My Lords, delivering superfast broadband to 100% of UK premises is challenging, as experience with our delivery programme has shown. In the final 5% of the UK, these challenges increase because of higher investment costs and lack of existing infrastructure, so it is good news that the Prime Minister has announced that, by 2020, a designated provider or providers will be obliged to connect people, no matter where they live, at minimum speed up to a reasonable cost threshold.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we are to rebalance the UK economy and push productivity, superfast broadband will be a vital part of that plan? Will it be a key element in the digital transformation plan which will be published early next year?
Would the Minister share my curiosity at the Prime Minister shifting the Government’s position from a universal service commitment—which is very important—to a universal service obligation, which carries with it a possibility of legal challenge? If I live in a remote area and do not get good broadband, who do I sue?
My Lords, one reason this will take us until 2020 is that we must get it right. We must look at exactly this sort of issue. Obviously, we will have to legislate and find the right way of implementing the USO to deal with the complexities and get ahead. This is now a utility and it makes sense to have a stronger commitment.
My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise the high capital cost of laying fibre cables. The return on investment simply does not work to service areas where there are not so many people. I understood from her that the Government will insist that service providers carry this out. Does she not feel that this will end up with other consumers having their prices increased to recover the costs of this?
My Lords, this is an important mission but time is needed for legislation, proper consultation and developing the arrangements with Ofcom. Obviously, the financial arrangements are to be determined and we will look at different options, including an industry cost-sharing mechanism.
My Lords, the problem in rural areas where you have scattered houses is that, as was just said, fibre-optic cables are not appropriate—but satellite is. Does my noble friend intend to alter the planning Acts so that satellite dishes can be put on listed buildings?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right that satellite is part of the solution to ensure access for everyone to at least two megabits per second by the end of this year. I would be cautious about planning, and particularly about historic buildings.
My Lords, given the undoubted importance of universal coverage, could the Minister update the House on the progress of the state aid negotiations? Is she satisfied with the progress of rollout to business parks in the connecting Devon and Somerset areas?
I will write to the noble Baroness about the progress in Brussels, which I know my friend in the other place, Ed Vaizey, has been extremely busy on. I will also write about the particular circumstances in Devon and Cornwall. Actually, I was a sceptic on this but we have made a lot of progress. I look forward to telling her about that.
My Lords, I suppose that in these post-austerity times we must be ready for a flurry of announcements and good news all round, and broadband is no exception. But where exactly do the Government stand given the two slightly contradictory statements we have now had? The Chancellor pledged in the last Budget to introduce broadband speed of 100 megabits into nearly all homes in the country. Does that fit with what the Minister just said? Exactly what speed can we expect?
My Lords, the Prime Minister talked about 10 megabits per second because that is fast enough to enable households to, in combination, stream films, watch catch-up TV, make a videocall and browse online. The expectation is to get there by 2020. Clearly, ultra-fast speed is incredibly important, too. It was probably not noticed, but there was an announcement in yesterday’s Budget that we are setting up a broadband investment fund that will look at public/private support for alternative network development, looking at ultra-fast broadband in particular.
My Lords, could my noble friend say how we equate the provision of a service such as clean drinking water as against broadband services? I lived not long ago—and many people live now—in a place where there was no mains water supply. Is broadband really more essential than water?
I, too, was brought up on a farm with no mains water supply and I survived. The point we are making is that broadband has become like the other utilities. It is really important, particularly as we move online—for example, for public services—so we have to try to extend it further. We want to extend it as far as possible and raise our game. That does not mean that at the top of every mountain there will be broadband, but there is a lot we can do by 2020 and we are investing in that.