Superfast Broadband [12 October 2015]

Broadband Debate Speech
Monday 12th October, 2015

Thank you Mr Speaker and I’d like to begin by congratulating the Honourable Member for Boston and Skegness for securing the debate. I’m aware of the Honourable Member’s continued interest in this subject, and it’s an interest that I share with over 35 years of experience in the IT industry.

We’ve already heard some of the detailed technical information regarding the requirements for a roll out of super-fast broadband across the UK.  I am well aware that techno speak and jargon is often necessary to speed up conversations but I hope for the sake of clarity to avoid using it as much as possible here today.

It should be clear to the Honourable Members present in the chamber that the technology required to facilitate universal roll-out of high speed broadband across the UK already exists.

If a village in rural Sweden can have super-fast broadband then so can any village in the UK  ……if the money is invested to provide it.

If super-fast broadband coverage on the Isle of Wight can reach 90% then so can other islands throughout the UK.

The existing technology, which no doubt will continue to develop and improve, can provide any home or business in the UK with super-fast broadband if the will and funding is there to provide it.

That’s easy for me to say but we do have precedents.

Throughout the 20th century the UK Government has had to meet the rapidly changing technological challenges of the time, whether that is the establishment of a reliable telegram service or the affordable installation of telephones in family homes.

Our youngest constituents would be perplexed by the idea that providing multiple premises with a shared telephone landline was once the pinnacle of our technological achievements.

It’s important to remember though that the implementation of communication technology such as this was a major logistical challenge that, at the time, pushed the limits of our infrastructure.

Did the UK Government adequately respond to the needs of the populace when these new technologies were available? Was sufficient funding available and was the technology introduced to our rural communities as quickly as it could have been?

These are pertinent questions because although the technologies at the centre of the debate have changed throughout the years, the fundamental questions have stayed the same.

We therefore must ensure that we meet the technological challenges of our time and do not dismiss the potential of a more effective roll out of superfast broadband as …..

too technically complex or commercially challenging.

The economic, business and social advantages of super-fast broadband are self-evident. Indeed, lack of connectivity stifles business growth and can accelerate emigration, particularly in fragile rural communities.

I’m aware, for example, that the rural communities of Durness and Tongue in Sutherland are to get fibre-optic broadband. While it is welcome that these small centres of population will have access to quality broadband services, the same cannot be said for the small crofting communities in between the two villages, a distance of around 20 miles.

One of those missing out on the opportunities of high speed broadband is internationally renowned ceramics artist Lotte Glob. Her business, which is based in Laid on the shores of Loch Eribol, is severely restricted by her lack of access to super fast broadband.

I have no doubt that each and every member, if they were inclined to, could identify such businesses in their constituencies. Lotte is just one of many.

However, it is not only rural communities that are affected. Many urban areas are also plagued by difficult economic conditions and the associated problem of emigration. Increased connectivity can be an important tool in reversing this trend.

My own constituency of Inverclyde for example had a higher percentage of population decline in 2013/2014 than the Western Isles or Argyll and Bute.[i]

 Inverclyde has a relatively low availability of superfast broadband of at least 24mb/s when compared with other constituencies. It’s important to appreciate the gap in service provision between urban and rural areas, but we must also recognise that it is too simplistic to characterise the issues as primarily only affecting rural communities.

Businesses in Inverclyde and across the UK will attest to the competitive advantage that super high speed broadband gives them.  Their ability to research, advertise, communicate and sell is enhanced by having access to the fastest possible connection as well as a customer base with good broadband speeds.

OFCOM has identified the availability of high quality broadband for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) as one of the major challenges of providing broadband services. SMEs are vital drivers of economic growth and job creation so it is concerning that a lower percentage of SMEs have access to superfast broadband compared to UK premises as a whole.

Constituencies such as mine have suffered from a debilitating cycle of depopulation and economic stagnation; it’s therefore imperative that small and medium sized commercial premises have the tools they need to flourish, and to create the economic growth that would benefit areas such as Inverclyde.

To underline the importance of broadband services we need only listen to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), who believe that access to fast, reliable broadband is now essential for a modern business and should be considered alongside other utilities such as gas, water and electricity. FSB research also found that 99% of small firms rate the Internet as ‘highly important’ to their business, with 51% of FSB members already offering services online, with a further 15% planning to do so in the future.[ii]

Along with my colleagues in the Scottish National Party, I support the position of the FSB that there should be a Universal Service Obligation for broadband in line with, and indeed exceeding, what has been introduced in Finland, Malta and Spain in recent years.

I look forward to seeing more detail about the UK Government’s commitment to a Universal Service Obligation for broadband, in addition to more information about what is considered an appropriate speed requirement for a legally binding obligation.

It is surprising that the current Universal Service Obligation only commits to internet speeds appropriate to dial-up modems. The FSB indicated that in 2014 there were still around 45,000 businesses operating on dial-up Internet speeds, which is simply unacceptable with the current technology we have at our disposal.[iii]

In moving forward with improvements to the Universal Service Obligation the UK Government must commit to a more ambitious target than the 5mb/s outlined in the Digital Communications Strategy of March 2015.

