Up to speed

Ray Collins, Leslie Griffiths and Wilf Stevenson on ensuring UK broadband access is fit for purpose

One of the forgotten successes of the last Labour government was its action to widen access to new digital services. That administration oversaw the rapid rollout of the first generation of fixed broadband, increasing the number of people who could use such services from a tiny minority to half of the population. This shift revolutionised everyday lives, moving us beyond the days of screeching modems and household arguments over access to the landline. People began to work more effectively from home and new forms of small business flourished.

With the advent of fibre broadband, the rollout of a new 5G mobile network and the dominance of the market in providing such services, it is easy to forget the importance of the state in driving the discovery and delivery of technological change. The Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill, which receives its Lords Second Reading today, is another example of how legislation can help improve access to digital services. In this case, to make it easier for telecoms operators to access shared accommodation (e.g. blocks of flats) where tenants request services but landlords fail to respond.

We welcome this change but will use this opportunity to question why the government has not been more ambitious. Telecoms providers are desperate to have the tools necessary to ensure the UK is an infinitely better-connected nation. Yet, at Ministers’ insistence, the universal service obligation being implemented by Ofcom only requires provision of broadband at 10 megabits per second – a speed that many homes already comfortably exceed. That obligation can take up to 24 months to enact if an individual resides in a hard to reach area, meaning a potentially lengthy wait for a sub-optimal product.

In the past high-speed broadband has often been thought of as a luxury. But the recent and very sudden shift to online working has highlighted the need for fast and robust broadband services for all. The internet is now the office of many UK workers and most parliamentarians, with many meetings taking place virtually. It has also become the supermarket for millions of people with underlying health conditions who have been advised to stay at home; and an educational and cultural tool for young people unable to attend their school or university.

A commitment to universal access to fast and reliable broadband featured in Labour’s most recent election manifesto. This recognised how many people have experienced the impact of a decade of backseat driving by the government, and the failure to properly implement second and third generation fixed broadband. High-speed services may be widely available in London and other major cities, but many towns and rural areas have been left behind.

While the ability of such places to be able to catch up is vital, Boris Johnson’s previous commitment to roll out full fibre technology by 2025 seems to have been ditched, leaving the UK tumbling further down the international league table. Our nearest neighbours and economies further afield have embraced high-speed broadband, reaping the rewards of stronger economic growth and higher rates of customer satisfaction.

While the current Bill helps to address one small part of our country’s broadband problem, it could have done so much more. Given the unfolding changes to our way of life, Ministers should be prepared to work with Labour Peers and others to ensure everybody’s broadband connection is fit for purpose.

Ray Collins, Leslie Griffiths & Wilf Stevenson are Labours Peers and members of the frontbench team in the House of Lords

Published 22nd April 2020


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