Broadband provision increasingly important in rural life - Mark Williams
Speaking in a Westminster debate on rural broadband and mobile coverage, Ceredigion's Welsh Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams has argued that broadband in particular has becoming increasingly essential for individuals and businesses, and that it is vital that coverage is ensured across Wales.
Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) last week set out their delivery plan as they aim to provide the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015. £830million will be provided by 2017 to provide broadband in rural areas, and pilots are currently being set up to find the best approach to delivering superfast broadband across the UK.
During the debate, Mr Williams highlighted the importance of broadband to businesses, noting the impact that it can have on farming businesses in particular, and urged for coverage in areas without access to be prioritised.
Commenting, Mark Williams said:
"For many people, broadband has become an increasingly essential part of their lives, and particularly in rural areas where many are further from everyday services, a fast, reliable, internet connection makes a huge difference.
"Rural businesses will benefit hugely from government plans to provide a superfast network, and I have been encouraged by the progress that has been made so far, but there is a lot to do to ensure that what is promised is delivered.
"We need to ensure the widest possible access to broadband, to guarantee that rural areas are able to be economically competitive, as high speed internet access becomes more and more important."
Text of Mark Williams's speech during the debate:
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a privilege to speak in this afternoon's debate, but I arrived with a tinge of anxiety as I suddenly realised that I had not signed the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). I think the point has been illustrated that many outside the Chamber are totally in agreement with what he is trying to achieve this afternoon, particularly in relation to the auction.
In Ceredigion, we have 600 family farms, 147 villages and hamlets and one of the highest proportions of small businesses per head of population anywhere in the United Kingdom. This sounds a little like a maiden speech and I have said these things before but the principles of entitlement are the same for those communities as they are for communities anywhere else. In Ceredigion 20 years ago the debate was about retaining a railway line from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth, but today the issue is about broadband, mobile coverage and people's entitlement. We are past the point at which people in rural communities will stoically make do and now need to make arrangements to have access to broadband; there is an entitlement to have that in those communities.
19 May 2011 : Column 586
I want to associate myself with a point that has been made by many hon. Members this afternoon-the sense of frustration felt by constituents who hear debate in England and other parts of the UK about superfast broadband when they lack any access whatever. I think of the farmer with a haulage company in the village of Trefenter on the edge of the Cambrian mountains who was desperate to expand his business but had to rely on incredibly slow dial-up. We were able to involve a satellite company and ensure that a pilot satellite scheme helped him out in order to nurture and grow his business. As has been pointed out many times in this debate, this is about economic growth and building a vibrant-Welsh, in our case-economy. That is why this debate is so important.
This is also about bridging gaps between people. In the last Parliament, when the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, of which I was and am a member, looked at broadband, we also looked at the social and age divides between people. When a rural bank closes, those who are elderly and who are not switched on or who do not have the motivation to access broadband will be severely disadvantaged in a way that, perhaps, younger people in urban areas have not been, but we lack the basic infrastructure to bridge that gap.
The National Farmers Union of Wales, NFU Cymru, has talked about the importance of broadband to farming businesses-a point that the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) has made. It is important for supporting business-to-customer, business-to-business and business-to-government communications, as well as for providing farmers with opportunities to market their products. There are also the added expectations from the previous Government, and in some cases the current Government, for business to be conducted online. The Government's announcement in 2010 of the compulsory electronic completion of VAT returns for farm businesses with a turnover of more than £100,000 was greeted with great anger in parts of rural Britain because that objective is simply impossible to achieve. Now there is the roll-out of online completion of single application forms by 2016. That cannot be realised until these targets on broadband coverage are met.
Mobile reception is another critical issue in my constituency. I cannot travel from Aberystwyth in the north of Ceredigion to Cardigan in the south and have a phone call at the same time-it would be a lengthy call, as it is a 40-mile route on a bad road-because it is impossible to have a conversation without numerous stops and starts. That is something that we in rural areas have to put up with, while people elsewhere take mobile reception for granted. My constituents cannot ring their MP on his mobile phone and expect an answer if he is in his house-I can receive a phone call on my mobile only if I am standing in the middle of the road outside my house. Those are the frustrations that many people experience.
There has been good progress in Wales. There were good attempts by the Welsh Assembly Government, who were of a different political party, to identify pilot schemes. Two communities in Ceredigion-Cilcennin and Beulah-have benefited from such a pilot scheme. Although I am frustrated that Wales is not included in the pilots that the Government have announced for superfast broadband, I take comfort from the fact that some of the areas identified for the pilots, such as Herefordshire and the highlands and islands, are rural,
19 May 2011 : Column 587
which I hope will allow Wales to learn from the experiences. For me, this debate is simply about entitlement. It is a costly debate about entitlement, but it is an entitlement that we must not forget.