Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 628)



  620. The main Bill, not the little piddling one.
  (Ms Hewitt) I completely agree with what Tessa said and I do not think I need to elaborate.

  621. Can I come back to the question of broadband. It seems to me, in the background, there are two conflicting forces at play. One is the City, which ever since went out of fashion has become very risk-averse again to technology and will therefore invest where there is the least risk, and the least risk is where there is the most people. It is like any other infrastructure investment. It will tend to start in the south east and move out. The other thing, which other Members have touched on and which particularly concerns me with a constituency in the far north of Scotland, is the opportunity that broadband has for business for delivering economic wealth that is sustainable in our areas; to actually change the fact that we currently need a lot of grants, and which therefore would give us the opportunity to have a really sustainable economy. If I can just be very parochial for a moment, I visited a call centre in Alness, which is a very important source of employment that has replaced older industries. I asked the people there what was the one thing they would like to see happen. The answer was broadband. I even asked them what they meant by broadband and it started at 500 and moved up. It seems to me that there is a role for government to make that happen, because private industry will not make that happen due to a lack of incentive or competition. Is that something for one of your departments—I think probably it is the DTI—or is it the Scottish Parliament? How do we actually deliver that opportunity to those kinds of areas?
  (Ms Hewitt) Let me comment, first of all, on your starting point about what the market will and will not do. Of course, the cable companies and then BT, when it was putting ADSL into its exchanges, focused on the areas where they thought they could make some money and there would be enough customers—which is why we have got 55-60 per cent coverage in population terms. I do think the priority, particularly for BT which has made a very, very big investment in ADSL over the last two years, is now, having got its prices down, to get out there and actually advertise and deliver the service, and drive up demand in the areas where ADSL is available. Of course, if that does not happen you then have a knock-on effect and even less incentive to invest beyond the areas where broadband is already available. I am reasonably optimistic about that, but I will be monitoring it very closely as that roll-out starts. That then leaves us with the absolutely crucial issue of the areas where broadband is not commercially available at the moment. Of course, there is a role for government there. There is, I think, an issue perhaps for the regulator to look at which is the cost of leased lines, because when you are talking about your large-scale call-centres and other businesses, at the moment the cost of leased lines, which is the way they will get broadband, is really very high compared to a number of other countries. That is holding back inward investment and other development that will bring employment into rural and other disadvantaged areas. That might be a regulatory issue that we can ask Oftel to look at. More broadly, however, of course there is a role for Government and it is both for my department and for the Scottish Parliament and for the Welsh Assembly. To put it at its simplest, there is a choice there: do we think that government should pay for the whole of the costs of getting broadband infrastructure, using whatever technology, into the parts of the country which are not currently reached? In which case, let us be quite clear that we are going to be competing for that investment along with the even more pressing needs of railways, hospitals, schools and everything else, since—particularly in the case of railways—we are dealing with a failure and an inadequacy of infrastructure investment that goes back a couple of decades. Or do we think the role for Government is actually to partner with the private sector so that we get a combination of public and private sector investment that can get broadband more rapidly into the areas where currently it is not reaching? What we have been trying for some years is a variety of approaches. Chris Bryant will remember the National Assembly for Wales tried an experiment in a remote part of Wales where it helped to pay for ADSL in a BT exchange that certainly would not have been commercial viable. However, the take-up has been very low, which may have to do with the services that were being offered, it may have to do with the price or it may be a combination of both. A different approach is now being taken in another experiment that is currently being done in Cornwall. I have referred, as Andrew has earlier on, to the way in which we can connect up public sector procurement; use that to get a point of presence for broadband connection into a rural village, possibly because the school or library or some other public sector point is being connected, and then, since you have run, probably, fibre up to that point, off that get some other connections that can be accessed by, particularly, small businesses and people who are self-employed, and then open that up generally. That is what we are doing to try to make this happen.

