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Mr. Timms: I am glad to do so. Let me give my hon. Friend an example from Oakham, the county town of Rutland, where in March I visited Rutland Online, which employs 15 people. It started six years ago by hosting websites and providing e-commerce solutions for businesses in the area, but broadband has become an increasingly major part of what it is doing. There is no broadband service at all in Oakham today, but in the next few months three separate broadband services will be established. An operator called Independent Networks is taking orders and will use local loop unbundling to provide the first broadband service in the area. On 21 May, BT expects to upgrade its local exchange for ADSL, the registration trigger threshold having been reached. Later on, Rutland Online will establish a wireless broadband service with which it expects to be able to support 60 small and medium-sized enterprise users. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that the fact that by that time there will be two other broadband services in the area is not deterring

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Rutland Online from introducing the wireless service as well. There is therefore potential for wireless and other solutions to coexist.

The main obstacle to the provision of more affordable broadband in rural areas concerns the fact that the initial investment required to provide broadband by any technology other than satellite is expected to obtain a slower return in rural areas, where there are fewer people within a given distance and where the cost of backhaul is likely to be greater than in areas of high population density. The so-called backhaul issue—the cost of connecting a local exchange or a new wireless base station to the core network—is a major barrier to the extension of broadband to rural areas. Rutland Online, for example, told me that of the £90,000 cost of providing a service for two years backhaul will account for £50,000. However, there are ways forward, including alternative technologies which can do the job more cheaply and, in particular, realise the potential of plans for public sector broadband connectivity in the way in which I have described. In the west midlands, it is envisaged that the network that I described could be used to provide backhaul for wireless broadband services in rural areas. That is an important part of the solution for rural areas.

ADSL, of course, is not the only solution, although it will be available to a substantial proportion of the rural population in time. We have talked about satellite, and there are schemes to help small and medium-sized enterprises gain access to satellite broadband, including the remote area broadband inclusion trial or RABBIT initiative, and other satellite schemes such as those led by the south-east RDA and Yorkshire Forward. Over 1,000 small rural firms across the country have benefited from those schemes so far, with the provision of funding towards the cost of a satellite connection. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has drawn attention to the importance of wireless, and there are already pilot projects such as those in Alston and Hawkshead in Cumbria and Tendring in Essex which use wireless technology to get broadband to residents and SMEs. I am sure that we will hear of other examples in our debate. I hope that the imminent auction of 3.4 GHz wireless licences will help to spread wireless broadband a lot further.

I should like to draw attention to an imaginative development that has taken place since the launch of the Alston Cybermoor project in Cumbria 18 months ago. With public financial support to help get the project going, it addressed issues of economic regeneration, lifelong learning and access to electronic Government services. It has been successful, and has achieved over 300 local connections and five public access points, but now faces the problem of how to keep going. Local residents have taken the initiative by adopting a social enterprise model, and have registered as a co-operative that other residents can join and help to develop. They have mutualised the public sector investment, and other communities could benefit from looking carefully at that example.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) talked about what has been happening in Canada. On a recent visit there, I met someone who was concerned about the steady economic decline of his rural community and had set up a not-for-profit organisation to roll out a fixed wireless

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broadband network, providing affordable broadband access to homes and businesses in the region. That service is now serving a community of 100,000 residents. A social enterprise and co-operative model may well be the way forward for areas in the UK as well.

Brian White: One problem is the availability of skills so that people can provide those services. While the learning and skills councils often concentrate on people who need basic skills, there is not much support for people who need medium skills that would allow those companies to develop. Will my hon. Friend address that issue?

Mr. Timms: I know that my hon. Friend welcomed very much the launch of e-skills UK on 8 April. He is right about the need to focus on those technical skills, which is a high priority for us. When the Government publish the skills strategy on which the DTI is working with the Department for Education and Skills and other Departments, he will see that intermediate technical skills are of particular importance to it.

Another interesting possibility is the use of the electricity infrastructure for broadband, with the so-called Powerline technology for delivering broadband along ordinary electricity cables. Some of the £30 million UK broadband fund has been used on projects in Crieff and Campbeltown on trials of that technology, and other projects are planned in Stonehaven and Winchester, the results of which will be interesting.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): While my hon. Friend is holding forth on the range of different technologies that can deliver broadband, will he turn his attention to the future prospects of broadband? I entirely accept that some Members are frustrated that their communities cannot even receive ADSL, but it will be important for the UK to ensure that as the widespread delivery of even higher band widths becomes increasingly economic we begin to ensure that people have the skills to deliver to the user products and services that will take advantage of 10 megabytes and higher speeds.

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the fact that in due course we will need to do a great deal of further work on the capacity and availability of much higher speed networks. Whereas 93 per cent. of public libraries have broadband at 2 megabytes a second or more, Middlesbrough libraries are adopting a broadband capacity of 2 gigabytes a second. Undoubtedly, we will need to address that much more widely in due course.

I shall work closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of broadband. Together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we are collecting information on current projects and best practice in rural areas. The Countryside Agency has commissioned research, due to report this month, which looks at best practice in a number of projects. Research has been carried out on evidence of the use of broadband to increase productivity of businesses in rural areas, which account for a third of UK small businesses.

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The challenge of broadband is an important economic challenge for the UK. Delivering broadband will be an important step towards improving public services, raising productivity and promoting inclusion, and it is important that in due course every part of the country should be able to benefit and not just a few.

I hope that I have reassured the House today that we have made good progress, but that the Government are determined to address the significant challenges that remain, and to maintain and build on the rate of progress that we have seen over the past year, so that the rich promise of broadband Britain can be fulfilled.

2.10 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I was interested in the Minister's speech and in his announcement about the director of broadband. That is a positive development, although we urge the Government to go further.

If I may say so, to hold the debate today is perverse. The topic is enormously important, as the Minister rightly said. It is especially important for rural areas that cannot get access to broadband, whereas urban areas generally find it easier to get access. The Minister will know of the Country Land and Business Association's campaign on rural access to broadband. However, almost all rural Members are currently in their constituencies supporting their local candidates, so we are left with a few hon. Members present, including one or two from rural areas. I am not sure whether Milton Keynes counts as rural, but let us assume so.

Brian White indicated assent.

Mr. Robathan: My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—who led a debate on 25 March—and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), both of whom were particularly keen to be present for the debate, have had to apologise because they had to go back to their constituencies.

Lawrie Quinn: My area, which is England's largest rural county, North Yorkshire, is, as I said in my earlier intervention, making a considerable impact in delivering broadband to rural areas. The experiments in e-enablement of the electoral process allow hon. Members present today to vote via the internet or other mechanisms. That is reaching all parts of the country.


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