Labour 'passes the buck' on Norfolk broadband - claim

Chris Fisher, political editorThe government was accused of 'passing the buck' over BT's failure to offer Norfolk superfast broadband after a cabinet minister refused to criticise the telecoms giant.Chris Fisher, political editor

The government was accused last night of "passing the buck" over BT's failure to offer Norfolk superfast broadband after a cabinet minister refused to criticise the telecoms giant.

Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw told Norfolk Tory MP Henry Bellingham in the Commons that BT had taken "a commercial decision" in excluding Norfolk and Suffolk from its list last week of 63 telephone exchanges that are to be upgraded to provide broadband speeds of up to 40 megabits per second from this summer.

And he condemned the Conservatives for opposing the �6 a year levy on fixed line phones that the government introduced in last month's pre-budget report to pay for the rolling out of superfast broadband nationally.

North-West Norfolk MP Mr Bellingham complained afterwards that the minister had missed an opportunity to show that the government did understood the importance of this issue to the Norfolk economy, and he regretted that he had chosen to respond to his question with a party political point.

"Of course this decision had to be taken in a commercial context", he said. "But BT still has a substantial monopoly in telephone exchanges, and in a regulated industry like this the government should be taking the lead."

Mr Bellingham noted that Mr Bradshaw had been brought up in Norfolk and that he represented a constituency (Exeter) in a predominantly rural region, and argued that these factors should have enabled him to show more sympathy for those people being missed out in BT's provision of improved broadband speeds.

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BT's East of England director Peter McCarthy-Ward promised in the autumn that Norfolk would "soon see the benefits" of superfast broadband. But in the latest list of exchanges to be upgraded, the nearest to Norfolk is in Braintree, Essex. It is the third wave of superfast broadband expansion to miss the county.

Business and council leaders reacted with disbelief to last week's announcement that Norfolk and Suffolk had missed out on the latest upgrade and claimed slow broadband speeds would jeopardise job creation and investment in the region.

Mr McCarthy-Ward told the EDP last week: "BT continues to modernise and improve its broadband services."

But he acknowledged slow connection speeds were still a problem for some broadband users in the county.

Mr McCarthy-Ward acknowledged the importance of broadband to local and regional economies, adding: "Norfolk is getting significant investment from BT and will continue to do so."

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