The Government is set to miss its target of getting 90% of homes connected to superfast broadband before 2015
As a rural MP, I have had dozens of local residents write to me – yes, often with good old-fashioned paper and pen – because they are not convinced the promised broadband scheme will be available to them.
Superfast broadband sounds fantastic.
But it’s a thorny business.
There seem to be two main problems.
One: Government forgets that many, many people live a long way from London and other major towns and cities.
And in their wisdom, Ministers have allowed BT – the only provider – to start with strengthening the coverage in towns which already have broadband and then to work outwards into the rural areas.
This is completely mad.
What ‘superfast rural broadband’ means to me is starting in those parts of England with no coverage and working back into the towns. Not the other way round.
The difficulties in rural areas are often made worse rather than better by Government’s modernisation – putting everything online – of its own systems.
I’ll give you a few examples.
I represent 164 small rural communities, with another 10 large villages, market towns and England’s smallest city.
Most of these 164 communities have no shops, no pub, no school, no doctor and no public transport.
What they do have, according to my correspondents, is very poor, if any, broadband connections.
And unfortunately today, almost everything you may need or want is online.
You can check your bank and see if you have been paid online.
You can submit your tax return online.
It’s cheaper to pay your energy bills online.
You can consult your doctor, order a repeat prescription and book a hospital appointment online.
Your choices of school, college and university courses are all online. Parents can pay for school equipment, college trips and lunches online.
If you’re looking for work and claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, you have to show you’ve applied for every possible opportunity online or your benefit is stopped.
Young and old can have the benefit of Facebook, Skype and Twitter to keep in touch with family, friends and acquaintances near and far.
Thousands of small businesses – many tourism-based – here in the West Country buy, sell and communicate online.
And soon, our farmers will have to make their claims for European funding for environmentally-friendly land management and top quality animal health care online.
So, if you don’t have a decent broadband connection, life is made harder and sometimes, the best deals – or even your best business opportunities – can pass you by.
For Government to assume that everyone who has a computer will be able to use the internet at ‘London speed’ is wrong.
If you have a rubbish broadband connection, going online can be the most frustrating exercise ever – service dropping out halfway through buying your tickets; constant questions about whether something has ‘arrived’ or not.
As an MP, it’s a real challenge getting any information about which communities in my area will NOT have superfast broadband.
Because it seems only fair to me that these residents and businesspeople should have the chance of finding an alternative supplier, whether that’s satellite broadband or some other way, to get online and get going.
But BT tells me it “doesn’t know” where it won’t be able to serve up superfast broadband in the smaller villages and hamlets in my patch.
I cannot believe that’s really the case.
I worry that the Government has been taken to the cleaners on this one. BT must be laughing all the way to its bank.