HC Deb 02 March 2000 vol 345 cc539-40
5. Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

What action he is taking to ensure that changes in the price structures for high bandwidth telecommunications encourage the rapid development of e-commerce. [111534]

The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

We want fast cheap internet access to be available to everyone. That is why I welcome the recent announcements from BT and Telewest. We are promoting greater competition in fixed and mobile telephones, which will give consumers more choice and lower prices.

Dr. Turner

I thank the Minister for the progress that is being made. Does she recognise that in the past, rural areas, which in many cases could benefit most from good IT communications, compensating in part for poor physical communications on occasion, have often been the last to see improvements in IT structure? Does she acknowledge that there is a strong case for the Government to put pressure on the regulator and on the companies to ensure that rural as well as urban environments have ready access to fast internet speeds?

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I believe that when we release spectrum for fixed wireless access, as we will later this year, that will be of considerable benefit to rural areas, as will the development of new satellite services. Of course I will consider whether there is further action that we can take to roll out broad band quickly in the most remote rural areas.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

Can the Minister confirm that the unbundling of the local BT loop before 1 July 2001 cannot take place without the agreement of both Oftel and BT? In the light of that, can the Minister tell us whether such agreement has been forthcoming?

Ms Hewitt

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made quite clear, it is a matter for agreement between Oftel and BT. The date of July 2001 has been agreed for local loop unbundling, and the Director General of Oftel has made it clear that if the practical problems can be resolved more quickly, that date will be brought forward.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My hon. Friend referred to recent announcements by BT. In fact, BT has promised nothing. It insists on maintaining its high charges for local calls; it says that it may be prepared to reduce them at some stage in the future. What are we doing to make BT reduce its charges for millions of people in this country for internet use? It is blocking development in this area and should be stopped.

Ms Hewitt

BT has made two announcements recently, the most recent of which concerns an unmetered internet access subscription for £9.99 a month, giving unmetered access for evenings and weekends.

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Ms Hewitt

It was available from yesterday. The other announcement is about the Surftime package. I am confident that BT and Oftel will be able to agree an early date for the introduction of Surftime on both a wholesale and a retail basis.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Events this morning are unfolding which show that the Secretary of State is presiding over a Department in a complete and utter shambles. It is no wonder that word has it that he wants to leave. The first draft of the Electronic Communications Bill was the unsatisfactory product of a turf war between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Home Office. We are now seeing communications move rapidly from fixed wires to wireless technology. There is now a turf war between the DTI and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on who will regulate high bandwidth telecommunications.

Telecommunications has been taken out of the Utilities Bill, which is collapsing in disarray. Who will oversee high bandwidth telecommunications, and why were telecommunications removed from the scope of the Government's Utilities Bill?

Ms Hewitt

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. If he had read the joint statement made by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Culture, Media and Sport, he would know that the two Departments are working closely on a White Paper that will deal with future regulation of the converging industries.