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MP blasts lackluster rollout of superfast broadband in Somerset

A local MP has blasted the lackluster rollout of superfast broadband in Somerset, saying the problem is driving young people and businesses out of the county.

David Warburton, MP for Somerton and Frome, is campaigning for better digital connectivity for Somerset, with the county lagging behind many other parts of the UK.

Currently, parts of Somerset have Gigabit broadband connectivity levels as low as 13.1 per cent, and Mr Warburton wants the South West to be able to ‘compete with the rest of the country’ by enjoying the same internet speeds as elsewhere .

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Speaking during a parliamentary debate on rolling out superfast broadband in Devon and Somerset, he warned the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure of the continuing plight of rural communities.

He said: “Three quarters of our young people leave Somerset after school.

“Our businesses tell me that to stay in Somerset they need to connect not just through better road and rail services, but also through the digital highway.

“In my patch, only 13% of the premises are fully connected. In my constituency, Curry Rivel, Sparkford and Langport are in the bottom 10% of areas for download speed and connectivity.

“The pandemic has highlighted the huge productivity gap between urban and rural areas. With more and more people working from home, digital connectivity should be like water or electricity, an essential service.”

Ofcom data shows that in September 2021, 45.7% of premises in the UK had access to gigabit broadband.

However, this percentage is much lower in Somerset and Devon, as shown in the table below.

Responding to comments from Mr Warburton and other local MPs, MP Julia Lopez, Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure, said: “As many honorable members have said, the pandemic has really highlighted the importance of digital connectivity in the way we live and work which, as technology advances, will only deepen.

“Several honorable members have pointed out that there is a risk of a digital divide emerging, and I agree. I want to assure all honorable members that the government is not leaving the gnarly pieces until the end, but try to deal with them early in the process.

“I want to work closely with partners such as Vodafone and small and medium enterprises to deploy this technology so that our networks are not only expansive but resilient.”

The roll-out of superfast broadband in the UK has mainly been driven by private companies such as Openreach and Virgin Media.

These companies decide where to deploy their networks. The government’s policy is to support the deployment of very high speed broadband in areas not served by private investment.

To achieve this, the government has provided funding to local bodies in England and to devolved administrations through the super-broadband scheme.

The government has pledged £5billion to subsidize the rollout of gigabit broadband to the “hardest to reach” premises in the country that will not be reached by private investment (20% from the UK). It is about 5 million premises, mainly in rural areas.

The government’s target is for at least 85% of UK premises to have access to gigabit broadband by 2025.