Digital divide ‘must be closed’, says MP

MP Nick Herbert speaking in the Commons debate on rural phone and broadband connectivity
MP Nick Herbert speaking in the Commons debate on rural phone and broadband connectivity

A CALL to close the ‘digital divide’ by extending superfast broadband to rural areas has been made in Parliament.

Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert spoke out last week in a Commons debate on rural phone and broadband connectivity.

He said ‘access to broadband is now essential, not a luxury’ and called for the break-up of BT’s ‘unsatisfactory monopoly’ over delivery.

Problems with speed were also raised by his constituents at Steyning Parish Council on Monday, where residents were sceptical about any likely improvements.

Last year, fibre broadband with speeds of up to 80Mbps was introduced in Steyning, Storrington, Hassocks and Henfield.

But Steyning Parish Council chairman Phil Bowell said although the main connections may now be fibre optic, the links to each house were still copper.

“No-one is going to do anything about that, are they?” he pointed out at Monday’s meeting.

Another resident spoke from the floor to say it was that connection into a person’s property that made all the difference.

Questions were raised after David Barling, county councillor for Bramber Castle, said his new position as cabinet member for residents’ services included broadband.

He said local authorities had been left to pick up the pieces after BT had dealt with all the ‘profitable’ areas.

The Better Connected programme in West Sussex should mean 90 per cent of the county was covered in phase one and a further five per cent in phase two, he added.

In the Commons debate, Mr Herbert welcomed the Government’s commitment to give 95 per cent of households access to superfast broadband by 2017.

But he cited a report by The Rural West Sussex Partnership, a branch of the Local Enterprise Partnership Coast to Capital, which said the real coverage achieved might be as low as 85 per cent.

Mr Herbert said: “We have to look ahead and test whether what is being done will be sufficient to ensure access for those in rural areas who will not benefit from the programme.”

Mr Herbert recognised the ‘tremendous improvement’, which reflected the initiative of the Government and the county council and said towns and villages in his constituency were being connected one by one.

But despite the progress, the latest figures showed only half of his constituency had access to superfast broadband, placing it in the bottom 100 of parliamentary constituencies.

The MP urged: “We should not be fixated on the fibre-based solution, which will never be realistic in the hardest-to-reach rural areas.

“In those areas, wireless technology or access to 4G or faster mobile data signals will become the solution.”

He called for BT’s infrastructure delivery subsidiary to be split off and potentially broken up ‘to inject more competition’ and improve customer service.

Mr Herbert underlined the need to ensure that future subsidy was directed to the areas which the market would not supply, and pointed out it was often these areas where people did not have access to mobile phone data coverage, either, so were therefore effectively disconnected.

The Better Connected programme is investing £20million into the network infrastructure.