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Covid-19: Broadband

Volume 813: debated on Monday 5 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the pandemic on (1) access to, and (2) the affordability of, broadband internet services.

My Lords, the Covid-19 crisis has shown the integral role digital connectivity plays in our lives. Thanks to the Government, 97% of the UK can now access superfast broadband and over 40% of premises can access gigabit-capable networks—up from 18% at the start of the pandemic. We also recognise the importance of affordable broadband. That is why we have worked with BT, Virgin Media and others to ensure that they offer social tariffs for households in receipt of universal credit and other means-tested benefits.

My Lords, I note the Minister’s reply, but data poverty and digital exclusion, as the Good Things Foundation and ParentZone have shown, is widespread. Research from Citizens Advice suggests:

“2.5 million people are behind on their broadband bills, with 700,000 of these falling into the red during Covid”.

The existing variation in broadband deals across the market leads to confusion and low take-up among those who need support the most. Will the Government commit to requiring all providers to offer an affordable social tariff for low-income families, as recommended by the Lords Covid-19 Select Committee?

The Government are working in different areas to address affordability, and I am sure that the noble Lord has seen the recent Ofcom report on this issue. Some 99% of households can access an affordable tariff, but the take-up of that is much lower than we would hope, and Ofcom has recommended more proactive marketing of those tariffs.

My Lords, the pandemic has accelerated the embedded use of broadband for work, learning and leisure, and yet 9 million people are still on the wrong side of the digital divide. It is estimated that 3% of schoolchildren were prevented from accessing learning during lockdowns. Many of these people live in social housing. What efforts are being made to ensure that all registered social landlords include broadband access in the rent and that such an element is then included in housing benefit?

The issues relating to being on the wrong side of the digital divide, as the noble Lord described it, are more complex than simply the tariff or how rent might be set up: they include digital skills and confidence, on which this Government are working very actively, as set out in our tech-savvy nation report.

My Lords, regions like the Midlands have both a strong regional partnership in place, focused on digital connectivity, and gaps in national digital rollout, which are stifling the economy. Will the Government prioritise region-wide action to accelerate digital connectivity, and will they work with the Midlands Engine to deliver on levelling up digital for the region—its local authorities, businesses and communities?

I hope that the noble Lord acknowledges the huge progress that has been made in the rollout. We are working closely with local authorities and pan-regional stakeholders, such as the Midlands Engine. The West Midlands is an absolute beacon in the area of 5G test beds and trials.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the Government need to investigate and promote all connectivity technologies—fibre as well as 5G, 6G, open RAN and low-earth orbit satellites? Would she confirm that it cannot be the case that those not currently able to access superfast fibre also find themselves unable to access 5G—because these connectivity technologies will enable the economy that we need, the society that we want and the digital inclusion that everyone has a right to rely on?

My noble friend is absolutely right, and we are investigating all the areas that he alluded to, particularly for the last 100,000 people who will not currently be reached through either the commercial rollout or our Project Gigabit plans.

My Lords, the issue with children from deprived backgrounds was not just that they could not get access to broadband but that they did not have the equipment. What plans do the Government have to make both the equipment and the broadband availability free of charge to deprived households?

During the pandemic, schools have been able to request free mobile data uplifts for disadvantaged families, and those will remain in place until the end of this month. Over 1.5 million laptops and tablets have been delivered to schools, trusts, local authorities and further education providers, and the Government are investing over £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care services.

My Lords, if media reports are to be believed, the Government seem likely to extend their advice for people to work from home beyond 19 July. We agree that progress has been made in improving access to, and the affordability of, broadband in the recent past, but too many people still find their productivity compromised by variable speeds, temporary outages and other reliability issues. For the self-employed and freelancers, this acts as a serious inhibition to their business development. If home or hybrid working is to continue, what steps are the Government and regulators taking to ensure that services are up to scratch and to enable these businesses to grow? Can the Government back, and give a guarantee on, the further development of social tariffs?

There are two sides to the coin that the noble Lord has mentioned: of course he is absolutely right that self-employed people need access to the best-quality broadband, but, equally, the ability to work from home opens business opportunities in parts of the country that might not otherwise have experienced them. I mentioned the increase in coverage from 18% of the country at the beginning of the pandemic to over 40% today—it will be 60% by year end.

The noble Baroness said herself that the take-up of social tariffs was low. Does she think that the Government should indulge in an advertising campaign to promote the use of these social tariffs, where they are applicable? Having listened to those who mentioned—and having already been aware of—the importance of children having access, could the noble Baroness tell the House how many households have had their broadband stopped because of a failure to pay? How many of those households included school-age children?

On social tariffs, I repeat what I said earlier: Ofcom is absolutely clear that the providers of those tariffs need to proactively market them. However, government is working and meeting with them regularly and encouraging them to do so. Figures are available for the number of households that have been cut off—it is an extremely low number—but I am not aware that it includes details on children. I will write to the noble Baroness with the detail, if it exists.

My Lords, could the Government fund local authorities to establish high-quality broadband hubs with work stations in each community for those citizens, whether school pupils, students or people working from home, who have either terrible or no online access—or, equally importantly, very cramped living conditions—making it impossible to study or work properly? Otherwise, the gaping digital divide, revealed by evidence to the Lords Covid-19 Committee, of which I am a member, will massively accelerate existing inequalities.

The Government have an incredibly ambitious and currently very successful programme of rolling out broadband across the country. The quickest way to get everyone, particularly those on the wrong side of the digital divide, included is for that programme to progress—both the commercial aspects and the £5 billion that we are putting into Project Gigabit to make sure that rural communities also have good access.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, could the Minister outline what plans the Government have to monitor the effectiveness of social tariffs offered by broadband providers?

The Minister said earlier that 100,000 homes would miss out on broadband access under the current plans. Does this mean that they will not even achieve the USO of 10 megabits per second, let alone the real target of a gigabit-enabled economy? Can she say when we will reach 100% coverage?

I will clarify what I meant to say, and I apologise if I was not clear. The commercial rollout, Project Gigabit and the rural voucher and other schemes that we have announced will reach all but 0.3% of the country, which is about 100,000 homes. We are not intending that those homes should not get coverage, but that is where some of the technological innovations that my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond referred to will come in.