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Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, I support the amendment. It is a better one than the noble Earl moved in Committee not least because it has changed "broadband" into "high speed data transfer". He is right to call for a proactive role for Ofcom in this field. There is a tendency for Acts of Parliament to be drafted by people who live in cities and competition crops up in this Bill every second line.

The real problem with high speed data transfer is not regulating competition but getting anyone to provide the service at all outwith urban areas. Let me again remind the House that one-third of the British public does not have the opportunity of taking up broadband—or high speed data transfer. I must confess that the shorthand of "broadband" trips off the tongue more easily. Let us forget the business of urban deprivation and so forth for the moment. No matter how well off you are, you will not receive broadband in rural areas. Are we just going to sit back and allow Ministers to talk about their higher take-up in some urban areas in order to keep everyone quiet or are we going to do something about it? If so, which body should be doing something about it? In my view, it should be Ofcom. Regulation is not a negative act; it is a positive act. It tries to bring about a better good. To that extent, it is a sound idea to give Ofcom a proactive role in bringing about the wider access to high speed data transfer.

I am therefore pleased that the noble Earl, while retaining his legitimate enthusiasm for competition, has inserted the words "as appropriate", recognising that it is not a universal system. He has also included the words "throughout the United Kingdom", emphasising the importance of universality of provision, which is a fundamental tenet of public service broadcasting.

There is a grave danger that we shall end up with urban competition and rural deprivation. We need to do something about that and I support the amendment.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, in supporting the amendment, I want to raise three issues. One is that of definition. The noble Earl mentioned the delivery of high speed data transfer. There has been confusion about where narrow band ends and broadband starts. The Government appear to be using 128 kilobytes as the starting point, but most consumers expect broadband to be 500 kilobytes or more. What is the Government's definition of broadband speed?

I should declare an interest as chairman of the trustees of Citizens Online, which is a UK charity committed to universal, affordable access—and that by 2005. Broadband rollout in the UK is in its comparative infancy. While 45 per cent of UK households have access

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to the Internet, only 13 per cent have broadband access. However, 66 per cent of United Kingdom households could have broadband if they wanted it. My concern is that there ought to be greater and more affordable access to broadband services outside the major cities.

While there are increasing numbers of competitors in the urban areas offering broadband services, unfortunately with the falling prices of bandwidth it is becoming increasingly uncompetitive for companies to operate broadband services in rural areas. For effective and affordable rollout in rural areas, it should not be left simply to the free-market forces. Here the Government need to play an important role. Her Majesty's Government need to promote broadband, particularly if they want to achieve their stated objectives of not only universal access by 2005 but also,


    "the most extensive and broadband competitive market among the G7".

That is not achievable if it is left simply to free-market forces.

It is well known that the Government took almost 22 billion from 3G licences. What provision has been made of that money to assist in broadband rollout? It is only right that Ofcom should play a proactive role in the rollout and for that reason I support the amendment.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I, too, am happy to support the amendment. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, with a particular sense of feeling. For more than half the year I live in an area of Wales where I am extremely unlikely to be able to obtain the benefits of broadband, at least in the foreseeable future. It is in a part of the UK where government are taking some valuable initiatives and I pay tribute to the Welsh Assembly for those.

However, during the weekend, I saw a map of those parts of the UK where one can receive the benefits of broadband. It is startling because it shows how confined in geographic terms those areas are. Virtually the whole of Scotland and Wales and large parts of England are not covered at all. I am therefore sure that there is a need for proactive measures.

I listened to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, about the nature of broadband. I sometimes believe that what we in this country are now taking credit for might be called "narrow country lane band" compared with the highways and motorways that are being planned and constructed in some other countries. The width is of great importance. If one provides adequate width, one can receive all kinds of services, but the providers will not attempt to enter the market if the lanes are too narrow.

Last year, some of us attended a presentation by BT. The chairman of BT, who is a good friend of mine, gave us an eloquent address on how well it was doing. I then said to him, "Okay, I know what you are doing, but what about what I call broadband?"—I meant in the sense to which I have referred. He said, "Oh, it will

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take at least 10 years before we can contemplate that". I said, "I'm going to throw back at you a remark that was once made in a Cabinet committee by the then Prime Minister, my noble friend Lady Thatcher, when a similar remark was made by an unfortunate Minister. She said, 'You mean it's going to take longer than the duration of two world wars put together. Quite a lot of technological achievement was made during two world wars. Surely we can do better than that.'".

We must realise that if we are to achieve what can be achieved we must set the sights high and take proactive measures. I am sure that Ofcom has an important role to play in that and therefore I warmly support the amendments moved by my noble friend.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, broadband communications for every citizen in the United Kingdom has become like motherhood and apple pie—it is something you have to have. What we can do to encourage Ofcom in this regard is worthwhile. However, Ofcom already has a general duty to further the interests of the community as a whole in relation to communications matters, so by extension it has a particular duty to do what is possible within its powers to further the extension of broadband to the remaining one-third of households in the United Kingdom which at present do not have access to it.

Under Clause 3(2)(b), Ofcom has a particular duty to promote,


    "the availability throughout the United Kingdom of a wide range of electronic communications services",

which must include high speed data communications.

In Clause 3(3)(e), it must have regard to,


    "the desirability of encouraging investment and innovation in relevant markets".

So Clause 3 contains several provisions which ought to encourage Ofcom to do the kind of things which the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, and everyone else would like to see.

They are gradually being done. The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, spoke about the 3.4 gigahertz auction that has just taken place which would enable the operators concerned to offer fixed-wireless access in areas not covered by the cable industry or BT. That could, who knows, include rural Wales. It would be fascinating to see how soon the licence holders would roll out services to consumers. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, that it was a pity that there was nothing in the auction that obliged the winners to roll out services within a given time. I hope that that will be borne in mind in the case of future auctions. The Minister, Stephen Timms, said that the Government's aim was that every community in the UK should have access to affordable broadband services. I hope that that means at prices similar to those that are enjoyed at the moment by users of cable and telephone services.

I welcome the development of wireless broadband, which could be a powerful stimulus to competition. Looking ahead to later amendments, can the Minister say whether the purchases of the 3.4 gigahertz licences will be deemed to have recognised spectrum access

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under Clause 156 when the Bill comes into effect? When will the Government auction further parts of the spectrum to encourage the growth of wireless broadband, which is the only means of reaching the rural communities that everyone wishes to have access to high speed data communications?

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I declare an interest as the chairman of an ISP company that provides broadband and conventional services. It is correct that broadband services are only available in major industrial conurbations and large cities. Many large rural towns are denied that service. To provide broadband services would require a substantial, and probably barely economic, investment in fibre optic landlines under the ground by the operators and cable companies. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has indicated, the way forward will be wireless broadband. That will be the most effective way of reaching many of the more remote parts of the country.

That should be encouraged, not just by Ofcom. Even the original Oftel had an encouraging role. For example, it encouraged the competition of the Mercury network with BT. As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, said, it had a positive role—not just an entirely negative or policing role. Ofcom should have that role in this area. I suspect that it probably has that role under Clause 3, and I suppose that the amendment reinforces that, so I shall certainly support it. However, the Government should also be encouraging in these matters. Ministerial statements saying that it is their objective that everyone should have access to broadband are fine and noble, but the Government are a government of adjectives. For them to say that everyone should have broadband, without providing more positive means of encouragement to achieve it is the great lacuna.

The matter depends upon positive government encouragement and not speeches. I hope that the Government will take that to heart, quite apart from Ofcom.


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