David Cameron has defended the Government’s £1.2 billion investment in getting broadband to rural Britain – arguing the coalition has made “huge strides” despite stinging criticism from MPs.
The Prime Minister told regional newspaper journalists based at Westminster that securing fast internet connections for homes and businesses in the countryside is the major rural political issue.
Speaking ahead of the Conservative Party conference, which begins on Sunday, Mr Cameron said his Government would go “well beyond” targets for the roll-out of broadband.
Cornwall, Devon and Somerset have among the slowest broadband speeds in the country, but multi-million pound publicly-funded schemes are attempting to bridge the “digital divide”.
The Connecting Devon and Somerset scheme is one of 26 regional projects given public subsidy to expand coverage, which is seen as vital to buoyant rural areas.
BT has all the contracts, as well as the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Superfast Broadband scheme – which is funded by EU subsidies, rather than the UK government.
However, the cross-party Public Accounts Committee of MPs this week criticised the programme for handing telecoms giant BT a monopoly and delays to the scheme.
Questioned by the Western Morning News yesterday, the Prime Minister took aim at Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP that chairs the committee and claimed taxpayers were getting a “raw deal”.
Mr Cameron, an Oxfordshire MP, said: “I’m a Member of Parliament for a rural constituency with 85 rural parishes where broadband is now the issue of the countryside. But I completely disagree with Margaret Hodge’s report.
“This from someone who was a Labour minister in a Government that did absolutely nothing about rural broadband. And in three short years we have made huge strides forward.
“We are now connecting up 10,000 homes a week under the rural broadband programme. We are putting money into the programme.
“I think BT are doing a good job. The fact is we opened up the competition to others but in the end BT predominantly came forward.”
He conceded there was a delay, but that was to get round Brussels rules on state aid to industry. Concerns were raised after the Government revised its initial target of 90% of the UK having superfast connections by 2015 to 95% by 2017.
He said: “Those are facts of life. But actually we are going to get not only to the 90% but well beyond the 90% – so I’m confident we just need to go full steam ahead.
“And I will take Margaret Hodge’s protestations on this – whose government sadly did nothing on this – with a large pinch of salt.”
The Prime Minister also acknowledged mobile telephone signals are temperamental in the countryside.
He said: “I know the roads in my constituency where the signal is going to cut out. I know when it is going to cut out. I know where it is going to cut out and when it is going to cut out. For a 21st century economy it is absolutely essential that you not only have rural broadband, but also good levels of mobile connections and the latest technology.”
But he added: “If you take the whole picture of where is Britain is on broadband, on 4G, we are actually reasonable compared to the rest of Europe in a reasonable place.”