In the 21st century broadband is as vital a public utility as power and water. Many businesses are now dependent upon a fast and reliable broadband service.
Last November I had a very frank but constructive meeting with the Chief Executives of BT, EE and Openreach. They were all fully aware of the problems in North Shropshire because they say that I have written more letters to them than any other MP, raising issues in 71 postcodes. Clive Selley, the Chief Executive of Openreach, agreed to visit North Shropshire early this year to see just how bad the situation has become, and work on urgent solutions to the problems my constituents and local businesses face.
It is unprecedented to have the Chief Executive of Openreach visit and I am extremely grateful to him and his team for taking the time do so. Mr Selley was able to meet Mr McGuinness only two miles from Market Drayton, whose service has deteriorated from 1.8 Mbps to 0.6 Mbps, such that he can no longer even complete his VAT return online. Openreach acknowledged that this was unacceptable and agreed to look at practical solutions.
We then held a productive meeting in Whitchurch, which was well-attended by members of the Town Council, Shropshire Council and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as local residents.
Service is currently better on the outskirts of Whitchurch than in the centre of town. Provided any remaining issues with Exchange Only lines are resolved, Openreach expect a superfast service at 24 Mbps by December 2017 and hope for 60 Mbps.
Alkington Grange Barns, one and a half miles from central Whitchurch, provided an important example of a rural business diversifying, having invested £650,000 developing barns into holiday cottages. To attract guests they need working wi-fi and the current standard will just not do. Openreach will look at a variety of solutions.
Looking forward, Openreach went on to say that up to two thirds of the current problems are expected to be solved by March 2018, a sensible timeframe, but one that we must continue to attempt to shorten. It was also useful to learn that any new development of 30 houses or more will automatically have fibre-optic broadband provided.
We are beginning to make progress but I encourage each of you experiencing difficulties with access to broadband services and improved speeds to keep writing in. This appears to be getting the attention it deserves, highlighting digital issues faced by my constituents and by those who live in rural areas more generally. Mr Selley agreed to visit again at an appropriate time in the future, by which time I hope to see the results of better, faster and more reliable broadband for all those who are rightly demanding it.