MP calls for increased broadband competition to "close digital divide"
Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert has called for increased competition to “shake up” the market in broadband, challenge the dominance of BT and help to close the “digital divide".
Speaking in a Commons debate on broadband yesterday (Monday 12 October), Mr Herbert welcomed the Government and West Sussex County Council's programme to extend superfast broadband to the majority of businesses and households by the end of 2017, but warned that one in seven premises in his constituency would still not have access to superfast under the plans.
The MP said that superfast broadband was no longer a luxury, but was essential for public services, individuals and businesses. He said that there was a danger of a "digital divide" opening up for households that could not get superfast.
He pointed out that by 2017 some 6,500 premises in the Arundel & South Downs constituency would still not have access to it. This would equate to 15 per cent of premises, three times the number implied by the Government’s target of connecting 95 per cent of premises by 2017.
Mr Herbert said: “It is clear from the Government’s figures that there will be a gap. What [my] constituents want to know is how that gap will be closed …. We need to hear how the Government will ensure that rural areas are not permanently disadvantaged. Some households in my constituency can barely access broadband at all - they have the lowest possible speeds - let alone access superfast broadband. They need to hear now about future plans, recognising that their neighbours have successfully achieved … superfast access”.
The MP argued that "there is a lack of competition in this area and that a shake-up of the market is needed. It is not satisfactory that 75 per cent of new superfast broadband customers on the Openreach network are BT or BT subsidiary customers."
He pointed to BT’s declining investment in the copper wires that are still an integral part of the infrastructure. As a result, reported fault rates had soared – an estimated 7,500 constituents reported a fault in the last year alone. Reports of poor customer service were all too common, and some 82 per cent of his constituents waited for more than 12 days to switch from BT to Sky.
Mr Herbert raised concerns about BT Openreach’s position within the BT group at a time when BT have been investing in acquiring sporting rights for BT Sport, rather than in essential infrastructure. He said that "we should not be willing to accept that situation, and the merger between BT and EE is likely to make things worse because Openreach will be a smaller entity within the overall size of the group and will not be focused on such issues”.
Mr Herbert called for Ofcom to take "a serious look" at this sector and to make a referral to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). He concluded: “We would not accept such a lack of competition in the energy sector, yet there are fewer providers in the telecom sector for broadband than in the energy sector ….. The electricity market was referred to the CMA; it is now time for a similar referral for broadband to ensure that we increase investment in the area, that we have a disruption to encourage new entrants to the market, and that we future-proof new technology so that we close the digital divide”.
Responding to the debate, the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey MP, said that he was “confident” that the Government would deliver superfast broadband to 95 per cent of homes and businesses by the end of 2017. While he was “mildly sceptical” about the break-up of BT, he said: "I am prepared to sit down with all my hon. Friends and visit their constituencies over the next six months to discuss areas that are not getting broadband, so that we can work together to deliver it.”
Mr Herbert has invited the Minister to address a ‘digital access’ summit which he is holding in conjunction with the South Downs National Park Authority on Friday 20 November. The summit will discuss how the premises which will not be covered under the Government and West Sussex County Council’s scheme will secure access to superfast broadband and digital services.
1. To read Nick’s speech see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151012/debtext/151012-0002.htm#15101217000391.
2. To read the Commons debate see
3. According to figures supplied by the Minister this month, in the Arundel and South Downs Constituency there are 46,251 premises, of which the Government estimates that currently 20,944 premises have benefited from superfast coverage through commercial roll-out. A further 18,840 premises will receive superfast by June 2017 under the publicly supported programme, of which 16,102 have received coverage so far. However, even if these estimates are correct, this means that 6,467 premises will not have access to superfast - one in seven.
4. For more information about West Sussex County Council’s ‘Better Connected’ superfast broadband programme see http://www.westsussex-betterconnected.org.uk/home.