Good internet access is essential to the economic and social future of Wiltshire. With strong broadband connections, towns and villages ‘left behind’ by the 20th century economy, which was overwhelmingly urban, can recover and thrive in the 21st century. So this is a major priority for me, and for the Government.
I have a very large file of ‘cases’, i.e. constituents’ enquiries or complaints that I try and help with, concerning broadband. These are all specific to individual premises and communities, but there are some broad groups: those struggling on antiquated copper wires, without a clear commitment from either Government or the commercial market when they will be upgraded to fibre; those who live in communities whose ‘rurality’ and ‘sparsity’ (the terms for remote and thinly populated places) means BT Openreach won’t make the necessary investment to upgrade the connection; those who were in line for fibre, but have had their villages inexplicably removed from the list as the computations (of cost and numbers to be served) change; and more generally, those suffering from abysmal communications or plain shoddy customer service.
In each of these cases the most I can do immediately is to write on their behalf to the relevant organisation. More generally, my role is to push for a better overall policy to support rural broadband. It should be noted in passing that major investments and policy commitments have already been made, with large parts of the country now benefiting from superfast or gigabit service, and more coming on stream everyday. I heard from Openreach this week, for instance, that over 16,000 additional premises in my constituency will receive full-fibre gigabit connection in the coming years. Those residents and businesses don’t write to their MP, of course, and their good fortune is little comfort to the people left out - indeed it actually makes their lives worse, especially for those working remotely who cannot manage the same level of communications as their colleagues, clients and competitors.
80% of the country is expected to receive gigabit connections via commercial companies. Of the rest, here in Wiltshire we have a project (WiltsOnline) led by the council which seeks to ensure most other homes in the ‘intervention area’ - ie the uncommercial places - get covered. In the south of the constituency, BT Openreach are making good progress delivering this via their existing infrastructure. In the north a second company, Gigaclear, has a fibre-only strategy that requires digging, and this is taking longer. In both cases there are repeated adjustments to the roll-out plan, which is why some communities expect to be on the list for an upgrade and then fall off it. Commercial aspects can play a major factor in this, and homes that initially seemed financially viable for improvements can later be excluded from plans once detailed planning has taken place.
For those who won’t be covered in this way, the Government voucher scheme, offering £1500 per household or £3000 per business, means that neighbours can club together to get cabling installed. But this is not enough money for very sparse and remote places. They may find that satellite, 4G or (soon) 5G connections work better than the copper wires.
Finally, the Government has now announced another programme, the Gigabit scheme, which will ensure 'as close to 100% as possible’ of homes and businesses get fibre to the premises. For the majority of homes this will happen through commercial providers. Elsewhere - the places we are talking about - the scheme will be organised through contracts that ‘bundle’ together different areas. We are due this month to find out what the bundles for Wiltshire are, and can then see how the land lies for each of our communities - i.e. whether it is likely commercial operators will serve these areas, and what other measures will be needed from the council or others to plug any gaps.
My great difficulty in trying to navigate the broadband issue for constituents is a lack of overall knowledge about what is happening where. Because a range of different operators deliver installations, and a range of different commissioners - including communities themselves - initiate the work, there is no single place to go for information on what is happening where. This makes it difficult to help constituents seeking advice. I am informed that commercial sensitivities mean it is simply not possible to collate the information we need.
My proposed plan of work then, is as follows:
To continue to lobby BT Openreach and other providers on behalf of individual constituents with specific complains about their service.
To host a summit in July with relevant experts to explore both local provision and national policy, and to enable residents’ questions to be answered by BT Openreach, the council and other responsible parties. This will be advertised shortly.
To work with colleagues in Parliament to push for changes to widen the scope of support for rural areas and ensure providers deliver their service obligations.