The problem of providing adequate universal broadband access across Britain may be bigger than originally believed. Universal access to a minimum of 2 megabits per second is now not expected until 2015. The original aim may have been unambitious but even that target is being postponed as the coalition government cuts public spending. It still hopes to have the best broadband in Europe by the end of the current parliament.
A month ago, informitv reported that Jeremy Hunt, the new culture secretary, described the plans of the previous government to provide a “paltry” 2Mbps universal service commitment as “pitifully unambitious”. He said it was “a scandal that nearly three million households in this country still cannot access 2Mbps broadband speeds, and less than 1% of the country is able to access the internet using modern fibre optic technology”.
Addressing a conference organised by Broadband Delivery UK, the government body charged with doing something about that, he has now admitted that it would take longer than he had hoped to address the problem.
“I’m afraid that I am not convinced that there is sufficient funding in place,” he said. “So, while we will keep working towards that date, we have set ourselves a more realistic target of achieving universal 2Mbps access within the lifetime of this parliament.” Assuming the coalition holds together, that could be 2015.
The new coalition government has dropped plans for a 50 pence a month levy on telephone lines, and instead plans to use part of the television licence fee originally allocated to supporting the transition to digital television, but that is nowhere near the level of investment required, most of which is expected to come from the private sector.
Nevertheless, he said the broadband network was as fundamental to the success of Britain in the digital era as the railway network was in the industrial age. He said that by the end of this parliament “this country should have the best superfast broadband in Europe and be up there with the very best in the world”.
The government strategy is to ensure that fast broadband is available to the third of the population the market might not otherwise reach, to drive private investment by making regulatory changes to lower the cost of deployment, and to drive demand by bringing more government services online.
Meanwhile, the government is planning a series of market trials to discover what is required to make fast broadband commercially viable in rural communities as well as urban areas, and to understand what government support will be necessary.
One possibility is to decide to use part of the television licence fee to fund broadband delivery to rural areas as part of the next licence fee settlement, following completion of digital switchover.
The government is also considering requiring BT and other infrastructure providers to allow the use of their assets to deliver superfast broadband.
Tim Johnson, chief analyst at research company Point Topic believes that obliging companies like BT to make more information available, like the location of street cabinets, is the single most effective measure the government could take to create the superfast broadband network it wants.
“Current policy is focused on the fact that relatively few homes and businesses — about two million, 7% of the total — are unable to get at least 2Mbps at present,” he said. However, he suggested that reaching these will require upgrades to areas covering over five million homes and businesses, or about 18% of premises in the country. “One danger is that shortage of money and the search for clear wins” could mean that “a large number of people — a significant proportion of voters in many constituencies — will be left disappointed”.