UK broadband: the government must deliver on its promises

Prime minister David Cameron recently promised to make access to 10 Mbps broadband a legal right for all by 2020.

The pledge means the government will set up what’s termed a ‘Universal Service Obligation’ for 10 Mbps broadband.

The announcement was generally welcomed by industry – and few will disagree it’s good to see the government put decent access to the internet on a par with water, electricity and gas.

It is long overdue. A broadband USO has been discussed by politicians for years – including the previous Labour administration - and the current legal obligation is to provide ancient dialup speeds of a mere 28 Kbps. Funnily enough it was even a pledge in the Labour party's last general election manifesto.

However speeds of 10Mbps may seem under-ambitious by 2020. A number of new providers now offer 100 Mbps ‘ultrafast’ broadband and in his last budget chancellor George Osborne pledged 100Mbps to ‘nearly all homes in the country’ (by an unspecified date).

The recent 10 Mbps pledge (carefully worded as an ‘ambition’) is a full five years away from being made a reality. And that’s assuming it doesn’t hit delays – a rather optimistic assumption, given the UK government’s record so far.

Let’s remind ourselves of the recent broadband delivery milestones. There was a commitment for 2Mbps broadband for all by 2012, introduced under the Labour government in 2009, which was ditched by the coalition government.

Instead in 2011 it promised ‘superfast broadband’ of 24Mbps to 90 percent of UK premises by 2015. Just two years later this promise was then also pushed back, to 95 percent of premises by 2017.

It seems questionable whether it will be able to deliver even this watered down commitment, given just 83 percent of UK homes and businesses currently have access to superfast broadband.

It’s also not clear what government funding the new plan will get, something chancellor George Osborne will hopefully clarify in his autumn statement next week.

The cost of connecting everyone to superfast broadband will run into the billions. BT’s former head of research said it could cost as much as £15 billion back in 2010.

However the investment is worth it. Think of the huge positive impact fast, reliable broadband would have on the woefully poor level of productivity in the UK - surely it will bring a far bigger productivity gain than the government’s £50 billion HS2 scheme.

When ComputerworldUK calls for views on government investment from industry figures, broadband is the number one concern for businesses.

So the government needs to clarify how much this new USO it will cost, how much will come from the public purse versus industry, and who will take the lead in ensuring its pledge gets delivered.

Assuming (extremely tentatively) that the government does manage to get superfast broadband to 95 percent of UK homes by 2017, this new scheme will be all about connecting the final five percent.

These are the most remote, rural and hardest-to-reach homes in the UK and connecting them will be a huge challenge.

Ofcom’s CEO Sharon White has admitted they will not be eligible for fibre broadband – so the issue will require some creativity. Satellite, fixed wireless and even laser-beams from drones have been suggested as potential ways to connect remote premises.

Either way it will be complex and expensive: all the more reason for the government to get on with fleshing out its broadband plans now, if we are to have faith they will be able to finally deliver.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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