Speaking in the House of Commons, Sir George spoke of the growing frustration in his constituency at the non-availablity of broadband.
Text of speech follows. The full debate is on Hansard. Follow the link at the foot of this page for more information about Sir George's campaign for better broadband provision.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). Like him and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), I used to work in the telecommunications industry. That was some 30 years ago, in the Post Office — as it was then called — and the challenges that confronted us then were to remove the electro-mechanical exchanges and to move over to System X. I tried to join a trade union — I think it was ASTMS — but I was drummed out by Clive Jenkins, who described me as a "pin-striped bovver boy".
New clause 2, which was ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), covers a wide range of issues. I want to focus on the last two words in the new clause —"including broadband" — and particularly on broadband in rural areas, which is now emerging as a major political issue. Although I have been critical of BT, it is also right to pay tribute to what it has been able to do over the past 12 months. It has reduced the wholesale price of broadband, introduced a rolling programme of enabling exchanges, and set targets where it has been able to do so. So, although I have been critical, I recognise that BT has been doing what it can. I recently received a letter from BT's director of public affairs, from which it is worth quoting to illustrate how the company views the issue. It is not "wholly uncritical" of the Government. The letter states:
"Ovum has calculated that less than $5 per head has been spent by the UK government on supporting broadband infrastructure, compared with $25 in France and $90 in Japan. On that basis, BT's performance in already delivering a wider ADSL footprint in the UK than has been achieved in the USA looks reasonably creditable."
BT therefore has its own dialogue to pursue in relation to its objective to roll out broadband.
I suspect that about 50 per cent. of my constituents cannot get broadband. It is available in Andover and Tadley, and villages such as Oakley and Highclere have recently hit the target and will be enabled in due course. However, some fairly significant small towns and large villages — Whitchurch and Overton, for example — have no hope as yet.
Intervention by Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East):
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are many people who cannot get broadband even where exchanges are enabled, because of old technologies and various other technical problems? Does he agree that it is incumbent on BT to resolve those problems — whether through wireless, broadband or whatever — as soon as possible?
Sir George Young: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, whose energy and initiative in this area I applaud. BT also told me:
"The average reach for each exchange is 94 per cent. of the population served by that exchange."
The hon. Gentleman is therefore right. Even when an exchange is enabled, some people remain outwith its reach. The advertising campaign has irritated a large number of my constituents. It has urged them to register and sign up for broadband, but they cannot do so. Although I would not describe myself as socially excluded, neither I nor the chairman of BT, who lives quite close to me, can access broadband in north-west Hampshire.
What is the position for people who cannot access broadband? A wide range of opportunities is, in theory, available to them. These people are, however, quite busy, and they take the view that broadband should be available without their having to ring up the South East England Development Agency or to contact RABBIT, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) referred. They are not sure that it is really their job to risk their own personal capital by investing in a system for their village. They do not want to take the risk of investing in communication masts. What they really mind about, however, is the uncertainty. If they knew that there was no prospect whatever of getting broadband, they might well consider some of the alternatives, but not knowing whether their exchange might be enabled at some point in the future acts as a disincentive and an understandable deterrent to looking at some of the other options.
Intervention by Pete Wishart:
The right hon. Gentleman might be aware that no rural exchanges are enabled in Scotland. There are none in my North Tayside constituency. May I suggest that what is wrong is the trigger policy that BT has employed to enable exchanges? The trigger level has been set far too high for towns and villages in rural areas. In my constituency, for example, 350 people would be required to sign up in a town of 5,000 to 6,000 people. How can we ever get people enabled when the trigger is set so high?
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk mentioned transparency and openness. One thing that would help this debate would be to have in the public domain more figures showing the actual costs, so that some of the estimates might be challenged and we could see whether the costs were really as high as BT has asserted.
I want to raise with the Minister an issue about which I have written to him twice. I commend his enthusiasm for this subject. He kindly wrote back to me a few days ago in response to a question about the Prime Minister's commitment, made in November, that every school and GP's surgery would be on broadband by the beginning of 2006. I welcome that commitment and I am prepared to believe that the Prime Minister means to adhere to it. I have tried to find out from the Minister how that commitment is to be delivered. What is the mechanism by which the small village schools and the medical centres in the more remote villages in my constituency will be plugged into broadband? Will the Minister direct BT to enable the nearest exchange? Will there be some alternative delivery mechanism, such as fibre optics, wireless or satellite?
This is important because the solution for schools and medical centres is hugely relevant to everyone else in the area, and their not knowing exactly how that commitment will be delivered could result in an obstruction to some of the alternatives that might otherwise be considered. Will the Minister answer the specific question of how he can give a cast-iron guarantee that Overton primary school, for example, will get the service that the Prime Minister has promised it by the end of 2005? Once we have an answer to that question, some of the other questions can be answered. If the solution is to use one particular form of technology, it can be piggy-backed by everyone else in the village, and they, too, can get access to the services that they need. I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light on that matter.
It would also be helpful if the Minister could commit himself to removing any regulatory obstacles that might confront Ofcom or Oftel in the roll-out of broadband. We do not want unnecessary regulatory hurdles to have to be cleared before we can realise our shared ambition of making this country internationally competitive by having more widely available access to broadband.