MP highlights poor broadband in Langport

On Tuesday 11 January the nation was working itself into a febrile frenzy. Mostly over what might be said at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

In the ancient and sedate atmosphere of Westminster Hall, other matters were under consideration. Matters that might be just as important in these parts. Specifically the sorry state of broadband in Somerset and Devon. The debate was secured by Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon. It was disappointing to note that only two Somerset MPs attended. One might have thought that this was an important enough issue to engage the other three, but no. Only Marcus Fysh (MP for Yeovil) and David Warburton (MP for Somerton & Frome) batted for Somerset.

Mr Warburton spoke at length. “With endless faults and starts, an ever-changing roll call of companies involved in rolling out ultra-fast broadband across Somerset has achieved much, but there are still many pockets of resistance. Many areas across my constituency lag far behind. A lot of work has been done. I think that 46% of premises nationally in the UK are gibabited up, but Devon and Somerset fall way behind. In my patch, only 13% of premises are fully connected.” He noted more specifically: “In my constituency, Cury Rivel, Sparkford and Langport fall into the worst 10% of areas for download speed and connectivity. They literally lag far behind, and I see this frustration in my inbox every day.” Mr Fysh intervened simply to add Lopen and Over Stratton’s names to the list of those suffering inadequate broadband.

Mr Warburton went on to add “The Government were elected on a promise to level up the UK, and I hugely welcome the investment we have had in physical infrastructure across the south-west; we are beginning to see the results of that. We are starting to bridge that physical divide....” It was not clear what he had in mind here. The endless delays to the A358 scheme, the hopeless attempts to electrify the line from Paddington to Bristol? The ordering of new dual fuel trains necessitated by the failure of electrification? Or responding to the climate crisis by accelerating plans to make the A303 a dual carriageway.

However he was now getting into his stride “it is bridging the digital divide that will really unlock our counties’ vast economic potential. The problem is that every day that divide grows and we lag further and further behind, which makes it harder and harder to catch up. I say to the Minister that our entrepreneurial zeal needs to be fully unleashed, and digital connectivity is the fibrous ligament that binds us together and acts as a springboard to the future. Like our Norman beacon hills linking villages across the west country, those ligaments strengthen us, our businesses and our communities. They will allow us to react and respond to the needs of tomorrow, so let us grab that opportunity.”

But we all know and understand what the opportunity is. The question is what government will do about it. We have already seen over £150m of money poured into a largely unsuccessful “Connecting Devon & Somerset project. It was late and underdelivered on coverage.

With a minister present to respond to the debate, hopes were high. Julia Lopez is Minister of State for media data and digital infrastructure. There were lots of warm words. She noted “I am keen to work closely with partners such as Vodafone and small and medium-sized enterprises to roll out that technology so that our networks are not only wide reaching but resilient. That ties in with some of the work that we are doing on the shared rural network. We hope those things will tally, because the Open RAN technology is being tested in some of those rural areas first. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

The roll-out of gigabit broadband and the work we are doing on 5G is for me, as Minister for Digital Infrastructure, as much about future-proofing our economy and society as it is about delivering faster internet speeds, as important as that is. We will achieve that primarily through Project Gigabit, with several billion pounds of investment to support nationwide gigabit-capable broadband. The commercial aspect to that gigabit roll-out is the key part of the programme. We want to support commercial activity to go as far as it possibly can, and only then use taxpayers’ money to intervene where it is necessary.

All of which we know. The minister stated a lot of other things that we know. Projects, procurement and innovative approaches all got a mention. What the minister did not seem to grasp, is that despite these things, we don’t have gigabyte broadband. We are uncompetitive as a result. What there wasn’t, was a detail plan to work out why we don’t have these things. Despite their beings projects, procurement and innovative approaches. And without a detailed plan to work out what has gone wrong, there can be no plan to fix it.

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