Government To Appoint Broadband Minister

A new broadband minister could be appointed “later this week”, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is planning to appoint a new broadband minister, with the aim of getting broadband policy back on track “as quickly as possible”. The broadband minister will act as a point of liaison between the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and BIS.

Culture minister Ed Vaizey is rumoured to be taking on the role, which will entail responsibility for ensuring that all areas of the UK have a broadband speed of at least 2Mbps. The new broadband minister will also need to draw up plans for a next-generation broadband network to reach people in the UK who are not currently served by commercial broadband.

Malcolm Corbett, chief executive of the Independent Network Cooperative Association, told BBC News that the appointment of a new minister was urgent. “Without it UK broadband risks drifting and that is not a good thing for UK competitiveness,” he said. “Ed Vaizey would be a good bet as he is on top of the issues.”

The funding issue

Under the previous Labour government, a plan was devised to introduce a 50p-a-month tax on fixed phone lines, which would be used to create a “next generation fund” to subsidise broadband roll-out. The Liberal Democrats originally supported Labour’s plans, but the Conservative party fiercely opposed the scheme.

Must Read: Where Will The Coalition Take British Tech?
Must Read: Where Will The Coalition Take British Tech?

The tax was originally included in the Finance Bill, but the government was forced to scrap it in order to fast-track the Finance Act and enact the budget ahead of the general election. Now that broadband roll-out is in the hands of a Lib-Con coalition government, it is unclear where the funding will come from.

In February, the Conservative Party promised speeds of 100 Mbps for the “majority” of homes by 2017. 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, the Liberal Democrats accused the Tories of operating fantasy world economics. “Anyone can promise the earth,” said culture, media and sport spokesman Don Foster. “What matters is how you pay for it. All independent research shows that the market simply cannot provide high speed broadband in all parts of the country in the short term without investment.”

2Mbps not enough

As well as the funding issue, many industry commentators have said that the government’s Universal Service Commitment of 2Mbps is nowhere near fast enough.

“MPs are supposedly striving to make Britain a world leader in the provision of broadband services. Who are they trying to kid? … that’ll never happen with a USC of only 2Mbps,” said Elsa Chen, general manager of ISP Entanet UK. “Whilst new bandwidth hungry services and applications continue to increase in popularity (e.g. SaaS, IPTV etc) the faster, more robust connectivity services that are demanded to support these services will continue to be rolled out to the most densely populated areas first.

“The UK’s ‘not-spots’ will be left continuously trying to keep up. When they eventually receive their 2Mbps connection by 2012 the rest of the UK will have already been upgraded to ADSL2+ at least, providing speeds of up to 24Mbps,” she added.

The government could be coming a step closer to its target, however, after BT announced plans last week to scale-up its roll-out of super-fast broadband around the UK. Under the new plan, BT will invest around £2.5 billion in rolling out fibre to two thirds of UK homes by 2015. The roll-out is already underway in some areas, with around four million homes expected to have access to fibre broadband by the end of this year, said BT chief executive Ian Livingston.