Digital Infrastructure, Connectivity and Accessibility

Published date : 03 December, 2020
Mr Deputy Speaker, allow me to begin by offering my own congratulations to the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing this debate. She makes an important point when she says that we should be treating broadband and connectivity as being every bit as important as any other utility that we take for granted in our home.

As many hon. Members have said, the importance of connectivity has never been brought home to us more than over the past few months. Whether for shopping, access to public or medical services or even, dare I say it, fulfilling our role as parliamentarians, without connectivity it would have been an exceptionally more difficult time than it already was.

What that has done is expose the yawning chasm of the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots—those who can access reliable high-speed connections and those who cannot, because they lack the personal financial means, the technical skills, proximity to a suitable wired or wireless connection or some combination of all three. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) captured it well when he spoke about some of the data on the exclusion that people face, which is stark in terms of people’s socioeconomic status and who gets left behind in this. Speaking as a Member of Parliament covering parts of the city of Aberdeen as well as parts of rural Aberdeenshire, the contrast between areas of the city where there is a gigabit-fast enabled connection and parts of my constituency that struggle to get enough bandwidth to reliably download emails or even to make a mobile phone call is really quite stark.

Telecommunications is a power that is reserved to Westminster. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government, recognising the gulf between what the market will deliver by itself and what even the interventions of the UK Government can deliver, have made tremendous efforts to close that gap by making broadband investment themselves. The Digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has provided fibre broadband access to nearly 1 million premises the length and breadth of Scotland, taking fibre to the cabinet and in some cases to the premises that would not otherwise have been reached by infrastructure of that quality.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) spoke of the R100 programme. I share his frustration about the north package, which was mired in a legal dispute over the awarding of the contract. Now that that has been overcome, I look forward to seeing the details of how the £384 million that has been earmarked for the north will start to benefit the communities that we both represent. Even that will take us only so far, however. Vouchers will go only so far, and the UK Government’s universal service obligation is in many cases reliant on 4G broadband connections that simply do not exist. So, in terms of the roll-out and the additional resource that the UK Government have committed—which, sadly, has been cut back—yes, we need to build from the outside in, but we also need to ensure that all parts of the UK, even those with devolved Governments who are doing their bit to enhance the existing provision, receive their fair share.

In the remaining time available, let me speak up for the alternative providers known as altnets. For those who are unfamiliar with them, they are alternative internet service providers who rely on radio connections or even their own fibre to provide internet broadband services, but they rely on existing infrastructure from companies such as Openreach for the backhaul. Openreach recently made an announcement, aimed at those particular providers, that it would be levying a supplementary charge, and it is no exaggeration to describe that charge as punitive. I would almost go so far as to say that the charges it proposes to place on the leasing of those lines could in some cases be anti-competitive, and I hope to have a conversation with the Minister about that so that we can look into it further.

It is also important to say that, once the infrastructure is there, it must be accessible and safe. That means having the means to access it with the devices that are available, especially for those who cannot afford to purchase them themselves. It also means people having the skills to access these services. Too many people lack the necessary digital skills for work, even though they might have them for their daily lives. The drop-off in the socioeconomic standing of people at that skills level is absolutely stark, and we must ensure that we do not embed that generational inequality going forward.

We have been forced to go online to do more, and the longer the UK Government delay their online harms legislation, the more likely it is that people will come to harm. We are talking about risks to children, as well as the risk of criminal activity including fraud and crimes of acquisition and exploitation. We are also talking about misinformation and disinformation, particularly as we go into a process of vaccinating millions of people across the country against this dreadful virus. The bots, trolls and disinformation merchants will be out there working tirelessly to sow mistrust and distrust. We need to give people the means to access these services and the digital skills to use them, but we also need give them the life skills to differentiate between quality information and misinformation.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I can see that my own personal broadband in this debate is about to be choked fairly soon, but I would just say this. I cannot remember—perhaps someone will tell me afterwards—who said that markets are a bit like donkeys, in that they are useful for getting things done, but they occasionally need a prod in the right direction. Nowhere is that more true at the moment than in telecommunications and broadband. The UK Government have the regulatory and constitutional powers to act in this regard, and we are very keen to work with them at UK level to see how they can use those powers for good, to go further and faster.

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