  622. There is a very specific point and it is to do, very much, with broader business use of broadband. Again, this is parochial, but there is a fibre-optic cable that runs up the A9, and in Alness it is a BT-run site. They cannot connect the fibre-optic cable. My concern is that Government has spent a lot of money through various ways bringing 1,000 jobs to Manpower in Thurso and 1,000 jobs to Manpower in Alness and all these other businesses, but if it is left to the private sector what will happen is because those are not alas where the most profits are they will be last on the line and we will lose out to overseas competitors. Therefore, all that money we have already spent to create that wealth, to give us the boost, disappears. I am putting to you that there is a special case for protecting the investment that government has already made.
  (Ms Hewitt) I think that is right, although I am not quite sure if that particular fibre on the A9 is part of the JANET network or a different network. This matters because the procurement that was done for JANET and now Super-JANET, which is the very, very high-speed academic network, was done on terms—rather favourable terms—that make it rather difficult to start exploiting it for commercial purposes. You can get into some desperately technical and complex legal issues here. These are exactly the issues that we are addressing with our colleagues in Scotland so that we ensure that, as far as we possibly can, we exploit fibre connections that have been paid for publicly and then use them to get the investment and the jobs that those communities need.
  (Mr Pinder) Obviously there is a follow-up on the Alness issue. I suspect the Member has had dealings with Dounraey.

  623. Inverness has the oldest BT equipment in the country, apparently.
  (Mr Pinder) We will follow up and write to you separately, if we may, about that. I think it is easy to overlook the fact that this is, as I said earlier, a very new technology and the market is developing really quite rapidly. There is lots and lots of innovation happening out there, which we sometimes kind of overlook by focussing on ADSL and on cables in the larger cities. We have got some money, as you know, £30 million to fund agencies and there is such a thing as executive cells (?) which are doing innovative things to try to get some innovation in just these very areas of rural communities and so on. The Scottish Executive are sponsoring a scheme to get a wireless network into the—not your constituency—Western Isles to try to improve access to rural communities. They are running a scheme to look at how you might transmit broadband along power lines to reach rural areas, and looking at open access networks where rural communities can access broadband in a central place. There are lots and lots of innovation. On top of all that, of course, there is satellite, and in Scotland and Wales there are pilots running, and I hope those pilots will be extended through to the rest of the UK. So let us not get too focussed on ADSL and cable, even though they are mainstream and will be the main means of delivery. There are, in some of these rural communities, some real opportunities for things to happen through the use of alternative technology, and we need—and I need—to keep up the pressure to make sure that sort of thing happens.

Mr Flook

  624. Secretaries of State, I too am going to be rather parochial but from a very community viewpoint, and I hope the national implications are there. I am particularly concerned about the future of Restricted Service Licences and community TV in particular. What I would like to know is how you are going to push further the development of community TV generally, and whether or not you have discussed extending the licence from 4 to 10 years?
  (Tessa Jowell) Perhaps I can start with that and say that the RSLs in relation to radios are better established and we have had more progress in that area than we have in relation to television. The key issue is, as you will be aware, about the availability of spectrum. In relation to access radio, the Radio Authority has very much taken the lead in this. In public policy terms, we want to support the development of community radio, and subject to the availability of spectrum (and this, obviously, is a matter which is under consideration in the spectrum review, on which the consultation has only just finished) in principle we would also favour RSLs in relation to television. Very local radio and very local television has the potential for representing otherwise excluded interests, particularly those of ethnic minorities, and has a role in developing a sense of community identity, and may also have a role in providing an outlet for communication at a particular time—Manchester doing for the Commonwealth Games, or something like that. So in broad terms we support the development of RSLs and that support we will look at in the context of the conclusions from the spectrum review. The Radio Authority had given the go-ahead to 15 access radio pilots and a decision about further quantity and scale will rest very heavily on the outcome and success of those.

