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John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): The hon. Gentleman is chastising the Minister, but does he not agree that it does not matter how good the equipment is, because people depend on the distant end and how good that is? A lot of his figures sound good but, in effect, we all need to be in the same system for it to work as he is saying.
Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I chastised the Minister only for claiming that we are doing so well in the international league. Patently, we are not. That is because the definition of broadband that the Government use is patently wrong. It includes very slow mechanisms for transmitting data. That is why Lord Northesk introduced the definition of high-speed data transfer. ISDN is low-speed data transfer; broadband does not include ISDN.
Brian White: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that many of the countries to which he refers have had Government intervention to secure their advantage in broadband. Is he advocating Government intervention, or does he believe that the market will supply broadband?
Michael Fabricant: I never believe that the market alone can provide all that is required in modern society. The Government always have to intervene in one way or another. Whether this Government should intervene by helping to fund BT to ensure the wider and more rapid expansion of true broadband is a matter that the hon. Gentleman will have to put to the Minister.
Will my hon. Friend join me in my concern over rural areas? Even if we have a rough idea of what broadband will be in urban areasI am very glad that BT has, after my intervention, reduced the level of indicated subscriptions required in Wellington in Somersetin rural areas there are still huge problems about what broadband will be, let alone what size it will be. Could it be satellite or micro-link? In places such as Exmoor, there is no chance whatever of BT building super-highways through the hills.
My hon. Friend is also a strong advocate for people who live in rural areas. The Countryside Alliance, among other organisations, has pointed out the huge divide between urban and rural societies over access to broadband. When the Earl of Northesk introduced his amendment No. 5 in another place, which we now welcome, in this great Government conversion, and asked that this matter be included as a function of Ofcom and that the expression "high-speed data transfer" be used instead of "broadband", he pointed out that
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) asked about other means of broadband connection than cable. Yes, that can be achieved by low-orbit satellite systemsalthough they have their disadvantagesand by wireless matrix connections.
My hon. Friend knows that I have been campaigning for a long time to get broadband rolled out in the Cotswolds. I held a conference a week ago last Friday with the Federation of Small Businesses to try to provoke BT into more action on reducing its target thresholds for the small rural exchanges in my constituency. It is quite clear from that conference that alternative wireless technologies, including low-orbiting satellites, are being rolled out rapidly. If BT is not more proactive in its various technologies such as piggybacking exchanges, which we learnt about at the conference, it will simply be left behind. The business men in my constituency consider that there will be technological apartheid, compared with their urban counterparts, if broadband is not rolled out in rural areas.
Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful for his kind comments. We indeed entered the House at the same time. He is a very doughty advocate for his constituents who live in rural areas that are not served by broadband. When the countryside is experiencing such economic difficulty, the Government are quite rightly asking people working in the countryside, particularly farmers, to diversify. One of the means by which they can do that is using web services, but they can use web services, and download pictures quickly only if they are able to use broadband. That is not possible using double ISDN, which, in any other country, would not be classified as broadband. Again, I remind the House that the false claims made by the Government about the expansion of broadband in this country are patently not true.
Another good reason why it is important not to use the term "broadband" was raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda when he mentioned the possibility of there being much faster speeds. I argue that there will be faster speeds. I would use the term "wideband", and there is no doubt in my mind that a time will come, perhaps five, 10 or 15 years from now, when television stations will be able to stream video from any part of the world. Whereas at present we can watch that through services such as Real Networks, which produces a rather herky-jerky picture, as it is known, we will then be able to enjoy pictures every bit as good as digital television is now. Incidentally, that means that the Bill will become almost irrelevant to broadcasting. At that stage, viewers will be able to watch television from any television station in the world that chooses to transmit its systems through wideband.
Mr. Bryant: One is reminded of a song, "You say wideband, I say broadband". None the less, the important point is that the hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating giving widespread grants in rural areas to BT. That would wholly undermine the competitive nature of the market that we are trying to develop. Surely, if there is no killer application that people want to use, the idea of having broadband passing by their
Michael Fabricant: Just to put the matter straight, I have advocated no such thing. When I was asked about it by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East, I suggested that he ask his Front Benchers about it.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), because it is exactly on his point that I want to intervene on my hon. Friend. We could encourage greater roll-out of broadband by using the roll-out that the Government will inevitably have to undertake for schools and to meet their e-commerce targets. Ofcom has a role here, so this Lords amendment is highly pertinent. It was raised during my conference that Chipping Campden school in my constituency gets broadband through a broad pipe, but that businesses surrounding that school cannot get it. Ofcom has a role in ensuring that such anomalies can be sorted out.
Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. He is not the only one to have had that argument presented to him. There is a whole argument over whether schools given access to ADSL through a broad pipe should become a node, from which links could be provided to businesses and other people who wish to access broadband. There are some technical difficulties with that over the speed at which data can be transmitted to and fro.
I am sure that the Minister will go into considerable detail about the technical difficulties applying to both ADSL and local networks. One possibility, though, was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), who suggested the use of cells and microwave links for the provision of broadband on a broad512 kilobytes per secondbasis.
Let me stress again the importance of the Government amendment, notwithstanding the lateness of the conversion. We owe a debt of gratitude to Lord Northeskwho was, I believe, one of the first to coin the phrase "high-speed data transfer", recognising that there would be wideband in the future. I hope that the Government will now finally recognise that a speed of 128 kilobytes per second does not constitute broadband. Let me paraphrase what was said by an American senator, changing it ever so slightly: "I have seen broadband, I have met broadband, and believe me, 128 kilobytes per second is no broadband."
The Bill covers an enormous number and a wide range of issues. As chair of the all-party group on telecommunications, I am pleased to have an opportunity to express my wish for all who want access to broadband to have it. I feel, however, that "broadband" is essentially a brand name: at the end of the day, it is not what communications are about. In
Significant action will be required from Ofcom. I share the Government's goal of making Britain the most dynamic broadband market in the G7 countries. I appreciate what the Government have already done in appointing an e-envoy charged with the task of promoting roll-out and take-up of broadband, but huge areas of the country have no access to broadband, and we need to do more. The Government must invest in broadband to ensure that it exists in those areas.
Broadband allows access to a greater range of services, and it is about more than just personal need and empowerment. It is of huge economic importance to the United Kingdom. Studies have shown the obvious benefits to community regeneration, but there will be wider economic benefits to the whole nation if we can achieve much wider broadband access than we have now. Without the necessary investment, some parts of the country will have fewer services and perhaps even a lower standard of living. Words are not as important as deeds, and the Government should invest, butunlike other MembersI do not think that a single company should benefit from all the investment.
I share the Government's commitment to widespread broadband provision by 2005. Given its regulatory role, it is essential for Ofcom's general remit to include making universal access to broadband a priority, and for flexible regulation to contribute to that aim. Ofcom should therefore be set specific clear and continuing objectives in regard to broadband development, to ensure the success of broadband in Britain and to overcome the troubles that have been experienced with local loop unbundling. That should feature expressly in the policy framework that Ofcom is set annually by the Government. We should also ensure that universal service is specifically protected and extended.
The Bill will set a framework for the communications industry for the next decade. It should take account of the fact that making broadband available is a huge challenge. We must look ahead. I want to ensure that the Bill covers broadband and its extra use and increasing width, and that we do not have to stick to a limit that is, as it were, bought off the shelf in the marketplace. Future expansion must be covered.
As I have said, I welcome the Bill and endorse the Government's amendment. I am glad that these provisions will soon be on the statute book, but I am keen to enable the Government to improve the Bill further.