Not very Digital Britain

Last Thursday’s broadband industry event saw Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, put back to 2015 the commitment to extending a minimum broadband access speed of 2 Mpbs to all UK citizens. The existing universal service commitment, set out in last summer’s Digital Britain report (Chapter 3a, paras. 32ff), was to realise this by 2012 and, up to now, it has been shared by the Tories (while being derided as recently as last month as ‘pitifully unambitious‘ – a strange context in which to set an extension of the deadline).

Hunt’s announcement, however, abandons this consensus. Indeed, the whole Digital Britain initiative is, quietly, being dropped – it has disappeared from the current pages of the DCMS website and the report is accessible now only courtesy of the National Archives. An extension of the deadline sends entirely the wrong signals about how urgent the government sees the universal broadband service commitment – itself an issue of social inclusion which, it seems, is not on this coalition government’s agenda.

As far the communications infrastructure aspects of Digital Britain are concerned, there were five main initiatives which should have featured (largely) in the Digital Economy Act:

– a ‘final third’ fund (subsequently called the landline duty) raised on the basis of a 50p/month levy on phone lines and designed to assist with the extension of high-speed broadband to under-provided areas (dropped from the Finance Act prior to the election on the convention that controversial items are not proceeded with at this stage in the parliamentary timetable)

– a delivery authority for the ‘final third’ fund, now called Broadband Delivery UK (but which still has almost no web presence – perhaps a sign of its apparently shrinking role), and which didn’t actually need separate legislation

– a new statutory duty on Ofcom to promote investment in infrastructure in its decision-making (dropped from the Digital Economy Act at the insistence of the Tories)

– a new duty for Ofcom to publish a report on the state of the communications infrastructure every two years (still there in the Digital Economy Act, but has little relevance without the regulatory duty to promote investment. At the same time, if the campaigners on the government Your Freedom website have their way, this will also be lost should the Digital Economy Act be repealed: this occupies a leading priority in all three areas of the website)

– the USC (now put back three years as a ‘more realistic target’).

With a fair amount of temerity, Hunt blamed the previous government [registration required; limited viewing time] for having failed to put sufficient finance in place:

I’ve looked at the provision that the previous government made to achieve this by 2012 and, as I’m afraid with many schemes they announced, I’m not convinced that they put sufficient funding in place. [NB this precise quote doesn’t appear in Hunt’s speech on the DCMS website]

Despite this, Hunt had no new funds of his own to announce, being of the view that industry should come up with the goods, together with the £175m from the digital switchover fund and a repeat of the suggestion that this might be extended. Interestingly, Steve Robertson, chief executive of Openreach, is of the view that the government’s ambitious programme on high-speed broadband needs no less than £2bn of public funds to lubricate the wheels.

That’s way beyond anything the government is contemplating. Well, fingers crossed then, for the last meaningful bit of the communications infrastructure vision of Digital Britain. And as for the LibDems, despite support for Digital Britain initiatives right the way through to the election, they seem to have gone a bit quiet in government.

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