  625. I get the impression from your answer that you are skirting around the issue of television and community TV, and the reason for mentioning the word "parochial" is that in Taunton we have one of the few RSLs that are up and running as part of the LBG Group, which is in administration. A number of buyers for that very successful television station are finding trouble with only a four-year licence, where we are already two years into it, and not only just the short length of the licence but the complete absence of any thought about creating a digital platform for those RSLs.
  (Tessa Jowell) I am not skirting around it, I am recognising the practical fact that access radio pilots will take less spectrum than will television. I am very happy to look at the particular point that you make about the length of the licence. There are also other issues which I am quite sure you are aware of; there are concerns that the commercial broadcasters have: "Will these distort the market?" "Will they take advertising from the established commercial broadcasters?" All this is material that we want to try to learn from, on the strength of the 15 radio pilots. I am very happy to look at the specific point you raise in relation to your local television station, and perhaps to write to you, Chairman, about the matter of the length of licence.

  Mr Flook: In particular, because as my colleague earlier said in his first questions, 2006 to 2010 is when you have switch-off for analogue, and that is creating a problem going forward not just for four years but for any investment in local community TV and the need to find a digital platform. Thank you, Chairman.

Rosemary McKenna

  626. It has been a fascinating session, thank you very much, I have enjoyed it so much. My particular interest is universal access to the internet, particularly for the socially excluded. I chair the Scottish Library and IT Council and we have great concern that we are not getting enough access to the socially excluded, whether it be within rural communities or within inner cities. I notice you made a reference to JANET and Super-JANET, which happens to be what we think is the way forward for education and for access. If the socially excluded are not getting access they are further excluded, and the longer it goes on the deeper it gets.
  (Ms Hewitt) I am going to ask Andrew to come in on this in a minute, but let me just say that I absolutely share your concern about making sure that everybody has got not just access in a technical sense but has also got the skills and confidence to use the new technology, particularly internet access. One can say there is universal access already because there is universal access to the telephone line, and if you connect the appropriate piece of kit you can get the internet. However, of course, for people actually to use it and benefit from it requires much more, and I am very struck in the very low-income communities in my constituency—and many, many others I have visited—by how much the various community access points—in community centres and libraries and so on—are valued and used, often by people in their 50s, 60 and 70s, who left school with no qualifications at all and whose confidence is transformed by the discovery that they can use this, and then they move on to get a lot of these new skills. So it is hugely important to us as a policy issue.
  (Mr Pinder) As you know, we have this large number of BT on-line centres to which the libraries make a large contribution. Therefore, when that programme is more or less complete, by the end of the year, all libraries will be on-line and we will have quite dense coverage throughout the UK of open access centres. So, as Patricia said, physical access is there as well. The problem that I foresee is that for many people, particularly socially excluded people, these sorts of places are not necessarily the sorts of places they want to go; they have dropped out of school, perhaps, a little early and the last thing they want to do is go back to something that reminds them of that sort of institution. We have just picked up some work looking at the approachability of UK on-line centres; looking at how we do really focus on these particular groups, who are absolutely our target group. We have got to get hold of these people and get them on-line. We will be publishing that research and getting a discussion going. John Healey (the Minister responsible at DfES for UK on-line centres) and I have been recently talking about this issue and he shares that concern. He is looking at how we might make centres reach out more into the community as well. So we are, as it were, on the case and we do understand the point you are making. Having gone through this initial investment of getting the centres opened, we now need to make sure that those centres, plus other things we can do, really do focus on the disadvantaged.

  627. Libraries are not threatening. People go into their local library and do not feel that it is not somewhere that they are welcome. I think they are very important. There are other areas within the community as well—community centres—and more community schools so that people feel welcome.
  (Ms Hewitt) Can I completely agree with that. Indeed, in my own constituency in the last two weeks I have opened two refurbished community centres where the local authority has put in community learning managers, where there are little IT suites, there is internet access coming and always, when I visit places like that, the most popular course that people are flocking in to sign up for is internet and ICT training. Within the UK online programme we have been doing some really quite imaginative things: internet access in one or two pubs, in a caravan that is part of the travelling fair in the West Midlands, and I suspect we could do more of that. The study that Andrew just referred to has indicated some useful directions.


  628. Thank you very much indeed. We are most grateful to you for coming this morning and that concludes the public hearings of this inquiry.
  (Ms Hewitt) Thank you very much.
  (Tessa Jowell) Thank you.

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