have the funding in place to reach 90% of households by 2015?

My Lords, this is technical, but we believe that virtually all homes and businesses will have access to standard broadband by the end of the current intervention, which is next year. That means being able to use iPlayer and e-mail, and having normal transactions. Certainly, the rural broadband scheme is to ensure that all parts of the country, from the Highlands and Islands to the Isles of Scilly, will all gain the benefit of it.