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Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of broadband speeds, capacity and coverage in rural areas of the United Kingdom and in city technology hubs such as the Old Street roundabout.

My Lords, UK broadband coverage is near universal. Superfast broadband, capable of speeds over 24 megabits per second, is available to 78% of UK premises. This compares with superfast coverage of 33% in rural areas and 90% in Greater London. The average overall download speed is 23 megabits per second—10 megabits in rural areas and 27 megabits in Greater London. Tech City, the hub around Old Street roundabout, is well served by business connections. The coverage of residential superfast broadband varies.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that broadband must be seen as a utility, with high-speed, high-capacity access for all? Allied to this, does he also agree that we must ensure that everyone has the skills to transact, to interact and to fully participate in this digital future?

My Lords, this issue was raised by the Select Committee on Digital Skills, which reported on 17 February—last week. The Government are considering the report and will reply in due course. I completely agree with my noble friend that broadband is increasingly seen as an essential service. That is why we are committed to providing universal broadband coverage by the end of 2015, and by 2017 in Scotland. Whether it should be a utility requires careful consideration. The commitment for universal coverage referred to is non-regulatory, and we would need to consider the implications of making it a utility. I completely agree with my noble friend about the importance of digital skills. Broadband is the infrastructure, and the important thing is what happens at either end of the infrastructure. In order for people to use it correctly, and to take advantage of the infrastructure we have put in place, they need digital skills.

My Lords, I think the Minister is living in some sort of cuckoo land. Last Friday, I was in Plymouth, looking at some very interesting and exciting technology companies. Their biggest complaint is that the broadband they are getting is totally insufficient. A few months ago I was in Norwich, where it is the same story. If you go to Tech City, which is the hub of what we are doing in this country, you will find time and time again the complaint that we are not getting the speeds that are required. Can the Minister say when, instead of being complacent about what is happening, there will be some degree of urgency about improving coverage and speed?

What I was referring to mainly with essential services was the basic broadband service. Superfast broadband, which is what I think the noble Lord is referring to for business, is necessary. At the moment, 78% of premises in this country have superfast broadband. By the end of 2016, it will be 90% and in 2017 it will be 95%. The remaining 5% will be dealt with later.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister please put a rocket under Ofcom with regard to broadband speeds? The service providers boast of speeds of up to 15, 20 or 30 megabits per second, and I suppose you might just get that on a wet Sunday morning at 3 am, if you are the only person online. The vast majority of people do not get those speeds. Will he please tell Ofcom that we, the consumers, are fed up being misled about speeds and being ripped off, and that we want action on guaranteed minimum speeds?

My Lords, every local authority area will have at least 90% at superfast levels by the end of 2017. The rest will be 95%, but there will be an absolute minimum of 90% superfast coverage by the end of 2017.

My Lords, many small rural schools, for instance in Cumbria, where I come from, struggle to access a high-quality broadband connection. That results in pupils missing out on educational opportunities through not having a good internet-based information supply. Can the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of this situation and how they intend to address it?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes a very good point. We are obviously concerned that schools have the benefit of superfast broadband, which is important if schools are to take advantage of the opportunities offered by learning technology. However, not every school is the same. Schools have the autonomy to buy a connection that meets their needs. Schools’ connectivity needs will vary depending on the size and type of school. The Government’s £780 million investment programme in broadband infrastructure will increase the broadband options available to schools, including to rural schools.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned rural areas and whether broadband is deemed an essential service. The Government are saying one thing about broadband while those in the rural economy, particularly farmers, are being told that they need broadband to complete forms and participate for VAT. On the one hand, the Government require it; on the other, they are not delivering it.

My Lords, I have already said that we have made a commitment that universal coverage will be in place by the end of this year, and 2017 in Scotland. I accept that that is at the lowest end of the scale—up to two megabits per second. However, it is possible—and I speak from some experience, living in an area in which you are unable to get superfast broadband; although I should inform the House that the government website says,

“but it could be coming to you soon through government and local authority investment”,

so I remain optimistic—to upload forms, such as farmers have to do, on that speed of broadband. As I say, it will be in place by 2015 in the UK.

My Lords, the Government have put into place a potentially valuable broadband connection voucher scheme for companies in our major cities. However, there is concern about the level of take-up of that voucher scheme. I wonder whether my noble friend can give the House the accurate figures on that.

My Lords, nearly 80% of homes and businesses have superfast broadband, yet only 22% of all broadband connections are superfast.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of how great a social exclusion issue this is becoming? Only today the Carnegie UK Trust and Ipsos MORI brought out research showing that it is now a serious issue, particularly in Scotland. What are we going to do? It is not the speed of broadband that matters in this case but the actual access to it.

I completely agree with my noble friend. As I said, a bare minimum of two megabits per second will be in place by the end of this year and in Scotland by the end of 2017. As I said to my noble friend Lord Holmes, we, too, regard this as an essential service today.