Talking Sense On Broadband Britain


Finally, a Universal Service Obligation for broadband. It’s less than we want, but we should make sure it is not more than we can afford, because this really is crucial to our future, says Peter Judge

Amid the near-universal disappointment over Alistair Darling’s first recession budget, one item got approval from many directions – the arrival by 2012 of a universal service obligation for broadband.

This is clearly long overdue, since for some years now, organisations including Government departments have been pushing people to interact online with them. Filing tax on paper now takes some effort and persistence, for instance, in asking for and getting a paper tax return. Of course, if you happen to have no broadband, then filing your tax return online will also take some effort.

So broadband to the masses isn’t all about giving them Twitter, Facebook and the BBC iPlayer, though that is included. It’s both bread and circuses.
The solution – using the leftover cash from the BBC’s digital switchover upgrade campaign, is simple and obvious. The BBC might have preferred to have the money back for making programmes – and if there were more money around, that’s where it should have gone – but the BBC’s iPlayer is now a main component of broadband traffic in this country, so that money will get BBC content seen.

Indeed, as people shift their viewing habits away from broadcast to stored content, the BBC might even find the broadband roll-out as important as the digital switchover in reaching its audience.

There are obviously questions. Is 2Mbps enough, when some people are starting to get 20Mbps? In town, the cheapest broadband packages are now reliably over 4Mbps. By 2012, 2Mbps might look like 256k did in 2006.

And can it be done with only £250 million? There’s a plethora of possible technologies to upgrade those who can get broadband at all, and reach the substantial number who can’t. Fibre to every home isn’t going to happen, and fibre to the curb won’t reach all the rural areas. So do we use “bonded broadband” and pull some more copper? Or use WiMax? Or make a deal with the mobile operators to fill in the gaps?

Wi-Fi vendors are even attempting to revive the idea of linked Wi-Fi hotspots, an idea which we thought had crashed and burned with the whole Municipal Wi-Fi bandwagon.

Whatever the practical choices, one thing is clear. There is no time or money to waste, and no room for error. It’s up to anyone with a genuine interest to get in there, put aside any vested interests, and hammer out a plan that will actually work.

In the current climate, universal broadband at 2Mbps in 2012 would actually be an impressive achievement. Those involved could follow the example of the foundation of the National Health Service, designed to be the best we could afford in a national crisis, but looking beyond to better times.
I’d like to see this succeed.

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