Give us the internet we need

Lots of constituents me about the Fix Britain's Internet campaign, which is calling for Openreach to be separated from British Telecom (BT).

Openreach was established in 2006 as part of an agreement between BT and Ofcom - the UK's communications regulator - to ensure rival firms had fair access to the broadband network. However, I know that concerns have been raised that BT has underinvested in Openreach, leading to poor service which has resulted in customers experiencing service interruptions and slow speeds. Openreach has also faced criticism for delaying the installation of ultra-fast broadband, particularly as it is the largest beneficiary of around £1 billion in Government funding through the Broadband Delivery UK programme.

Earlier this year, Ofcom announced the initial conclusions of its Strategic Review of Digital Communications, including plans for a more independent Openreach, and in July launched a consultation on its proposals for Openreach to become a legally separate company within the BT Group. This consultation closes in October and I will follow developments closely.

As you may be aware, the House of Commons' Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee recently published a report in which it calls on BT to invest significantly more in Openreach. The Committee also supports Ofcom's plans for establishing greater separation between Openreach and the BT Group, but argues that if BT fails to offer necessary reforms and investment assurances, then Ofcom should move to enforce full separation of Openreach.

I believe it is important that Openreach implements more ambitious service standards and is much more responsive to consumers, as far too many customers have experienced a lack of access to broadband and poor quality service. I believe it is right that Ofcom should decide on the future of Openreach and should be supported to ensure the most competitive environment possible. I am concerned that the Government has failed to foster a competitive communications market, both in in mobile and fixed, and believe that more competition means better service, more investment and lower prices for businesses and consumers and that Ofcom should be supported to make sure that happens.

More widely, I believe we need a digital industrial strategy to ensure everyone benefits from the digital revolution, particularly as research has shown that faster broadband speeds would add up to £17 billion to the UK economy by 2024. It is therefore disappointing that the Government has abandoned the previous Labour Government's commitment to fully funded universal broadband. I am concerned the Government lacks a coherent plan and has repeatedly failed to hit its targets on broadband rollout, costing the economy billions in lost productivity gains and new jobs; and denying millions of people the economic and social benefits provided by the Internet.

The Government's Digital Economy Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 5 July, contains measures to create the right for every household to access high speed broadband. This is a step forward and I can assure you my Shadow Frontbench colleagues and I will hold the Government to account on how it plans to improve communications infrastructure and connectivity as this Bill progresses through Parliament.

Turning to the situation in Leeds, as you may know some people have to contend with a miserably slow broadband service. The city needs investment to upgrade telephone cabinets and install fibre optic cables, but as I have learned while dealing with a number of complaints locally, it is all down to the companies to decide whether they think it is commercially viable to do this or not. In one case I worked on with the local residents - in New Forest Village -  BT Openreach had decided that there wouldn’t be a big enough take-up to justify the investment. But when they did eventually upgrade one of the cabinets they were overwhelmed with people wanting to buy faster broadband which suggested that their estimate of demand was way off.

I will keep up the pressure.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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