Bishop of St Albans highlights problems of poor broadband services in rural areas

On 27th October 2016 the House of Lords held a short debate on a question from Lord Foster of Bath “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure the rollout of superfast fibre broadband to homes across the country.” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:

StAlbans171115The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, my thanks, too, go to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for securing this important debate. I, too, want to address rural issues and I declare an interest as president of the Rural Coalition. Many of our members are deeply concerned about this area. As other noble Lords have mentioned, nearly half of rural households in the UK currently struggle with broadband speeds of less than 10 megabits per second. Around one in five rural households can only access broadband speeds of under 5 megabits per second, and a significant proportion cannot access any broadband at all. This lack of connectivity acts as a huge obstacle to the growth of the rural economy and to rural sustainability. This is even more important as we get ourselves geared up for Brexit.

Without adequate broadband, small businesses cannot grow or thrive; freelancers struggle to connect with potential clients, particularly in an age of videoconferencing; farmers cannot complete the many forms for the smooth operation of their businesses, such as cattle movements or the basic payments scheme; and it is almost impossible for anyone to buy or sell anything online. Young people can also be very isolated from their friends. Noble Lords who, like me, know rural issues well realise that rural isolation is a huge issue. Children can also struggle to complete their homework. Students in remote areas cannot access resources or learning, which is particularly problematic as many educational institutions develop part-time and distance learning. So areas of the country without adequate access to broadband could increasingly fall behind.

The current minimum provision of 2 megabits per second is insufficient and although the 10 megabits per second universal service obligation promised by the Government for 2020 is welcome, it needs to go further. The USO must mean that households and businesses are connected to the network in the same way that electricity and water have to be provided. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, BT currently adopts a demand-driven approach, providing new infrastructure and connections only when a minimum number of people in an area request it. I am aware of instances where households and small businesses have been prevented from moving to new premises, not because the broadband is not available but because there is no interest in providing the additional local infrastructure needed. The USO must also rise in line with the increasing demands of technology so that the hardest-to-reach areas are not continually left behind.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to improving competition when it comes to delivering broadband for the 1.5 million rural households without an adequate provision. That is important because, while fibre might be the appropriate technology for 90% of the UK, it is not always the best option for isolated rural areas, where mixed technologies, particularly wireless, can be far more cost effective. We have already heard reference to Broadband Delivery UK and its market test pilots, which suggest that where a hybrid technology approach has been used, particularly merging fibre and fixed wireless, it has proved effective in very challenging areas, delivering high-coverage percentages while demanding relatively low public subsidy. Can the Minister give assurances that the final assessment of these projects will be published soon, the findings implemented quickly and funding provided, so that these alternative services can be delivered on the large scale that is needed?

I hope that the Minister might also explain a bit more about how DCMS expects the USO to be fulfilled. Most public statements on fulfilment seem to indicate that the focus remains very much on fibre, without any real consideration of proven alternatives. There seems to be a danger that a focus on only one technology might mean that rural communities could end up paying over the odds for fibre, when alternative technologies would have been more cost effective.

Finally, on the issue of mixed technologies, already referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, I want to mention the potential for church spires in some of the hardest-to-reach rural areas to be adapted for wireless broadband provision. There are a number of examples of this in rural areas, including in Norfolk, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, which all have more than their fair share of hard-to-reach areas. WiSpire in Norwich has already shown how this kind of initiative can be successful and of real value to both the Church and the local community. It is a win-win situation. I hope that there might be opportunities for DCMS and the Church to have further discussions about how we can take that kind of collaborative working forward.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con) [extract]: The right reverend Prelate asked about the final report on market pilots which tested new ways of delivering superfast broadband in hard-to-reach areas. That is due to be published by the end of 2016.