Government targets UK broadband boost
Monday, December 6 2010, 13:40 GMT
By Andrew Laughlin,

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt will today unveil concrete plans for creating a superfast broadband network serving every community in the UK by 2015.

Among the proposals, the government wants to use public funds to establish a "digital hub" in hard-to-reach rural areas linking homes to fibre optic networks.

In a speech today at Microsoft's London headquarters, Hunt will accept that the UK's broadband infrastructure currently lags behind other nations in the world. Only 15% of subscribers in Britain have connections running continuously above 5 megabits per second (Mbps), compared with 65% in South Korea.

Speaking earlier on the Today Programme, Hunt said that the government has a key role in "catalysing investment by the private sector" in broadband. The coalition has set aside 830m for the funding of broadband rollout projects, with a portion coming from surplus funds from the BBC's digital TV switchover help scheme.

Hunt said that the mix of private and public investment would give the UK Europe's best broadband network by 2015, leading to economic growth and the delivery of advanced public services over the web.

The previous Labour administration pledged to provide all UK households with broadband of a minimum speed of 2Mbps by 2012, but the new coalition quickly ditched that aim.

Discussing the move, Hunt said: "It's silly to hang your hat on a speed like two meg when the game is changing the whole time. What we've said is that just giving people two meg is not enough - what people use the internet for is changing the whole time."

The government's strategy also includes the creation of a "digital hub" in every community by 2015 for delivering fibre. Community groups and local operators would then be expected to take on the financial responsibility of connecting individual homes to the network.

The coalition has earmarked 50m to pay for trials of this strategy to see if it is a viable approach to serving hard-to-reach rural areas.

In April next year, local bodies and devolved administrations will be invited to participate in the trials, with a final selection due to May. The trials will run alongside already announced projects in North Yorkshire, Herefordshire, Cumbria and the Highlands and Islands.

In his speech, Hunt will also confirm that the government intends to sell off parts of the spectrum in 2011 to be used to provide mobile broadband services.

BT has already confirmed plans to match the government's 830m funding if it is awarded contracts to provide the infrastructure for the digital hubs.

The telecoms giant will extend its fibre network to cover 66% of the UK, but only a quarter of those homes will get access to the faster Fibre-To-The-Home (FTTH) technology.

Critics have already expressed concern that the government's plans do not go far enough towards opening up BT's infrastructure for other companies to invest in fibre broadband.

In January, BT will publish the amount it intends to charge rival providers to use its ducts and telegraph poles, after being ordered by Ofcom to free up access to its infrastructure.

Chris Smedley, chief executive of fibre optic access firm Geo, said that BT is not beholden to pay those rates and so it has an unfair market advantage.

Speaking to The Guardian, he said: "As a minimum, [the government] should level the playing field between BT and smaller players.

"At the moment, it's distorted by the fact that BT is assessed in a different way from small companies. It doesn't encourage efficient network rollout, because sometimes you design them in a way that avoids tax, rather than in the best way for customers."