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In the run-up to the General Election expected this May, the main parties seem determined to make broadband a political football in an effort to win over supporters. This is typical electioneering of course and, in the end, it’ll be down to industry to actually make things happen in the ‘real world’. In true political fashion the winning party will then blame industry when its over-ambitious deadlines are missed, while claiming the credit for every future milestone it thinks industry should be on target to achieve.

Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing

Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing

We only have to review progress on the Digital Economy Bill (DEB) though to see that the parties understand little about the moral and practical steps involved in managing Internet access for UK residents and businesses. Both the Labour and Conservative parties’ plans and promises are at best badly thought-out and almost certainly won’t be achieved without the constructive and experienced contribution of the industry bodies and service providers (large and small) that make the UK Internet access market tick.

Let’s look at their claims on broadband. Gordon Brown has said that he wants to make Britain “the world leader in the digital economy” by 2020 and ensure that all homes in the UK, especially those in rural areas, have access to ‘super-fast’ broadband. At this early stage some obvious questions go unanswered. What’s his deadline for delivering ‘super fast’ broadband to absolutely everyone? What actually constitutes ‘super fast’ broadband in his mind? How is the cost going to be covered? Of course as the potential final whistle for Labour looms, this hasty kick from the sidelines is to be expected given the Conservatives’ mindless counter-attack claim that they’ll deliver “100Mbps broadband across most [what does ‘most’ mean?] of the population” by 2017 if/when they take the trophy to No.10.

Without the detail this is beginning to sound like a comedy act! If Britain is going to be a world leader within a decade, it has an awful lot of catching up to do first. While countries like Japan and Korea are already delivering massively high broadband speeds, Britain is struggling to give most of its citizens any sort of experience better than an average of between 3Mbps and 4.5Mbps. If we assume that ‘super fast’ broadband speeds are those above 40Mbps, the UK market players need to deploy fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) throughout the land. Although BT has already embarked on its programme of bringing FTTC to life, coverage to the green boxes in our streets is expected to be provided from around 60 of its 4,500+ exchanges by this summer. Meanwhile, competitors that have ‘unbundled’ exchanges are less likely to stretch their footprint to rural communities because the sums simply don’t add up.  Thereafter, providing ‘super fast’ speeds to rival other countries will require fibre to the premises (FTTP) that may deliver speeds of up to 100Mbps. Notwithstanding BT’s current FTTP trials, FTTP is expensive enough in new build environments. Rollout in existing urban areas, let alone rural ones, is likely to continue to prove excessively expensive and logistically difficult for several years to come.

It seems both Labour and the Conservatives have the cost issue wrapped up. We’d like them to give more detail. Labour’s plan is simply to levy a 50p tax on land lines to ease the financial burden while the Conservatives think the solution is to force BT to open up its network [further] to the competition and, if necessary, divert some of the money we pay to keep the BBC afloat to fill in the gaps. There’s already been stern opposition to Labour’s plan (which it appears to be ignoring) and we’re sure there will be to the Tories’ half baked strategy too. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives has explained in their manifesto pledges exactly how they will use this money to ensure that the required infrastructure will be rolled out to all corners of the land. Taxing fixed line telephone users is discriminatory and requires a fair and workable system of collection. Likewise, beating up BT isn’t going to work when the company’s obligations are only to provide telephone services, not broadband, and it has its own shareholders’ demands to address. BT has already rolled out 21CN to 55% of businesses and consumers while simultaneously introducing FTTC. And just how either party-led government is going to reduce Britain’s budget deficit while implementing such ambitious plans really stretches the imagination!

Then, just as we try to interpret each party’s pledges and how they might implement their promises, we discover that Labour has other incredible strategies up its sleeve to make Britain the most advanced online nation, through the setting up of an Institute of Web Science and the creation of a new digital Domesday Book no less. In the absence of clarity as to what the aims of these initiatives are going to be we can only entertain them as a gimmick and suspect they will serve little useful purpose. Why can’t they just focus, with the help of those in the industry who know what they’re doing, on the goal of improving access in a sensible and timely manner?

Maybe it’s a simple fact that the government doesn’t want to consult with industry on how best to tackle the issue. Mr Brown has warned that there is a risk of a “new digital divide” opening up if the government leaves broadband supply to the market. Meanwhile Jim Knight, the Minister responsible for digital inclusion, is quoted as saying that if it is simply left to the market, super-fast broadband will only go into the cities. Quite how a “new digital divide” is different to the one we already have is puzzling, as is the government’s apparent intention of imposing potentially unworkable and hypocritical rules on service providers. For example, as the Open Rights Group has noticed, the government is calling for more open, accessible and inclusive web access while at the same time trying to push through the Digital Economy Bill which will restrict the way that the Internet is used to distribute content.

As far as getting broadband out to everyone in the country goes, we’d like to better understand how the government expects privately or publicly owned service providers to reach out to Britain’s rural population. Providing the infrastructure and service is a balance between giving customers what they want and doing that in a way that delivers a sustainable return-on-investment for shareholders. Simply telling them to open up or extend their networks without appropriate support and incentive is a naive proposition. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, let alone a politician, to understand that infrastructure is going to be placed first in the most densely populated and business occupied areas. Nonetheless, providers such as BT have already stated that their intention is to bring a quality broadband experience to all areas as technology, time and investment allows.

Discussion about improving broadband users’ experience is a good thing and we encourage it, whoever is involved. Logic says though that relevant people should be wholly involved in tabling issues, debating proposals and drawing conclusions. Whichever government wins the day at election time needs to take this on board. There are several sources of exceptionally good experience and opinion including ISPA and both the larger and smaller service providers. In the meantime we’d urge both parties to stop kicking the ‘super fast’ broadband football around. There’s little confidence that either’s pledges will work or indeed if they’ll follow through on them. There’s a real danger that they’re setting unrealistic expectations for UK voters that’ll be left with a bitter taste in their mouths when those pledges evaporate. But then, government will just blame the industry for that!

Have your say!

What do you think about the politicians’ use of broadband in their election campaigns? Do you think they are making empty promises and should consult industry? Or do you think they have valid solutions to the digital divide? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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