Rural broadband and digital-only services - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. The Government plan to "achieve transformation in broadband in the UK by 2017".[1] This transformation includes basic broadband at a speed of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) for all by 2016 and access to superfast broadband at a speed of 24 Mbps for 95% of the UK by 2017. This plan is co-ordinated by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and is split into three phases: phase one aims to provide superfast broadband to 90% of premises in the UK by 2016; phase two seeks to extend superfast broadband coverage to 95% of premises by 2017; and phase three will test options to rollout superfast beyond the 95%. Phase one is reaching its final stages; phase two will be launched in 2016.[2]

2. The rollout plans are delivered through 44 local bodies. In England each local authority has been allocated funding and each county council or local enterprise partnership leads broadband rollout in its area, draws up an effective delivery plan and matches Government investment with European, and their own or private funds. Funding has also been allocated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.[3] BT are at the centre of the broadband rollout programme, having won all phase one contracts from local councils to deliver the project.[4] Phase two contracts are currently being discussed.[5] There is no indication that a rigorous evaluation of phase one is planned before phase two begins.[6]

3. The transformation of broadband in the UK runs alongside a separate Government digital strategy to make Government services 'digital-by-default'.[7] This will be rolled out across all Government departments and each department is expected to have its own digital strategy plan.

4. We have been concerned that the Government's move towards digital-by-default services is premature, and is based on an incorrect assumption that delivery of basic broadband coverage (2 Mbps) is complete and that adequate broadband coverage exists to enable the public particularly in rural areas to use exclusively online Government services.

5. The launch of a new online-only Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) application process provides a timely example of the Government's digital-by-default strategy. We invited representatives from those charged with delivery of the broadband programme and representatives from rural and farming interest groups, to give evidence.

6. Over two evidence sessions, the Committee heard from BT, the CLA, the Rural Payments Agency, the National Association of Local Councils, the National Farmers Union, Tenant Farmers Association, Broadband Delivery UK, the Cabinet Office and Defra. We received 81 pieces of written evidence[8]. The written submissions and transcripts of two oral evidence sessions are published on our website. We are grateful to all who provided evidence.

7. We have been keen throughout this inquiry to make sure that enough focus is placed on those who have no access to superfast broadband. There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the 5% of premises who have none. There is a risk of poor rural broadband availability causing harm to farm businesses and the rural economy. It is essential that those who are 'hardest-to-reach' are given priority.

1   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 'Broadband Delivery UK,' accessed 23 January 2015  Back

2   Q160 Back

3   Fixed Broadband: Policy and Speeds 2014, Standard note SN06643, House of Commons Library, December 2014  Back

4   Local Government Association (RBB 0090) para 2  Back

5   Q176 Back

6   Shropshire and Marches Campaign for Better Broadband in Rural Areas (RBB 0009) para 1  Back

7   Cabinet Office, 'Government Digital Strategy: December 2013,' accessed 23 January 2015  Back

8   House of Commons Select Committee, 'Environment Food and Rural Affairs', accessed 28 January 2015  Back

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Prepared 3 February 2015