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Broadband and Mobile Coverage

Volume 753: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of their policy to increase the number of central government transactions carried out online, such as the filing of tax returns, what progress they are making with the rollout of broadband services and the provision of comprehensive mobile coverage.

My Lords, in January this year the programme was making superfast broadband available to 10,000 premises a week. The figure is now 20,000 a week, and by the summer it will be 40,000 a week. More than half a million premises have benefited so far and more than 4 million will benefit by the end of the programme. For mobile, the combination of commercial and government mobile rollout will improve mobile services for 98% of UK premises by 2015.

My Lords, I am not sure things are quite as favourable as that reply suggests. Broadband and mobile coverage have become essential utilities, like water or power. Without coverage it is like living in the old world without a post box or hot water. Given the huge sums being expended on the rollout, will the Minister encourage the industry and the regulator to buck up and meet their obligations to citizens and businesses, all of whom now need to be able to operate online?

My Lords, there is always room to do better, but the programmes are on track. All that can be done is being done to increase the pace of delivery, which is a priority. I should say that the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries is holding an open surgery on superfast broadband in Committee Room 14 at 3.30 pm. Your Lordships are most welcome to attend as it is very important that issues of concern are put directly to the Minister and officials dealing with the matter.

Will the Minister confirm that all local authorities involved in the rollout requiring match funding are co-operating, as there were reports last weekend in some rural areas—I cite Shropshire—of Tory-led councils saying that they were not prepared to put in their £11 million of match funding? It will be disastrous for rural areas if local authorities cannot match the funding that is required.

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that broadband is essential in rural and urban areas. I will look into the Shropshire issue, but it is very important that local authorities co-operate because in all areas this is part of our emphasis on growth.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is virtually impossible to function without broadband? Can he give me an example of how people are supposed to cope until this situation is corrected?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. Clearly, we are in part of the technological revolution and the Government wish to go digital, but it is certainly important that those who do not have the facility are still able to conduct business in a traditional way. As I say, it is important to improve delivery wherever we can.

The Government’s long-awaited digital inclusion strategy appears to have given up on nearly 10% of the population. Many vital services are now online, yet many of those who need to access them are precluded from doing so. What further action will be taken to make sure that no one is left behind?

I agree with the noble Lord that the whole quest of this is to ensure that as few as possible—and, in the end, none—are left behind. That is precisely why the Government, with their £10 million project, are seeking to fund alternative technology broadband opportunities. Twenty-six suppliers have submitted bids to deal with the hardest spots that are not yet connected. The bids are currently being evaluated, and I hope that the contracts will be awarded in June so that we can help precisely those businesses and people that the noble Lord refers to.

Does the Minister agree that infrastructure and skills are equally important and that the 11 million adults who are currently unable to use the internet, 4 million of whom are in work, are as important as those 10% who are unable to get broadband?

My Lords, the noble Baroness absolutely hits the spot in saying that part of what we need to do is ensure that as many people as possible have the ability to go online—I gather that 82% of the population can do so. Virtually all schools have broadband connectivity and, in my experience, the elderly are becoming increasingly conversant in this area. We want to help as many people as possible.

My Lords, my noble friend always tries to be helpful. Does he agree that many elderly people and many others have to pay high prices to receive paper bills because they do not have broadband available? They are sometimes charged up to £8 per paper bill. If the Government cannot help these people more quickly than at present, will they at least consider taking steps to make such charges illegal?

My Lords, as I said earlier, the Government wish there to be as many opportunities as possible for people to pay bills online, and that is increasingly the way that things will go. However, I will look into the matter of paper bills. I honestly think that those who are not in a position to pay online should not be expected to pay over and above.

My Lords, I believe that the 98% that the Minister mentioned includes the county of Cornwall, and I congratulate him on that. However, the Isles of Scilly are not included and have probably the worst and most expensive transport links in the whole UK—and they are still on 2G. When does he see broadband going to the Isles of Scilly?

My Lords, what a great part of the United Kingdom that is. It is interesting—the noble Lord is absolutely right—that the superfast Cornwall project is doing extremely well, and I am pleased to say that consultation notices have been issued by the Marine Management Organisation to ensure that the cable goes under the sea. That will ensure, I hope by the last quarter of this year, that the Isles of Scilly will have superfast broadband.

My Lords, I take us from one end of the country to the other. While I warmly welcome the rollout of superfast broadband throughout the country, what words of comfort does my noble friend have for the inhabitants of Upper Coquetdale, running up to the Scottish border in Northumberland, particularly in the villages of Alnham, Alwinton, Hepple, Holystone, Netherton and Sharpeton, who have not only no broadband but no mobile coverage? They are in a “not spot” and there are no plans for them to get out of it yet.

My Lords, that is yet another wonderful part of the United Kingdom. I am very conscious of the important needs of rural areas, and the £150 million of funding for the mobile infrastructure project is precisely to deal with “not spots” in coverage. The rural broadband programme is also terribly important and the £10 million that I referred to is precisely to help rural “not spot” areas.