I appreciate how important broadband is to both individuals and businesses. Reliable, fast broadband is now seen as the norm, not a nice-to-have. It underpins economic growth and allows homes to function in a digital age. Over 90 per cent of UK premises are now able to connect to superfast broadband, and we are on track to reach 95 per cent by the end of next year. This means that the UK has the highest superfast broadband coverage amongst the top five European economies. But I recognise that more needs to be done to ensure that all parts of the country have the access to the broadband they need.
It may be helpful if I start by recapping where we are with regards to Wiltshire Council's broadband rollout.
The Wiltshire Online programme, both Phase 1 and Phase 2 contracts, were designed to provide a fibre broadband service to those premises that commercial providers considered to be financially non-viable. Without Wiltshire Council's investment approximately 40% of Wiltshire would not have access to superfast broadband.
Wiltshire Council have always been aware that despite significant investment they cannot get to every premises and so made the strategic decision to deliver fibre broadband to the greatest number of premises for the budget available. To achieve this, the roll-out design is based on not just one factor but a combination of several factors such as existing infrastructure, speeds already received, number of premises in the area and distance of premises away from the infrastructure. Other roll-out designs were considered, such as prioritising specific communities or the most rural areas, but the roll-out becomes less efficient and more costly and ultimately reduces the number of premises they can provide a service to within the available budget.
The brief given to BT by Wiltshire Council was to cover as many premises as possible within the available funding. BT use the chief engineers model (CEM) which takes at its starting point the intervention area postcodes (those postcodes in which Wiltshire Council are allowed to invest public money) and seeks to maximise coverage for the available money. The CEM has been validated by BDUK to ensure it is modelled to effectively maximise coverage which it does by going to the lowest cost locations and then sequentially moving through the next best value structure and it repeats this process until the funding package is exhausted. Given that funding is not exhaustive clearly not all locations will be served.
Ministers have noted Ofcom's view that the current relationship between BT and Openreach will not deliver the country's needs for more competition, better innovation and better service and they strongly support Ofcom in taking whatever action is needed to correct any competition problems, however radical a change that might be. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is clear that a more independent Openreach is needed to benefit consumers and the UK's digital infrastructure. I share Ministers' concerns that BT's proposals do not go far enough and think it is right that full structural separation remains an option.
I understand just how frustrating it is to have a bad broadband connection. Broadband is a modern necessity, and the Government is working hard to ensure that the whole of Britain has the broadband that it needs.