Skip to main content

Broadband: Universal Service Obligation

Volume 790: debated on Monday 19 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in implementing the universal service obligation for broadband.

My Lords, the Government have considered different options for the design of the broadband universal service obligation and have carried out a public consultation on its proposed design. Having completed their consideration of the many responses received, the Government will shortly be laying secondary legislation setting out the scope of the broadband USO. The Government’s response to the consultation and the impact assessment will be published at the same time. Ofcom will be responsible for implementing the USO, which is expected to take up to two years.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. As he knows, there is an awful lot of concentration on download speeds but for the digital economy, upload is very important too. It is particularly poor in rural areas, and your Lordships do not have to take my word for it. The Secretary of State for Defra, Michael Gove, speaking to the NFU, recently said:

“It is unjustifiable … that broadband provision is so patchy and poor in so many areas”.

Can the Minister explain how a new approach will do away with this patchiness and poverty of connection in the countryside?

The noble Lord is right that it is very important, as the rural economy as well as the urban economy depends on broadband. We have done a number of things to support the rural economy. Delivering the USO is one thing; we have also increased broadband availability from 45% to 95% in seven years, as we promised to do. But looking forward, we are working with Defra to implement the £30 million of extra funding through the rural development programme; the local full-fibre network programme will invest £190 million for locally led projects and the Chancellor announced £95 million in the Spring Statement as part of that; the future telecoms infrastructure review will also look at what the Government can do and report in the summer. Noble Lords will also have noticed that in February we signed an accord with the Church of England to make many more churches available, which principally helps rural areas. Lastly, Ofcom launched a consultation on 9 March on potential new licence obligations for rural coverage as part of a forthcoming 700 megahertz spectrum auction.

My Lords, I welcome the £15 million that the DCMS has given to North Yorkshire in recognition of the woefully slow connection times and poor connectivity there. But will the department and my noble friend ensure that this money will be used to make the remaining 5% faster and give them better access, rather than to enable the fast speeds that people already have in places such as Harrogate, Knaresborough and York to become even faster than they already are?

My Lords, we want to do both. We want to make sure that everyone has at least a minimum speed, and we are also investing very large amounts in full-fibre network, because it is on fibre-optic cable that everything depends in terms of mobile communications and higher speeds throughout the country, including rural areas.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why remote parts of mountainous Norway and even remoter villages in China can have high-speed broadband but we in the United Kingdom cannot?

There are mountainous parts of this country that have high-speed broadband. It is a question of getting the infrastructure in place. Broadband availability has gone up from 45% to 95% in seven years because the Government and local authorities, together with private industry, have invested a substantial amount of money.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned full-fibre networks, which could of course deliver ultra-fast broadband but only 3% of consumers have access to them. Eighteen months ago, the Chancellor promised £400 million towards full-fibre networks. How much of that has been spent and how much is expected to be spent in the coming months?

My Lords, the Chancellor announced in November that the local full-fibre network challenge fund was in place, which is part of the Government’s £740 million national productivity investment fund. As I said, the Chancellor announced in the Spring Statement that £95 million has been allocated for 13 different areas. We plan to open the next wave of the challenge fund during this summer.

Is my noble friend aware that his plethora of proposals is greatly welcomed? Nevertheless, would he include in this the servicing of broadband? Is he aware that following the great chill of 1 March, certain parts of Bedfordshire still are not back on broadband? Unhappily, that includes me.

I am sure noble Lords will commiserate with my noble friend. I am not aware of particularly why the cold weather should affect broadband. The whole point of developing the infrastructure for fibre-optic cables is that they are buried underground, well below the frost, for example. I would have to look at specifically what is happening near Naseby.

Is the problem here not the completely hopeless, unambitious target of 10 megabits per second when compared with what is happening today? As reported in the papers yesterday, York City Council has managed to install a system throughout the city that operates at 1,000 megabits per second. There is no competition, no drive forward, and nothing seems to be happening.

I have said in my answers so far that quite a lot is happening. A lot of money is being spent on infrastructure. The 10 megabits per second speed of the universal service obligation is meant to be a safety net, which is there under the universal service directive. It is not meant to be the future of digital infrastructure, which is why we are spending so much money on the latest fibre-optic cables. Ten megabits per second will be very good for people who have one or one and a half today. They will be very grateful for that, but we certainly do not accept that it is the future. It is very much a safety net.