Jeremy Hunt has urged rival telecom firms to put aside their differences as the UK lags in the fibre race
In yet another sign of the fraught state of fibre deployment in this country, Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, has warned that the UK is risking trailing the rest of Europe in the deployment of superfast broadband.
The comments came in a speech to the Royal Television Society in Cambridge that was widely publicised yesterday. Hunt also warned mobile operators not to oppose Ofcom’s forthcoming 4G auction.
“We need to ensure we do not make the same mistake in broadband that we made in railways – building our high-speed network 45 years after the French and 62 years after the Japanese,” Hunt was quoted as saying.
Yet despite this rhetoric, the government still believes that the private sector is best suited to delivering this vital public infrastructure, and is investing relatively modestly in the national fibre deployment effort.
“But I do not believe the market is working as well as it should.”
BT for example has pledged to invest £2.5 billion in rolling out fibre to around two thirds of UK homes by 2015.
In comparison the government has only pledged £530 million for local councils to support the roll-out of superfast broadband to the third of UK homes and businesses that would otherwise miss out.
And it seems most of that public money is accounted for now, after the government revealed last month that counties across England will receive £294.8 million from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), with a further £68.8 million to be invested in Scotland.
This however provoked an angry reaction from the Scottish Parliament, which complained that it was getting too small a slice of the pie.
Yet despite the hand wringing by Hunt on the issue of superfast broadband, it seems unlikely the government will provide more financial support, other than what has already been committed to BDUK.
This is despite Hunt revealing back in May that it was the government’s ambition to provide superfast broadband (i.e. 25Mbps) to 90 percent of the UK by 2015. At the very least, he hopes to roll out 2Mbps broadband to all British homes by that time.
Of course the major problem facing both the government and the industry in general regarding a nationwide fibre deployment, is the vexing issue of ducting.
Indeed, Hunt told the audience at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, that disputes between BT and rival companies, such as Fujitsu, over the price of renting its ducting to lay their own fibre network were taking too long to settle.
“PIA [physical infrastructure access] has to be sorted out – and quickly – in a way that allows fair competition with different providers able to invest in our broadband infrastructure,” Hunt reportedly said.
In January this year BT had revealed its charges so rivals could access BT’s telegraph poles and ducting.
But some ISPs were not happy at the price BT was charging, and in April a number of ISPs wrote to communications minister Ed Vaizey, warning of a possible boycott of the government’s investment in rural broadband pilots.
This led Ofcom to warn that it may have to step in and regulate the prices BT charges.