But will 2Mbps be fast enough, and will the BBC’s Digital Switchover money cover it?
Everyone in the UK will have access to 2Mbps broadband under a scheme announced by Alistair Darling in the budget, paid for by money left from the switchover to digital TV. But there are niggling doubts about the plan.
Years ago, the government allocated £803 million of the BBC’s licence fee money to ensuring everyone has a digital TV or set-top box before analogue TV signals are switched off. There will be around £250 million of that left, and Darling has declared it should be used to deliver broadband in rural areas by 2012, ending an argument over who should get it.
The communications minister, Lord Carter, called for universal 2Mbps broadband access in the interim Digital Britain report in January, but there have been disputes over how to deliver this.
Around 1.5 million households can’t currently get anything like 2Mbps, and about 250,000 cannot get broadband at all. Carter has suggested upgrades to the infrastructure and the use of mobile broadband to fill in gaps.
However, Darling only promised broadband for “virtually” everyone, and it seems likely that 2Mbps will seem a very low speed, when urban users will have broadband of up to 40Mbps by 2012. The budget did not, however, include any large cash injection into next-generation broadband services, which can provide speeds of 40Mb per second and upwards.
“Will [2Mbps] be enough to count as broadband by 2012 when around half the country will have access to 40Mbps or more?” asked the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones.
“The Digital Britain commitments in today’s Budget will establish a 2Mbps Universal Service as a baseline for both Next Generation Networks and for the next generation delivery of public services,” said Lord Carter after the budget. “At 2Mbps, internet users are guaranteed a quality of broadband capable of offering a wide range of applications, including the majority of public services and video-rich content such as the BBC iPlayer.”
He went on to promise universal broadband would boost learning and innovation, and put Britain ahead of other nations: “No country in the world is currently offering a Universal Service in broadband at a speed this high.”
Consultations with a design group have suggested that some rural communities should be leap-frogged to superfast broadband, he said, and pointed to ‘Digital Region’, a £100 million project to put next generation broadband in South Yorkshire.