Once a month, on a Thursday morning, Westminster has a knockabout comedy show. This consists of Ed Vaizey, the minister in charge of broadband and the digital economy, answering questions from MPs.
And lots of questions there are. This month I chided Mr Vaizey – again – on the poor quality of broadband reception in East Lothian. Other MPs, including Conservative members, made similar local complaints.
Smug Mr Vaizey responds to these queries with a broad smile and an occasional joke. Invariably, he claims the UK has the best and cheapest broadband in Europe. And that soon – it is always “soon” – those few corners of the land where decent broadband remains illusive will soon be covered. He then proceeds to rubbish the litany of complaints about nonexistent local broadband and mobile coverage, inferring that MPs are whingers or unduly influenced by commercial competitors of BT. In case you had forgotten, BT has near monopoly control over the supply of fixed-line broadband, through its wholly-owned subsidiary Openreach. The delay in supplying fast broadband to rural areas is largely down to BT’s inefficiencies and monopolistic protection of its copper wire connections to most homes.
My own position is that BT should be forced to give up ownership of Openreach, which should become an independent utility working with all internet service providers. Sadly, Ofcom, the communications watchdog, has refused to order BT to make Openreach independent. As a result, money that Openreach should be using to fund new investment in rural broadband has ended up funding BT’s entry into sports television.
Mr Vaizey was true to form when I reminded him recently that – despite his bluster – even Belgium has a better digital economy than the UK. He simply took the opportunity to make jokes about Belgium. Where is Hercule Poirot when we need him?