DAVID Warburton MP for Somerton and Frome joined a group of South West MPs warning the minister for media, data and digital infrastructure of the continuing plight of rural communities lagging behind in digital connectivity.

Speaking in a parliamentary debate on the rollout of ultrafast broadband in Devon and Somerset, Mr Warburton said: “The south-west needs to compete with the rest of the country.

"Three-quarters of our young people leave Somerset after their education. "Our businesses tell me that to stay in Somerset they need to connect not just through better roads and rail services but through the digital highway.”

Highlighting some of the many areas of the region that continue to lack adequate broadband connectivity, Mr Warburton also said: “With endless faults and starts, an ever-changing roll-call of companies involved in rolling out ultra-fast broadband across Somerset has achieved much, but there are still many pockets of resistance.

“In my patch, only 13 per cent of premises are fully connected. In my constituency, Curry Rivel, Sparkford and Langport fall into the worst 10 per cent of areas for download speed and connectivity.

The MP emphasized the magnitude of the issue in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic forcing stay-at-home, work-from-home and home-schooling imperatives.

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

Responding to the debate, Julia Lopez MP, minister for media, data and digital infrastructure, said: “As many honourable Members have said, the pandemic has really highlighted the importance of digital connectivity in how we live and work, which, as technology advances, will only become more profound.

“Several honourable members have highlighted that there is a risk of a digital divide emerging, and I agree. I wish to assure all hon. members that the Government are not leaving the knobbly bits until last but trying to deal with them early in the process.

“I am keen to work closely with partners such as Vodafone and small and medium-sized enterprises to roll out that technology so that our networks are not only wide-reaching but resilient.”

The minister concluded: “I am confident we will be successful in ensuring coverage through these procurements. I very much look forward to working with my hon. friend and others in this chamber, all members from Devon and Somerset and all other interested parties, so that we can get the connectivity that is not only important to speed and life chances now, but ever more so into the future.”

Ruth Lambert, development manager for Somerset and Wiltshire for the Federation of Small Businesses also commented on the issue: "

“Good quality internet connection is vital for small businesses and self-employed people. Yet far too many of them are still coming up against slow speeds and poor connection, making it difficult to communicate with their customers and potentially losing them business.

“It’s worrying to see Ofcom statistics showing lower than average Gigabit broadband availability across most of Devon and Somerset, particularly at a time when so many are relying on decent broadband connection.   “While the progress made by the government’s project gigabit so far has been essential, we need to make sure reliable broadband is accessible everywhere, including those that are harder to reach.”