Having lived and run a business in a rural community for some twenty years I know how vital good connectivity is not only for effective business but sometimes to achieve something as simple as a chat! For those who live and work in some of our more isolated areas faster speeds are of particular importance, as we move onto digital platforms for everything from healthcare to commerce, it is vital our area is not left behind.
Currently, 90% of the UK has the provision of superfast broadband- this being internet connection speeds of up to 300Mbps- and by the end of next year, this will have reached 95%. This country leads Europe in delivering on all levels of connectivity; broadband speed, coverage and a competitive market and according to statistics, the UK remains the largest e-commerce industry in the world. This is outstanding progress, considering only 45% of the country had access to superfast broadband, back in 2010.
However, there still remains the essential task of delivering superfast connectivity to the remaining 5% of UK homes- namely rural areas like Suffolk. The diversity of the remaining 5% of homes in their rural settings, makes full connectivity particularly challenging. The Queen’s Speech delivered a commitment to a Broadband Universal Service Obligation, giving every UK resident a legal right to demand access to high speed broadband. This commitment is paramount, for in my mind, broadband is a ‘fourth utility’, with around 94% of small businesses believing broadband to be essential to their operation.
Currently, my constituency only has 80% coverage, leaving around 10,000 households without sufficient connectivity. I have built up a mapped network of affected areas from constituents contacting me in Bury St Edmunds to Stowmarket, to small villages such as Felsham and Bacton. What has become apparent is that the delivery of rural broadband is not just about one provider- BT Openreach. Furthermore in recent months, the commitment to deliver the final phase of connectivity has been called into question, as the debate became increasingly uncertain of the viability of full connectivity.
It is predicted that by 2020, still 20% of households in Bury St Edmunds will be without high speed coverage. Residents should expect access to high speed internet irrespective on where they live. The use of outdated copper technology from BT Openreach is insufficient in delivering connectivity and offers no hope of a long term plan for UK digital innovation. This is why I have taken active steps to try and drive forward the delivery of rural broadband.
In January 2016, I put my name to a report titled Broadbad calling for Ofcom, as the regulator, to take action over the 'natural monopoly' of BT Openreach. By contributing to this report, I want to see Ofcom work to redress the efficacy of BT Openreach's service which up till now, leaves the majority of my constituents without high speed connection and a number without a connection at all.
I have and will continue to draw together Ministers, representatives from BT Openreach, local authorities and affected households. With the commitment of the Universal Broadband Service Obligation to a “demand-led approach”, it is vital customers – especially in rural areas - demand more from BT Openreach. To facilitate this, I will be hosting a series of meetings with BT Openreach as well as on site visits through the smaller villages of my constituency. I implore households receiving a poor broadband to reach out and demand more; from BT Openreach and from this Government.