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Rural Connectivity

Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2024

We have made huge progress in connecting the countryside. In 2019 only 6% of premises had gigabit-capable broadband; now it is 80%, and the UK is building gigabit networks faster than any country in the EU. This month we launched another six Project Gigabit contracts to connect another 690,000 rural homes. The shared rural networks are tackling mobile notspots and we have satellite trials for the very hardest to reach.

I am grateful to the Minister for all the work that her Department is doing, but my constituents in Inkberrow have contacted me because they are really concerned that the infrastructure for their much-needed broadband is being put in using poles in the street rather than underground as they were promised. We must upgrade our infrastructure, but we must not damage our beautiful countryside in the process, so what can she do to support my constituents in Inkberrow to ensure that this much-needed infrastructure is buried underground?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point, and I agree that we want to build underground where possible. It is important that she is advocating on behalf of her constituents, because we have had issues relating to poles. We encourage sharing, but that is not always happening. It seems to be an issue in particular pockets of the country, and we are talking to Ofcom about this to see what more we can do.

It is brilliant to hear about all of this progress. What assessment has the Minister made of the value for money cap in connecting the hardest-to-reach households and businesses, of which I have many in my very rural, incredibly beautiful but sparsely populated constituency?

My hon. Friend’s constituency has very low gigabit connectivity, partly because its geography makes connections very expensive. That is why we launched one of our very first contracts in Cumbria. Some 15,000 premises are going to be connected across Copeland, and we are trying to stretch the contract as far as it will go. For premises that will not be reached, we will look at other technologies so that we can get to them as quickly as possible.

I work closely with Philip Burrows, Denbighshire’s excellent digital officer. He tells me that Openreach can still impose significant excess charges to connect properties that are declared enabled for fibre. In those instances, people are unable to claim via the gigabit voucher scheme. Will my hon. Friend outline what steps she is taking to address this matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the experience of Mr Burrows, who sounds like a very experienced officer. I would like to hear a bit more detail, because it sounds like the properties he cites have access to a fibre connection and would not be eligible for a voucher. I would like to know a bit more about the excess charges so that we can deal with any problems.

Rossett, outside Wrexham, has little to no connectivity, despite the Ofcom checker predicting that it has a good signal. This significantly limits residents’ lives. Ofcom acknowledges that it is a prediction, but Building Digital UK says that, because the Government rely on this prediction, there is little chance of Rossett receiving any benefit from the shared rural network programme. What would the Minister advise my residents to do?

My hon. Friend highlights the challenge I have had in answering this question. The mobile connectivity figures I have for her constituency are extremely high. This highlights the issue we have with Ofcom’s reporting maps, which are simply not good enough. We have consistently raised this with Ofcom, and we hope to make progress.

There has been significant improvement in rural broadband connectivity in Northern Ireland as a result of our agreement with the previous Government. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that small businesses in rural areas across the country can further develop themselves by maximising this advantage?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fantastic connectivity in Northern Ireland. In fact, I think it has some of the very best connectivity in the entire country. I will look into any spots that are still not covered, and I will happily get back to him.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will she outline how rural businesses can ensure that they have superfast broadband to secure their viability in an increasingly online market?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but his businesses no longer want superfast. They want gigabit speeds and, thankfully, Northern Ireland has tremendous gigabit speeds. If there are any issues, particularly with access for small businesses, I am happy to look into them.

Devon County Council is spending its broadband clawback money on anything but broadband. That £7.8 million was intended for improving broadband in rural areas, including in villages such as Northleigh. Residents have encountered numerous pledges on poles, but they still do not have full fibre. Does the Minister think the clawback funding for broadband should have been ringfenced by Devon County Council?

These issues have been highlighted many times by Conservative Members from Devon. We thought we had worked through some of those challenges. The clawback challenge that the hon. Gentleman highlights has not previously been raised with me, and I will happily look into it for him.

Some 4.8 million people live in rural 5G notspots; rural areas are seven times more likely to have broadband speeds worse than those at base camp at Everest; one in five poorer homes have no internet to the home at all; and cardiac arrest phones and medical monitors still rely on analogue telephony. [Interruption.] Why are this Government such an abject failure?

Order. The House could not hear Sir Chris Bryant—[Interruption.] I will have no suggestion that that was deliberate. People may need to speak, but can they do so in a quiet voice and allow Sir Chris to re-ask his question?

I know that the hon. Gentleman loves to stick the boot in, but he has chosen the wrong subject here. In 2019, there was 6% gigabit coverage, whereas the figure now is 80%. This is a massive infrastructure project, and it is one of the biggest successes that we have, so he has chosen the wrong thing to be snipey about.