Released last week, Broadband for all – an alternative vision, proposed a different broadband strategy to the Government. Current Government plans are to install 25Mbps high speed broadband across 90% of the UK and a minimum of 2Mbps broadband for everyone by 2015 at a cost of of £2.4 billion. In addition to this the 2012 Budget revealed £100 million for ten cities to receive super-connected status (80Mbps) in the same time frame.
But the Lords Communications Committee report argued that speed should not be the biggest broadband focus. Focus should be on viewing the internet as national infrastructure, like roads and railways, and aiming to close the digital divide. The report said current Government strategy creates a “very real risk that some people and businesses are being left behind, that inadequate access to the internet and all its benefits is actually afflicting their daily lives”.
This view is supported by the Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses who was quoted as saying:
“With the technology we have they should be able to trade overseas, throughout the UK and from town to village. We know that small businesses in rural and urban areas are looking to the internet to grow and innovate. So it is paramount the government rolls our superfast broadband to rural areas”.
Creating a long term strategy covering “inhabitants of inner cities to the remotest areas of the UK” will deliver many benefits. These include improved educational performance and better employment opportunities as well as the ability to start a business from anywhere in Britain.
To achieve this, the report’s core recommendation is to have “fibre-optic hubs” within reach of every community. The committee defines a fibre-optic hub as,
“A box—situated in the vicinity of a community. Its job is to act as a waystation between that community and the broadband infrastructure that spreads out across the rest of the country.”
The report said fibre-optic hubs would ‘future proof’ the network, allowing communities to increase the speed of the network when required. Adding hubs would increase the resilience of the overall infrastructure as currently data sent between, for example, two locations in Edinburgh travels via Manchester or London. Hubs would allow this data to travel a more rational route.
Most importantly, the report argues fibre-optic hubs allow users in remote regions to tap in to the broadband network through physically connecting their business or house directly to the hub. This would go some way in reducing the digital divide.
The report considers the high financial burden of providing quality broadband, but it recommends that Government undertakes a detailed costing of their project as they believe it would be more cost effective than current Government plans.
We need to ensure that the UK has good enough Internet infrastructure not only to compete with Europe, but with the world. The Lords Select Committee rightly raises some important points that need to factor in to Government’s plans. More broadly issues such as the availability of free Wi-Fi, and arguments around web blocking and an open internet also contribute to individuals and businesses access to the Internet. Government and DCMS needs to take a holistic view on all the issues surrounding Internet access they are discussing with ISPs and decide where the priorities lie.