Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State at DCMS, has produced some further detail on the coalition’s broadband plans. Not much of this is a surprise; it had been mooted before the election, not least in a Guardian Tech Weekly podcast at the back end of April, including the scrapping of Labour’s plans to find independent regional news consortia and the diversion of monies scheduled for pilots into superfast broadband instead.
What was new, however, was the announcement of the potential regulation of sewer and other utility infrastructure ducts to deliver opportunities for fibre network investors – this is, as Hunt acknowledged, further than had been envisaged in previous announcements, and it needs much greater detail – not least concerning the capacity, suitability and potential of utility networks to deliver fibre communications infrastructure. Some of this will certainly come at Broadband Delivery UK’s scheduled industry event on 15 July (though BD UK still has precious little web presence). Also new was the announcement of three ‘market testing’ pilots to bring high-speed broadband to rural and hard-to-reach areas and to act as test beds by which ‘possible government intervention and investment in “superfast broadband” in the future’ can be better targeted. Again, further details are scheduled for BD UK’s industry event next month.
Much of this is welcome, not least in continuing the previous Labour government’s intention to ensure a better cohesiveness between broadband-rich and broadband-poor areas than would have been delivered by a dogmatic reliance on the market. If Digital Britain is to become a reality, this cohesiveness in approach is vital. Politically, it’s also a welcome commitment to deliver the benefits of high-speed broadband equally throughout the nations and regions of the UK.
But the scale of the ambition set out in the statement:
Within this parliament we want Britain to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe,
against the background of where Britain currently is, simply won’t be achieved without public investment and backing. Rory Cellan-Jones’s BBC blog took the opportunity offered to lampoon – and hit the back of the net with it. Ambitious goals are well and good – but practically unachievable ones are not. Politicians – actually, of all flavours – need to recognise that, if this country wants to have ‘the best high speed broadband network’ then it’s got to pay for it. That either means much higher prices to the consumer, a (much) more relaxed regulatory environment for BT – as the only network operator with the scale to deliver – and a much more high profile for the involvement of public sector cash. And probably all three. Quite a few political/philosphical shibboleths generated over the last thirty years need to be sacrified to achieve all that, and I suspect that the ConDems simply don’t have the ability or the courage to produce – regardless of the call which decent investment in broadband infrastructure, i.e. for fibre to the home solutions, would make on public finances apparently facing significant cuts also ‘within this parliament’.
But, in the absence of the sacrifice, we need to recognise that this scale of ambition remains just a playing around with words.