At today’s Lords’ Question Time, I am afraid that a spirit of devilment got the better of me. There was a question on the progress being made towards delivering broadband to rural communities. I should make it clear that I am a great supporter of the Government’s proposals to ensure that all citizens have access to broadband services. However, the automatic sense of entitlement that was being expressed on behalf of rural interests finally got the better of me, so I intervened to ask:
“My Lords, can we be assured that, given the extraordinary extent to which city dwellers already subsidise those who live in rural communities, this will not be another example where urban dwellers will be taxed, or have to pay more, so as to subsidise the often very pleasant lifestyles of those who live in rural communities?“
In essence, the answer was that this would indeed be yet another subsidy that everyone else would pay for by the 50p levy on fixed line telephony. This will go with the subsidy to ensure that all rural households can get digital TV, the subsidy that maintains less well-used roads in rural areas, and, of course, the many subsidies paid to farmers.
This was regarded as being rather “controversial”, but an interesting number of Peers from all parts of the country came up to me afterwards and congratulated me for raising the “elephant in the room” …..
The full series of exchanges were as follows:
Asked By Baroness Byford
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made towards delivering broadband to rural communities.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, the Digital Britain White Paper outlined the Government’s universal service commitment for broadband at a speed of 2 megabits per second to virtually every community in the UK by 2012. The paper also outlined plans for a next generation fund, to help to deliver next generation broadband to at least 90 per cent of homes and businesses by 2017. The Network Design and Procurement Company will be responsible for the delivery on behalf of the Government.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that response, I understand that Ofgem does not have powers to compel internet service providers to provide broadband in rural areas, which has resulted in some 166,000 people having no internet at all and more than 2 million having inadequate service provision. How will the broadband be delivered in these circumstances, particularly with regard to the proposed new megabyte speeds of 24, 40 and 100? Will this not be more focused on urban areas, leaving rural areas out in the cold?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Ofgem cannot command to be done what cannot be done technically. The noble Baroness is right to identify that a percentage of our households cannot receive the requisite signal. We are addressing that. Under the universal service commitment, which we have been following since the summer, we are committed to ensuring that all households have access to the basic service of 2 megabits per second. The second, longer-term project concerning vastly improved speeds, to which the noble Baroness referred, depends partly on market conditions and provision by private companies, but the Government are also taking steps to ensure that we universalise that service in due course as far as we are able to do so.
Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, with more and more people in rural communities working from home and the increasing trend to media-rich content, the requirement for broadband speeds is more in the region of 50 to 100 megabits per second? What assurances can the Government give that rural communities will move to these speeds in the future?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is exactly the objective of the next generation access. It is clear that we will not be serving our communities, nor will we be remaining competitive with other countries, if we do not guarantee that next generation broadband is more universally available than it is at present. Certainly, there is provision of broadband at present from, for instance, Virgin, while BT is also interested in spreading its reach in these terms. However, the Government are concerned about that reach and I am grateful to the noble Lord for emphasising how important it is.
The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, the problem of lack of access to broadband is compounded for those rural communities that have poor analogue TV, no digital TV and often, at best, limited mobile phone connectivity. Do the Government have any plans to provide suitable grant aid to enable local rural communities to develop their own broadband, where it is clearly not commercially viable to provide that through the telecoms company? If there are no plans, will they consider that as part of implementing Digital Britain?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, far from there being no plans, there is a major government commitment to meeting the exact objective that the right reverend Prelate has indicated. We are going to use funds from the digital switchover—£175 million—to guarantee that we reach those areas that have not got digital television at present; the development of broadband goes along with that. The Government have identified the funds that will be made available. We have not the slightest doubt that that is merely objective No. 1. The right reverend Prelate will recognise that we are spreading digital television across the whole of the UK in the next four years.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, can we be assured that, given the extraordinary extent to which city dwellers already subsidise those who live in rural communities, this will not be another example where urban dwellers will be taxed, or have to pay more, so as to subsidise the often very pleasant lifestyles of those who live in rural communities?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that may be regarded as a somewhat provocative question in some quarters. I merely emphasise to my noble friend that we are intending to guarantee that these services are available across the whole country, because they are essential to our future economic and social success. That is why there will be a tax on telephone users of 50p per month for a line—we are not talking about an excessive amount—to subsidise and help to spread the opportunities across the whole country, in circumstances where we could not possibly have parts of our communities having no access at all to these services.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am tempted to invite the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to come with me to visit some of my upland sheep farmer friends, who do not exactly have a luxurious lifestyle. Back in July, Defra announced that money from the European economic recovery plan, which rural development agencies would use as part of the rural development programme, would help to fill some of the holes in broadband provision, not least for my upland sheep farmer friends and for people in places like that. What is the mechanism by which this money will be used and what will it be used for?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are of course grateful for resources from wherever they emerge, but the noble Lord will be all too well aware that £2.5 million from Europe is a flea bite in relation to the total issues to be addressed. While it is welcome and is directed towards particular areas, the context of this question is universal access. That is a massive project and we have given clear indications since the summer of how we intend to tackle it. It can be fulfilled only by a long-term commitment to the objectives that I have identified.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, if noble Lords asked shorter questions and gave shorter responses, we would have time for more questions. We are in the 24th minute.”
Provocative – me?