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MPs to demand answers on rural broadband rollout

Wednesday, March 4th 2015 by Hannah Langston

The progress of the government's superfast broadband rollout to rural areas will come under close scrutiny from MPs today, with one Devon MP declaring she has "no intention of holding back" and another demanding that BT "stop making excuses".

Devon MP Neil Parish (Con – Tiverton and Honiton) called the debate to encourage Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) to “speed up” delivery of the programme.

He will argue that digital minister Ed Vaizey should put more pressure on BDUK – the government department responsible for rolling out faster broadband to 95% of the UK by 2017 – and BT to provide clarity on when areas will get superfast broadband.

“I want BT to work harder to make sure people in villages such as Upottery get it quicker. [BT] need to stop making excuses,” Mr Parish told Cable.co.uk.

“I’ve had several meetings with BT and they’ve been very careful not to give times when areas will be upgraded, because if they run into technical difficulties and they can’t deliver on time people could sue them.”

Upottery is one of many areas in Devon and Somerset that has been ruled “out of programme” by BDUK. According to Mr Parish, only 22% of properties in his constituency have access to superfast broadband.

Mr Parish added that the best outcome from this afternoon’s meeting would be more information for consumers on the areas where BT will deliver fibre broadband.

“BT has been paid public money to deliver the contract so I expect more and, in a way, I don’t want to let them off the hook.”

'Completely unacceptable'

Tessa Munt (Lib Dem – Wells) will be supporting Mr Parish in the meeting and arguing the case for greater competition in the BDUK process.

“The main thing that gets right up my nose is that Devon and Somerset were meant to be having an open tendering market process for the next phase of the rollout and it’s no longer happening.

“The process is anti-competitive and it’s completely unacceptable.”

Agreeing with Mr Parish on the need for more information on upgrade areas, Ms Munt said: “I don’t think BT has performed adequately. It won’t give information on the areas that will not be upgraded to superfast broadband, which means residents can’t get in touch with other suppliers.”

Looking ahead to this afternoon’s meeting, Ms Munt said: “An ideal resolution would be: first, tell me what superfast broadband means – what is the maximum upload and download speed people can expect?

“Tell me where the 5% [of properties that don't qualify for superfast broadband] is in my community so they can go to competitors. And tell me when people can expect to be connected.

“They better have some flipping answers – I’ve got no intention of holding back,” she added.

Rural economy 'at risk'

Around 51% of Devon and Somerset has been covered by superfast broadband since the rollout began in early 2013. Cable.co.uk previously reported how rural broadband campaigners from the two counties complained of being "stitched up" by the current superfast broadband rollout.

However, as many of Ms Munt’s constituents don’t have any broadband at all she doesn’t believe the government’s target of 95% coverage by 2017 is achievable.

“The government is in danger of missing the 2017 target. It won’t get to 95% in Somerset,” she said.

Today's meeting will be attended by MPs from rural areas across the country.

Henry Robinson, president of the Country Landowners' Association (CLA), said: “We urge MPs to keep the pressure on this vitally important issue. The figures are stark. Ten to 15 percent of the population still cannot get broadband.

"The government is only aiming to hit 95% by 2017. This still leaves at least 5% with no access to the internet and no target set for when full coverage will finally be delivered."

Mr Robinson, who briefed MPs ahead of this afternoon's meeting, said the rural economy is now at risk because of the government's move to a digital-by-default strategy.

“Online applications for farm payments under the Common Agricultural Policy are being rolled out, so an effective, reliable and affordable broadband connection for farming businesses has never been more important.

"Farmers and landowners are reliant on these vital payments for providing food, water and protecting the environment. Yet more than 10% of these businesses are struggling to get online to apply.”

The debate will take place at 2.30pm this afternoon in Westminster Hall.

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