The FSB and Countryside Alliance have indicated that 10mb/s is the optimal speed for everyday use, and I trust the UK Government will examine the feasibility of these proposals.[iv]

We should also not discount the social importance of broadband services to our communities. Indeed the complaints that I have received from constituents in mobile ‘not-spots’ or areas of limited broadband speed have mainly focused around feelings of isolation.

A research report from Aberdeen and Oxford universities found significant social benefits to high speed broadband with young people in particular feeling left out of their peer group if they did not have access to an adequate service. But this is not unique to one generation.

Older people too were found to use broadband to feel ‘connected to the outside world’.

This research reinforces what we already know about the changing nature of how we use the Internet. Ofcom estimates that around 35% of people now use online services such as Skype or Apple Facetime to make phone and video calls over the Internet. This change in usage patterns has led to a 55% increase in average mobile data usage between 2013 and 2014.

The pressure on existing infrastructure is set to continue with Aberdeen and Oxford university research predicting a four-fold increase in average mobile data usage by 2018.[v]

The Scottish Government is helping to meet this demand through the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme, which is divided into the Highlands and Islands project and the Rest of Scotland project. Significant progress has already been made towards the goal of 95% coverage of superfast broadband in Scotland by 2017.

My own constituency of Inverclyde has shared in £71million of funding for phase 1 and 2 of the Rest of Scotland project. Of the nearly 40,000 premises in the constituency, around 32,000 have already benefited from the commercial roll out of superfast broadband coverage. A further 6,700 premises are predicted to receive superfast broadband coverage through the publicly funded programme by June 2017.

This success in implementing new superfast broadband services in Inverclyde has also been replicated across Scotland with over 216,000 homes and businesses across the country already connected to fibre-broadband services.

Audit Scotland reported in February 2015 that the Scottish Government, in partnership with BT, is on track to meet its interim target of providing 85% of premises with superfast broadband by March 2016.[vi]

The endeavour of providing superfast broadband in Scotland is ultimately a partnership between many organisations. BT and the Scottish Government are also working alongside local authorities, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the European Union and Broadband Delivery UK to deliver the necessary funding and technical expertise.

Smaller, local partnerships in Scotland are also showing the value of community participation in tailoring broadband solutions. One such example is GigaPlus Argyll, a volunteer led project helping to deliver superfast broadband to some of the most isolated areas in the highlands and islands, including Craignish, Mull and Iona.[vii]

The total allocation of funding from the Scottish public sector amounts to around 40% of total investment. This is of critical importance to rural areas like Moray, Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Borders where commercial funding is significantly less than in Scotland’s urban communities.   Indeed, public funding delivers infrastructure in areas considered commercially unviable by the private sector.

The Scottish Government is undoubtedly making great strides in rolling out superfast broadband across the country, particularly when our challenging geography and spread of population is considered. Yet even if we meet our target of 95% of premises with superfast broadband by the end of 2017, there will still be a small but significant amount of people without access until 2020.

I therefore commend Scottish Government measures being implemented to ensure that we eradicate all ‘not-spots’ from our network. The Rural Broadband Scheme is just one example and it’s £9 million of additional funding will reach out to harder-to-reach areas that might not otherwise benefit from the wider programme.[viii]

The Scottish National Party members of this house will do everything possible to support measures that move us towards a universal roll out of broadband by 2020. I hope all of the Scottish Government’s partners in the commercial and public sectors continue to be innovative in their approach and also work collaboratively with local communities to overcome any remaining challenges to universal roll out over the next five years.

The UK Government in particular must do more to be ambitious and to meet the targets set out in their broadband commitment.

We’ve seen how targets have been revised in the past because of a lack of progress.

The original date for universal access of the inadequate speed of 2mb/s was 2012, but the coalition government delayed this to 2015 and then to 2016. Further, a report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee ( UK GOV EFRA? ) also raised concerns that the UK Government target of superfast broadband for 95% of premises may also not be achieved within the desired time frame. Many homes and businesses across the UK simply can’t afford any further delays.

In closing Mr Speaker, superfast broadband has the ability to greatly enhance the social and economic conditions of people across Scotland and the UK.

Whether it is Grandparents skyping with their Grandchildren.

Students researching for exams.

Gamers burning the midnight oil.

Businesses trading with customers and clients.

The experience is a more positive and beneficial one on a faster secure connection.

Therefore as we make the final push towards universal coverage, it’s absolutely vital that we accelerate the rate of implementation and ensure that none of our constituents are left behind.

[i] http://www.greenocktelegraph.co.uk/news/greenock/articles/2015/05/05/531268-another-population-drop-for-inverclyde-/ (accessed 5th Oct, 2015)
[ii] http://www.bqlive.co.uk/2015/10/05/broadband-has-become-the-fourth-utility-says-fsb/ (accessed 6th Oct, 2015)
[iii] Central Office Briefing p2
[iv] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/18/broadband-to-be-basic-legal-right-says-george-osborne (accessed 6th Oct, 2015)
[v] http://media.ofcom.org.uk/news/2014/infrastructure-report-2014/ (accessed 6th Oct, 2015)
[vi] http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/docs/central/2015/nr_150226_broadband.pdf (accessed 7th, Oct 2015)
[vii] http://gigaplusargyll.co.uk/background (accessed 9th Oct, 2015)
[viii] http://www.theyworkforyou.com/sp/?id=2015-09-16.10.0&s=broadband+scotland (accessed 7th Oct, 2015)

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