Government And BT Haggle At Broadband Summit

At a Broadband Britain summit, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt says companies should share networks, but BT says the job requires more cash

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will call for operators todc share their networks, and BT will ask for more cash, at a summit today where Government and industry thrash out how to get broadband to the whole of Britain.

Speaking before the event, Mr Hunt wais operators should share their networks more, while Steve Robertson, chief executive of BT’s wholesale broadband delivery arm, Openreach, told the BBC that wiring up Britain simply cannot be done without £2 billion of public money.

Pilot projects wll bring superfast broadband to three rural areas later this year, but there are no details yet on where, how fast, or how widespread these will be.

Hunt calls for broadband sharing

“There is currently nothing to stop telecoms or utility companies reaching commercial agreements to share their infrastructure, but very few agreements currently exist,” said Hunt in a statement released before todays’ Industry Day summit, which will be held in the Department for Business Industry and Skills (BIS).

The government has promised to give everyone in Britain at least 2Mbps by 2012, and give the UK the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015, setting up a body, Broadband Delivery UK, to work out ways to change regulations to achieve the goals.

In the UK, it is thought that three million households (mostly in rural areas) still cannot get 2 Mbps, and around 160,000 UK homes cannot get regular broadband over phone lines at all. Meanwhile, superfast broadband, provided by fibre, is coming to urban areas, and will miss about a third of the country under current plans by commercial providers.

Hunt’s statement acknowledged that “the market on its own will not deliver basic broadband services to all, or provide superfast broadband to many remote and rural areas”, but asked broadband providers can “collaborate and innovate” to connect homes without broadband, and also push superfast networks “far beyond current market limits”.

“Our broadband network is as fundamental to Britain’s success in the digital era as the railway network was in the industrial age,” said Hunt.  “By the end of this Parliament, this country should boast the best superfast broadband in Europe and be up there with the very best in the world.”

BT wants £2 billion

For its part, BT is going into the day with a clear message that full broadband coverage will require more public money, with Openreach’s Robertson putting the figure at £2 billion: “As a society we need to make our minds up about what is an essential element of our social fabric,” he told the BBC. “Today not having broadband makes people feel deprived.”

Although BT has committed to investing £2.5 billion to get fibre to two-thirds of the population by 2015, the company’s group director of strategy, Olivia Garfield, told the Daily Telegraph: “I can’t conceive any commercial construct where that 67 per cent will get any higher”.

The government has suggested it will use around £300 million of the underspend on the switchover to ditgital TV to fund broadband rollout.

At present, rural areas are a patchwork, with some taking a DIY approach. Residents in in the Kent village of Iwade used funding from the local council and BT to get 40Mbps fibre.

Digital champion Martha Lane Fox will also speak at the event, as broadband availability is a key requirement for the government’s mission to get all citizens to actually go online and use public services on the web.

BIS will publish a discussion document on infrastructure sharing between telecoms companies and other utilities, saying it “has the potential to reduce significantly the cost of building new networks”, and BDUK is launching a research project today, asking how to remove barriers to basic broadband provision.

“Before we embark on legislation or start committing scarce public resources, we need to explore these cost-effective ways of achieving our aims,” said Hunt, “so I want to hear from companies about their proposals and willingness to work towards mutually beneficial commercial arrangements.”

The Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) announced three superfast broadband pilots for rural areas later this year, but has given no further details. It  will also publish a Structural Reform Plan, which will set out Government ideas to deliver commitments on broadband.

The government of Finland has made 1MBps a legal right for all citizens, and promised all will have a 100Mbps connection by 2015.