MP calls for superfast broadband in rural areas

Arundel & South Downs MP Nick Herbert has called for superfast broadband to be extended to rural areas to close the "digital divide" between town and country.

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The MP said that "access to broadband is now essential, not a luxury" and called for the break-up of BT's "unsatisfactory monopoly" over delivery when he spoke in a Commons debate on rural phone and broadband connectivity this week (Tuesday 3 February).

Mr Herbert welcomed the Government’s commitment to give 95 per cent of households access to superfast broadband by 2017.  But he cited a report by The Rural West Sussex Partnership, a branch of the Local Enterprise Partnership Coast to Capital, which said that the real coverage achieved might be as low as 85 per cent. 

The MP said: “We have to look ahead and test whether what is being done will be sufficient to ensure access for those in rural areas who will not benefit from the programme.”

Mr Herbert recognised the “tremendous improvement, which reflects the initiative of the Government and the County Council” in delivering superfast broadband across West Sussex, pointing out that villages in his constituency "are being connected one by one."

Last year, fibre broadband with speeds of up to 80Mbps was introduced in Storrington, Steyning, Hassocks and Henfield, and it is now coming to Hurstpierpoint, Graffham, Petworth, Pulborough and West Chiltington.

The County Council's 'Better Connected' programme is investing £20 million into the network infrastructure to deliver broadband speeds of over 24mps.  It has already connected more than 15,000 homes and businesses with a goal of reaching 44,000 properties by the end of 2016.

But Mr Herbert said that despite this progress the latest figures showed that only half (52 per cent) of his Arundel & South Downs constituency had access to superfast broadband, placing it in the bottom 100 of parliamentary constituencies (564th out of 650).

The MP urged that “we should not be fixated on the fibre-based solution, which will never be realistic in the hardest-to-reach rural areas.  In those areas, wireless technology or access to 4G or faster mobile data signals will become the solution.”  And he called for BT's Openreach infrastructure delivery subsidiary to be split off and potentially broken up "to inject more competition" and improve customer service.

Mr Herbert also warned of  "... a danger that public money is being used to close the gap in areas where it would have provided the service anyway, and the remaining 5 per cent or 10 per cent is not being covered.”  He underlined the need to ensure that future subsidy is directed to the areas which the market would not supply, and he pointed out that it is often these areas where people do not have access to mobile phone data coverage, either, and are therefore effectively disconnected.

The MP urged that the technologies adopted were "future-proof", warning that “there is a danger that in seeking to meet the commitment to wholesale coverage by 2017 or superfast coverage for 95 per cent, technologies are adopted that will not stand the test of time and will quickly be found to be insufficient.”

Mr Herbert referred to the broadband 'summit' which he had convened in West Sussex in 2012 with West Sussex County Council which had been attended by the then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, and led to the 'Better Connected' programme to deliver superfast broadband across the county.  The MP said that he planned to hold a second summit on how to close the digital divide, which he hoped would involve groups such as the South Downs National Park Authority, and he  invited the current Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid MP, to attend.

ENDS

Notes for Editors

  1. To read the Commons debate see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm150203/debtext/150203-0003.htm#15020361001805
  2. To read more about the West Sussex Better Connected programme see http://www.westsussex-betterconnected.org.uk/home.
  3. To read Rural West Sussex Partnership's submission to the House of Commons EFRA Select Committee see http://www.nickherbert.com/data/files/RWSP_response_to_EFRA_Select_Committee.pdf.
  4. Figures produced by the House of Commons library show that:
  •  52 per cent of active broadband connections in the Arundel & South Downs constituency are capable of receiving a superfast (>24 Mb/s) connection.  This measures the availability of superfast speeds – not all of these 52 per cent are in fact receiving these speeds.
  • In numerical terms, 17,456 of 33,289 connections in the constituency have superfast speeds available.  This is not the same as the number of households, since (a) it does not measure households without a connection; (b) it includes non-residential properties, e.g. businesses; and (c) it is possible for there to be more than one connection per property.
  • 2,357 connections in the constituency have an average download speed of less than 2 Mb/s
  • 4,056 connections in the constituency have an average download speed of above 30 Mb/s

To read the Library Note see http://www.nickherbert.com/data/files/150202_HOC_Library_Note_on_Fixed_Broadband_Policy_and_Speeds.pdf.

Michelle TaylorBroadband