Broadband for all falls far short on capacity

The next few days will see us pick over every paragraph of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report. After a quick scan of the executive summary, I have to say I have some questions of my own.

Before its publication, Gordon Brown wrote on Tuesday that a fast internet connection is “now seen by most of the public as essential, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water”. If you can ignore the slightly silly hyperbole that we’re now used to hearing from our embattled Prime Minister, you’ll acknowledge the point he was trying to make. Most members of the public feel a fast broadband connection is their right, something they should have access to. There’s not a lot wrong with that. Those of us who have fast enough broadband to watch television, stay in touch with friends, pay bills, plan holidays and access all sorts of other services now take it for granted. But it is hard to argue the 40% of UK households without internet access (according to the last available Ofcom report) are not disadvantaged, even if they themselves do not particularly agree. Such disadvantage will only intensify if Britain’s hi-tech and digital infrastructure continues to grow in importance as our “new economy” develops.

But cost is clearly an issue that required sorting. Part of the solution is a “small levy” on all fixed telephone lines to establish a national fund enabling ISPs to offer next-generation broadband at a cheaper price. Such a tax, say 50p per month, is a fine idea but it rankles that we’re talking here about provision only for the third of the market that can’t currently access broadband at all.

The universal broadband the rest of us have been promised is 2Mbps, which is less “next generation” and more yesterday’s news. If lack of money is the reason we are discussing upgrading the existing copper and wireless networks to provide nothing more ambitious or speedy than 2Mbps, we need to think about the cost of having to do it again in a decade’s time. By then we will all require fibre optics and speeds of up to 50Mbps and even double that speed to keep up with other countries, which are now investing in upgrades to take advantage of new technology.

As the report itself admits, “small variations in performance can have significant ripple effects and major costs to the wider economy”. If this is our one big chance to provide a UK digital blueprint, surely we should be reaching for the stars?

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