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Before entering politics, I spent more than a decade as a journalist writing about technology. I watched consumers wake up to the sheer power of the internet-connected devices they carried around in their pockets and bags. But I was always fascinated by the infrastructure beneath, that made this connectivity possible.
Now I am the minister responsible for broadband and making sure everyone in the UK has access to fast, reliable internet connections. Today (22 January) I will be introducing my first piece of legislation in the Commons to achieve this – a new law that will mean millions of people in flats can get access to the fastest broadband on offer. Consumers will be able to download and upload content at speeds of at least 1,000Mbps, or one gigabit per second.
Broadband companies are already busy rolling out gigabit-capable connections across the UK. But they told us one of the biggest obstacles to the UK going gigabit is their difficulty in accessing blocks of flats. So we are introducing this new bill to make it easier for leaseholders and tenants to get these connections when their landlord fails to respond to broadband providers’ requests for access.
It will provide a much cheaper, faster process to make this happen via the courts, and help get gigabit broadband to an estimated 3.7 million people in 180,000 residential buildings.
Last week, with the prime minister, I met the bosses of the main broadband companies. They are determined to work with us and share our ambition to deliver nationwide coverage of gigabit-speed broadband by 2025.
Since 2013, the government’s £1.8bn superfast broadband programme has been the most challenging infrastructure project for a generation, but it now means over 96% of the country has access to superfast speeds of at least 24Mbps. It has led to a £9bn surge in turnover for businesses and £690m net increase in gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy.
But we have to keep up with the pace of technological change in this fast-moving digital landscape and will not rest on our laurels. So gigabit-capable connectivity is now very much the government’s and industry’s focus.
This new bill is just one part of our broader digital strategy that includes our leading work in artificial intelligence, cyber security, data and, importantly, tackling online harms. Because there is no point in having fast and reliable digital connections without the right safeguards and security to give people the confidence to use them.
The improvements must be available to everyone as we level up the nation. So, on broadband, we are galvanising the private sector to get faster networks built and switched on, sharpish. We have already committed £650m to spend on broadband roll-out until the end of 2021. We are running two gigabit voucher schemes offering to greatly subsidise the costs of building full fibre out to businesses and residents in urban and countryside communities that are currently deemed commercially unviable by industry.
We are also directly funding locally led projects, such as a £23.8m investment that will see more than 1,300 public buildings hooked up across Greater Manchester. Not only does this directly improve people’s lives, but it also stimulates industry to build off the fibre networks we have already laid down in these areas, extending the geographic reach.
To top things off, we have recently pledged a further £5bn to make sure homes and businesses in the hardest-to-reach areas will get gigabit-capable internet at the same time as everyone else. But as an extra safety net, if you’re currently in an area that is languishing in the digital slow lane, from March, we will give every home and business in the UK the legal right to request a decent broadband connection.
While today we are making sure people living in blocks of flats and apartments are not left behind, approximately a quarter of new-build homes are still not being built with gigabit networks. That is something we will be turning our attention to next – ensuring new-build homes come with a gigabit-capable connection.
We are on the same page as industry and are listening closely to what they say needs to happen to bust the barriers to get the job done.
Together, we will future-proof our digital infrastructure to plug everyone into the digital age and equip the next generation with the connectivity they need to build the businesses of tomorrow, no matter where they live.