Rural Broadband [21/02/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing today’s debate. Although the content of my email inbox varies, the issue of broadband always remains one of the most important issues affecting my constituency. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) is here today. Our constituencies share a border and sometimes I feel that, as we are on the fringe of what is known as the central belt, people believe that the benefits of the big cities fall to us too; I assure the House that they do not. Like other Members, I am regularly contacted by constituents who are frustrated by slow internet speeds and the way in which broadband infrastructure is being implemented in their area.

As has been discussed in previous debates, constituents are frustrated because they do not consider broadband to be a luxury. It is seen as the fourth utility, essential for business, entertainment and education. If we accept that view, we must give constituents the same right to it as they have to gas, electricity and water. We would never consider telling our constituents, “We know that your water only comes on during certain parts of the day, but we hope to have full water supply rolled out to all properties by 2020.” Constituents would not find that acceptable. Equally, we cannot expect them quietly to tolerate an inadequate fourth utility. I understand that there is no technological magic wand that we can wave over areas with poor connectivity. However, we need to ensure that all tiers of government, including local authorities, are provided with the necessary funding for roll-out to be undertaken as quickly as possible.

In some instances, companies have indicated that it is not commercially viable for them to build the infrastructure that would deliver superfast broadband to certain areas. In my own constituency, Wemyss Bay, Inverkip and Kilmacolm have been particularly affected by that commercial gap. By the way, Kilmacolm got piped clean water only in 1878. Some may be surprised to know that Inverclyde, just 40 minutes from Glasgow, is relevant to a debate on rural broadband. My constituency is, in fact, Scotland in microcosm. Most of the population lives on a relatively thin strip of land, where we have densely populated towns with large housing estates. That area is hemmed in by the coast and undeveloped hills. Surrounding the most populated areas we have farmland, which includes sheep and llama farms. We have sustainable forestry providing fuel for biomass heating, and rural villages, along with smallholdings and isolated farm houses. The sort of obstacles that inhibit full roll-out of superfast broadband all exist in Inverclyde, and include the river, hills, flooding and sparsely populated areas. However, Inverclyde’s diverse geography, along with its limited size, actually makes it an ideal location for pilot schemes or for testing more effective ways in which to roll out superfast broadband; so I urge broadband providers to come to Inverclyde and prove how good they are. Ultimately, if we cannot meet the challenges of getting superfast broadband to Kilmacolm or Inverkip, those of providing an equivalent service in Argyll or Sutherland will be insurmountable.

What other potential solutions are there, and, more importantly, are they economically viable? Virgin Media’s Project Lightning includes the village of Kilmacolm, and I am looking forward to seeing how well that progresses. Recently Vodafone, in conjunction with Telefonica UK Limited, announced that a new base station is planned in the Wemyss Bay area. I am hoping that that is a step towards providing 21st century coverage to the surrounding area. Satellite solutions undoubtedly have their place, and I have recently brought the National Farmers Union of Scotland together with satellite solution providers.

Inverclyde is much like many other constituencies. We have many suppliers, not necessarily working together, fighting for the most profitable section of the market, while the more rural areas are neglected. When the day comes that Inverclyde has 99.9% coverage, I shall be knocking at the Minister’s door and speaking up for the 0.1%: no household left behind. We have a fragmented approach when we need a joined-up solution. MPs are grappling with the technology and trying to find bespoke solutions for their constituency, when the UK Government, instead of abdicating responsibility, should be overseeing the roll-out, defining best practice and funding the less commercial areas.

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