UK Government Promises Fast Broadband For All By 2020

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pledged superfast broadband for all by 2020, as well as an online platform to deliver personalised public services

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced that every home in the UK will have access to superfast broadband by 2020, dubbing it the “electricity of the digital age”.

In a speech in London today, the Prime Minister said that the 21 percent of adults in the UK who have never accessed the Internet are “trapped in a second tier of citizenship”, denied access to “a fundamental freedom in the modern world”. He said that this was “wholly unacceptable”, and that superfast broadband must be for all – not just for some.

Digital divide

The Prime Minister said that allowing superfast broadband coverage to be determined by profitability alone, and leaving it subject to “unbridled market forces”, would ultimately broaden the digital divide. “To concede a willingness to have superfast broadband reserved for some rather than for all betrays a total failure to grasp the scale of the educational, economic and social opportunities that it brings,” he said.

“Faster broadband speeds will bring new, cheaper, more personalised and more effective public services to people,” he added. “It will enrich our democracy by giving people new ways of communicating complaining and challenging vested interests. In short, the world available to those with superfast broadband will be unimaginably richer than to those without.”

Brown also highlighted the financial advantages of investing in wider Internet provision. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the government can save £900 million a year just by bringing those who don’t have access to the Internet online, so that they can carry out transactions with public services more quickly and efficiently. The savings come when government services on paper can be “switched off”.

Broadband tax

The Prime Minister reistated the government’s plans to introduce a 50p-per-month levy on all fixed phone lines to help fund a partnership with the private sector for a superfast broadband network across Britain. The broadband tax was confirmed by chancellor Alistair Darling during the Pre-Budget Report in December, but has been dismissed by ISPs including BT and TalkTalk as impractical.

The Conservative party has meanwhile slammed Labour plans and launched its own strategy for improving the UK’s Internet infrastructure, promising speeds of 100 Mbps for the “majority” of homes by 2017.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne said money from private investors would provide better cabling in towns and cities, while a portion of the BBC’s licence fee would be used to pay for coverage in less lucrative rural areas. However, a report published last week found that investment would be unlikely to meet demand in rural constituencies – and may cost Tory votes.

Mygov online portal

The Prime Minister also announced in his speech that the government would work to provide an online platform to deliver personalised public services and give citizens new ways to engage with government. “Our goal is to replace this first generation of e-government with a much more interactive second generation form of digital engagement which we are calling Mygov,” he said.

“Online, Mygov will give people a simple “dashboard” to manage their pensions, tax credits or child benefits; pay their council tax; fix their doctors or hospital appointment and control their own treatment; apply for the schools of their choice and communicate with their children’s teachers; or get a new passport or driving licence – all available when and where they need it,” Brown explained.

He also said that the launch of the Mygov portal marks the end of the “one-size-fits-all, man-from-the-ministry-knows-best” approach to public services. Data and content will be unleashed to the community using open source technology, to be turned into applications that meet genuine needs. “All that is required is the will and willingness of the centre to give up control,” he said.

“Not a panacea”

Some industry groups have already responded to Brown’s speech, largely expressing support for the government’s digital plans but also warning that the strategy will need to be developed, and that will require consultation.

“As the details emerge over the coming weeks, it is essential that the groups that can provide real innovation both in thought leadership and the delivery of such a vision are engaged in a meaningful way and that government doesn’t disappear into a bunker to then emerge with a solution,” said Tristan Wilkinson, director for public sector, EMEA at Intel, having welcomed the announcement as “pivotal”, and describing the new Digital Public Services Unit as “a significant and potentially world-leading initiative”.

“It is important to note that individual web pages, whilst eye-catching, are not a panacea, unless they form part of a more coherent service management and delivery strategy,” said Des Speed, CEO of government to citizen (G2C) software provider, Lagan Technologies. “A two-dimensional page needs to be part of effective three-dimensional service provision.”

Chancellor Alistair Darling will set out more detailed plans for the government’s digital streatedy in the budget on Wednesday.

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