A broadband strategy worthy of the name?

Jeremy, er, Hunt today launched yet another new ambition for the government in the area of high-speed broadband: for a digital hub in every community. An ambitious government is a welcome thing and having a strategy for broadband is also applaudable (although I thought that Digital Britain had already set that out some eighteen months ago), while Hunt himself talks a good game – but, once again, I find myself regarding the scale of the ambition as being somewhat less than the words espoused to tout it. Again, we need some more detail about what exactly it means, but what Hunt is calling a ‘digital hub’ seems to me to represent little more than fibre to the cabinet solutions which, although clearly an advance and worth having by itself, does not seem to stack up to the futuristic concept of a ‘digital hub’. And the notion of communities then taking responsibility themselves for extending the network to individual homes raises the inevitable questions of how? and who will finance? without decent answers to which the notion perhaps ought not originally to have been raised, especially not in the context of what is meant to be a strategy.

It is also not by itself going to give Britain ‘the best broadband network [or system] in Europe by 2015’ – though here some more detail was fleshed out in that it will be a ‘composite measure‘, a ‘scorecard which will focus on four headline indicators: speed, coverage, price and choice’ (would it be too cynical to think that this means that Britain will, indeed, turn out to have ‘the best…..’, whether or not an independent observer would think the same? An early plea for the measure to be turned over to a sort of Office of Broadband Responsibility, if you like).

And another £50m for more pilot projects doesn’t seem to be a particularly forward-thinking other than an expression of the need to prove that Something Is Being Done: the existing four pilots, announced in October, are not really yet underway, still less in a situation of being able to identify the lessons which might – or might not – indicate the need for more pilots. A further delay in the timetable by which we might attain a digital Britain is, perhaps, in the interests of few of us. On the other hand, progress by a rolling series of pilot projects – provided they’re sustainable and link into the national strategy, is still progress – as is BT’s own pilot of a 1Gbps network in Kesgrave, Suffolk, also announced today.

A national strategy worthy of the name and the ambition would commit serious funds to a project of this type – especially if it is all ‘about jobs‘, with Hunt citing sources indicating that a high-speed broadband network could create 280,000 – 600,000 new jobs. Hunt again references South Korea in the context of 90% of the funding being committed by private sources – which seems to come from this report – but which seems rather conveniently to ignore the reference in the same report to this referring only to local access links to a $24bn high-speed core network built by the government (with the private sector investment also being drawn from soft loans). Facts do need to be straight.

In contrast, the UK government is offering £530m – the government has been speaking of £830m by 2017, but the remaining £300m comes beyond the life of the spending review period, and the lifetime of this parliament; and, even if it is to be drawn from the BBC licence fee whose six-year period stretches beyond 2015, we should ignore the additional £300m since it is outwith the period by which the government has committed itself to achieving its aim. The government needs to recognise that this is peanuts. No-one is seriously calling for government investment at the South Korean level – BT has committed itself to matching what is available publicly and can do a serious amount of work with it, as its partnership with the Cornwall Development Company proves – but if it’s South Korean speeds that we want, we are deluding ourselves if we think that this is going to come entirely – or almost entirely – from the private sector, especially when we are ignoring key facts about the use of South Korea as an example.

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