On 19th July the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, asked a question he had tabled to Government abour broadband speed. The exchanges and follow-up questions from other Members can be seen below:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Kingdom’s place in the annual ranking of global broadband speed and of the impact of low broadband speeds on the United Kingdom’s ability to compete globally after Brexit.
Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con): My Lords, I believe that the right reverend Prelate refers to the recent cable annual ranking; however, broadband in the UK is far better than suggested in the report. Ofcom recently found that average download speeds in the UK are more than 46 Mbps and, thanks to £1.7 billion of public investment, superfast broadband is available to more than 95% of premises in the UK, which is one of the best rates in the world.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I thank the Minister for his reply. Having said that, it is not just about the levels we are at; it is the fact that we have dropped down the league—that is the point about this report. We were 31st in global broadband speeds; we are now, just one year later, 35th. We lag behind countries such as Madagascar, Latvia, Bulgaria and so on. We need access to full fibre if we are to get ahead in the technological revolution post Brexit. Therefore, will the Minister explain to the House why currently just 4% of premises are connected to full fibre and why the Government have failed even to set a date to respond to the National Infrastructure Commission report, which has set out a pathway to achieving nationwide full fibre access by 2033?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: The right reverend Prelate is certainly right to highlight full fibre, because it is the way forward. The House will know that in May 2018 the Chancellor announced the Government’s full fibre rollout, the plan being for 15 million premises to be connected by 2025 and for a nationwide network by 2033. Full fibre will enable speeds of more than 100 Mbps. DCMS will publish a report shortly in response to the report that the right reverend Prelate raised, setting out how we will reach these targets.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab): My Lords, is not the problem with this issue a problem about the USO, which the Minister has not so far mentioned? It is hopelessly unambitious at 10 Mbps; it settles for fibre to the cabinet, not fibre to the premises; and it uses a hopeless metric of properties connected— the noble Viscount just mentioned that—thereby disadvantaging SMEs, people living in flats and terraced houses and those in rural areas. Can he confirm that he is backing the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s other call this week, which is to switch off every copper phone line in the UK so as to force telecom firms to improve their rural broadband speeds?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I had not heard that, but, in relation to the USO, it is very much a safety net, as the noble Lord will know. It is a legal right for those who have not got suitable broadband coverage to have a minimum of 10 Mbps. The statistics show that 3% of premises will be eligible for the USO, which is a lot less than was originally anticipated.
Viscount Waverley (CB): My Lords, does the UK’s place in the global broadband rankings take account of service inside the Palace of Westminster? Could the powers that be consider encouraging the appropriate House authority to ensure that wireless internet boosters are better placed, in order to provide appropriate service?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I shall certainly take that back and ensure that it is included. The opportunity has been given to me to say that the UK compares well with member states in the EU in terms of overall connectivity. We rank seventh, ahead of large member states such as Germany, France and Italy.
Lord Haselhurst (Con): My Lords, does my noble friend acknowledge that an increasing number of innovative businesses, which can contribute greatly in the future to the wealth of our country, are situated in remote rural areas, often in disused farm buildings? It is very important that we speed up the connection of full fibre broadband to rural and isolated communities.
Viscount Younger of Leckie: My noble friend is right. An additional £30 million of funding is available through Defra, which has allocated grant funding from the Rural Development Programme for England, targeted at helping the very businesses that my noble friend has raised to be sure that they have proper broadband coverage.
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD): Picking up on that question, does the Minister not agree that hard- to-reach rural communities will lose out because of the £3,400 cost cap placed on the USO provision arrangements? Are people in such areas to be denied broadband access or do the Government have a cunning plan?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: The cunning plan, to reassure the noble Baroness, is perhaps in the marvellously worded “barrier-busting task force”. This is designed to help relax planning laws and to roll out, particularly in rural areas, faster broadband.
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con): My Lords, will my noble friend extend the voucher scheme for rural areas which is due to expire on 31 December and be mindful of the rural businesses in North Yorkshire that do not reach even 2 Mbps and are currently taking advantage of the scheme?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I reassure my noble friend that in places that my noble friend has alluded to the minimum megabit per second legal obligation will come into force.