Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Will not two problems relate to the issue of connection of schools, bearing in mind the huge expenditure that the Government have committed to it? Obviously we all want to see schools connected. First, there are large parts of the country where pupils may be able to use broadband at school but will not be able to do their homework on it because the areas in which they live are not connected to it. Secondly, having invested a great deal of money in connecting schools, that will be of no use to the community because the network goes through the Government network and therefore cannot be used as an access route for the rest of the community.

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue on which I want to spend quite a lot of time. Essentially, I believe that there are ways of leveraging the investment that will be made in broadband for public services to extend access to those services to other users. I shall explain in a little more detail how I see that happening. The hon. Gentleman may be familiar with the Cambridgeshire schools' broadband project, which is demonstrating clear benefits in time saved and much greater use of online educational resources. That has translated into increased levels of attention—particularly from boys, and we know that under-achievement on the part of boys is a key challenge for schools—and improvements in performance. That is what we want to see throughout the school system.

Every doctor's surgery will have at least a 256 kilobytes per second connection by March 2004. There will be larger facilities of 2 megabytes per second and more. Patients will have electronic records so that, wherever they are in the national health service, all the

1 May 2003 : Column 447

key details about their medical history will be accessible by the professionals responsible for their care. Through the new NHS university, professional development material will be delivered online via broadband to NHS staff at their place of work, with the Government investing in their skills.

The criminal justice system will be transformed from the paper-based system that is now in operation. We shall see radial changes as well in local government.

As well as delivering these important improvements to public services, the investment in broadband by the public services as a customer will provide the opportunity to extend access to broadband services into many communities where they are not available at present.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North East): My hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable work that is done in Canada, where those involved examined the barriers that stopped communities using various networks and opened up the different networks to communities. Will my hon. Friend assure us that the efforts that were made in Canada will be replicated by Government Departments in this country, and that we will not have the mentality that prevents universal access?

Mr. Timms: I agree with my hon. Friend. There are some important lessons for us to learn from what has been achieved in Canada. I agree with him also about the direction in which we need to go. I shall explain how we see us making a reality of that. In principle, once the school or the doctor's surgery in a community has broadband, there should be the opportunity for others in that community to access the services provided by it. To make a reality of that possibility by organising the demand from public services in aggregating them and so creating a viable business case for the provision of broadband in areas where it is not yet available will be the key. That is in line with the Canadian experience and experience elsewhere, and will lead to the next phase of broadband development in the UK.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): As I understand it, many public service connections are delivered down a dedicated private line. Is the Minister saying that all these private lines will be accessible to public use at some stage in the near future?

Mr. Timms: I shall explain how I see these things going forward. I can tell the House that I shall be chairing a ministerial steering group with representatives from each of the major Government Departments to drive forward the development of this project and to ensure that we make it a success. It will ensure that individual departmental programmes contribute to the greatest degree possible to broadband roll-out in the UK, while also ensuring that the Departments are provided with value-for-money services that are consistent with the targets and timetables which they have set. The regional developmental agencies will be involved as well, and a project board will direct day-to-day running. I can announce the appointment this week of a director for broadband in the Department of Trade and Industry,

1 May 2003 : Column 448

who will be delivering on an important recommendation that was made to us by the Broadband Stakeholder Group in its most recent report.

We have quite a short window of opportunity given the imminence of substantial public sector investments in broadband. We need to establish the balance of demand aggregation between national and regional levels, and set up structures to carry out aggregation and procurement in an efficient way. The project will play a big part in extending broadband availability for public sector use throughout the country. To answer the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) specifically, we shall be ensuring that the infrastructure investment being delivered will make broadband more widely available. That is available to small and medium-sized enterprises and others in areas where broadband has not been available until now, so giving a major boost to the economy in rural areas in particular.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Will the Minister kindly tell us who is to be the director of broadband? Will it be a career civil servant or someone from the private sector?

Mr. Timms: It will be a career civil servant from the Department of Trade and Industry.

An interesting example is provided by what has been happening in the west midlands. Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, spotted that in its area the contracts for two broadband networks—both of them were in the education network—were up for renewal this summer. One of the networks is serving all the schools in the region and the other is serving all the universities. By bringing both networks into a single contract, it will be possible to offer all the users greater functionality for the same price. After that, the intention is to open up the infrastructure to users outside the public sector—for example, to provide the backhaul into the telecommunications network for wireless broadband initiatives serving rural areas. Final contract negotiations are taking place with a company, Synetrix, and the preferred telecommunications supplier will be the cable company Telewest. Once they have their infrastructure in place, other users outside the public sector will be able to take advantage of the system as well.

Lawrie Quinn: Is it not the case that the flexibility of the project that my hon. Friend has outlined underpins the development of broadband in Britain? When his group is looking for good quality examples throughout the country, will it make particular reference to the mobile set-up that has been brought forward by the Discovery project of North Yorkshire county council, which goes out to some of the most rural and isolated parts of the county, including my constituency, and affords the linkages while debunking some of the myths about the so-called digital divide?

Mr. Timms: That sounds like a welcome initiative. There is much work to be done in communicating the benefits of the technology and ensuring that business users and other users understand them.

It is sometimes suggested that we need a generalised subsidy to make broadband happen in the UK. I do not agree with that. That is not the way to get a competitive

1 May 2003 : Column 449

and sustainable broadband market throughout the country. I think that we shall see, through competition between the service providers, the momentum that will drive the roll-out that we need. However, there will be cases where the market will not deliver and targeted support may well be needed. Where the lack of broadband availability is a limiting factor in economic regeneration, that can be a justification for using existing funds for regional economic development. The RDAs have £1.8 billion at their disposal in the coming year. We have seen the success of that approach in Cornwall's ACT NOW project, which I mentioned, which draws also on European Union funding.

Companies are coming forward with proposals to address these issues while recognising that we need to achieve a competitive outcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to the work that BT has done in coming forward with five models, building on its experience with ACT NOW, which are applied to other circumstances and allowing for open tendering so that other operators can bid for contracts as well. These models have merit as a general framework for a partnership approach to developing broadband schemes that maximise the prospects for competition in the supply of broadband for areas where there is now none.

Mr. Drew: I appreciate the Minister giving way again—he has been characteristically generous with his time. Does he accept that there is a difficulty in rural areas, where community campaigns do not regard ADSL as a solution, usually on economic grounds? As he knows, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking evidence on this topic at the moment, and we were impressed by the campaign to bring broadband to Blewbury, which has gone for a wireless solution. If people go for a solution other than ADSL, people who join up need to be aware that ADSL is not going to come in afterwards and sweep away the investment that has been put in. I should therefore be grateful if my hon. Friend would comment on the need to guarantee that communities that are looking for innovative solutions will not have their legs cut away from under them afterwards.


Next Section

IndexHome Page