HC Deb 02 May 2002 vol 384 cc1033-5
4. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

What action she is taking to ensure that broadband telecommunications are rolled out more rapidly in rural areas. [51999]

10. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

What steps she is taking to assist the roll-out of broadband infrastructure in Britain. [52007]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

We set out our strategy for making the broadband market more extensive and competitive in December. Since then the market has continued to develop. Broadband services are available to over 60 per cent. of the population, and coverage is increasing. There are now more than 500,000 broadband subscribers in the UK. The increased take-up strengthens the case for a further roll-out of services.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Is the Minister aware that, according to information that I received recently, in certain parts of the Cotswolds it will take between seven and 10 years for broadband services to become available? Will that not create a technological apartheid? People in businesses dependent on broadband will have to move away from those areas, because they will not be able to receive it.

I am aware that BT is enabling 500 exchanges to start operating by the end of May, and I am aware of the pilot schemes in Cornwall and Wales. Does the Minister agree, however, that the country's future growth depends on the rapid roll-out of broadband services in every area? May I also ask him to look into the fact that add-on services in relation to both broadband and IDSN are not covered by the regulator? Given BT's monopoly in this respect, should the position not be examined?

Mr. Alexander

I am intrigued by the terms of the question. The advice available to me suggests that both ADSL and cable services are available in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Nevertheless, he has made an important point about how we can ensure that the services are rolled out.

Only last month, I challenged BT to provide more exchanges. I am delighted to say that there will be a further 100 throughout the United Kingdom, but we face a challenge—that of not just extending coverage, but driving up usage. That is why the price reductions of recent months will be so critical in altering the risk-reward balance in infrastructure decisions affecting rural areas that will be made in months to come.

Kevin Brennan

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the roll-out of broadband is a big issue in urban as well as in rural areas, particularly in places such as the valleys of south Wales, where cabling is not widely available? What steps will he take to ensure that there is joined-up public sector commissioning of broadband to ensure that we can spread availability, drive down costs and bridge the technology deficit in more deprived communities?

Mr. Alexander

My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of the first challenges that we faced was to ensure that we got an appropriate return for the public sector investment in this area. The Government spend, at all levels, approximately £1.7 billion a year on information and communications technology. One of the challenges that has been set for the Office of Government Commerce is to use that spend effectively to deal with exactly the questions identified by my hon. Friend.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

The Minister may be aware of the helpful exchange that I had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport on this issue. Does he now accept that, left to the private market, remote rural areas in the highlands such as my constituency will never get broadband? While I welcome the £30 million fund that the Government have set up, should we not do more to encourage it into those areas?

Mr. Alexander

I welcome the initiatives that have been taken over recent months by British Telecom. A further two initiatives would be of importance in the hon. Gentleman's constituency: first, the actions of the Scottish Executive in taking forward their digital highlands project; secondly, and most significantly for long-term roll-out across rural areas, there is the interesting work that BT is doing with satellite provision of broadband services, which can achieve a footprint, not least in the highlands and islands of Scotland, that can guarantee a service for small and medium-sized enterprises, which is very important.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

The Government's objective is to achieve not only universal affordable access to broadband—I emphasise affordable because the Minister has just mentioned satellite, which is not affordable—but a choice of diverse services to provide that access. With the failure of the broadband fixed wireless access auction, and the Secretary of State's acknowledgment to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry that there probably is not a commercial case for fixed wireless access, does the Minister accept that even if ADSL roll-out is achieved in rural areas, no competitive access arrangements will be available for the foreseeable future in many rural areas?

Mr. Alexander

No, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I recently visited Northern Ireland and saw there the development of competition in satellite services. While I accept that satellite is at the moment very expensive for SMEs, in the months and years to come, we will see the price reductions that we are already seeing in ADSL services. However, his point about platforms is important. It makes the case that the Government have been advancing that their appropriate response is to maintain platform neutrality in the area of broadband. We have set broad objectives, but it is for the market to determine, working in an effective relationship with the Government, what the most appropriate technology is for those particular areas.