Shake-up of broadband market could help close ‘digital divide’ - South Downs MP

Nick Herbert, Arundel and South Downs MP, speaking in the House of Commons  (photo submitted).
Nick Herbert, Arundel and South Downs MP, speaking in the House of Commons (photo submitted).

A shake-up of the broadband market to challenge the dominance of BT could help close the ‘digital divide’ - according to Arundel and South Downs’ MP.

Nick Herbert welcomed the Government and West Sussex County Council’s programme to extend superfast broadband to the majority of businesses and households by the end of 2017, but warned that one in seven premises in his constituency would still not have access to superfast under the plans.

Speaking in a House of Commons debate on broadband on (Monday 12 October) he said that superfast broadband was no longer a luxury, but was essential for public services, individuals and businesses, and felt there was a danger of a ‘digital divide’ opening up for households that cannot access it.

He pointed out that by 2017 around 6,500 premises in his constituency would still be able to access superfast broadband, equating to 15 per cent of premises, three times the number implied by the Government’s target of connecting 95 per cent of premises by 2017.

Mr Herbert said: “It is clear from the Government’s figures that there will be a gap. What [my] constituents want to know is how that gap will be closed.”

He added: “We need to hear how the Government will ensure that rural areas are not permanently disadvantaged. Some households in my constituency can barely access broadband at all - they have the lowest possible speeds - let alone access superfast broadband. They need to hear now about future plans, recognising that their neighbours have successfully achieved superfast access.”

He continued: “There is a lack of competition in this area and that a shake-up of the market is needed. It is not satisfactory that 75 per cent of new superfast broadband customers on the Openreach network are BT or BT subsidiary customers.”

He pointed to BT’s declining investment in the copper wires that are still an integral part of the infrastructure. As a result, he said that fault rates had soared – an estimated 7,500 constituents reported a fault in the last year alone.

Reports of poor customer service were all too common, as he told MPs that around 82 per cent of his constituents waited for more than 12 days to switch from BT to Sky.

Mr Herbert also raised concerns about BT Openreach’s position within the BT Group at a time when the company has been investing in acquiring sporting rights for BT Sport, rather than in essential infrastructure.

He said that ‘we should not be willing to accept that situation, and the merger between BT and EE is likely to make things worse because Openreach will be a smaller entity within the overall size of the group and will not be focused on such issues’.

Mr Herbert called for Ofcom to take ‘a serious look’ at this sector and to make a referral to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

He concluded: “We would not accept such a lack of competition in the energy sector, yet there are fewer providers in the telecom sector for broadband than in the energy sector.”

Ed Vaizey, minister for culture and the digital economy, said that he was ‘confident’ that the Government would deliver superfast broadband to 95 per cent of homes and businesses by the end of 2017.

While he was ‘mildly sceptical’ about the break-up of BT, he said: “I am prepared to sit down with all my honourable friends and visit their constituencies over the next six months to discuss areas that are not getting broadband, so that we can work together to deliver it.”

Mr Herbert has invited the minister to address a ‘digital access’ summit which he is holding in conjunction with the South Downs National Park Authority on Friday November 20.

The summit will discuss how the premises which will not be covered under the Government and West Sussex County Council’s scheme will secure access to superfast broadband and digital services.

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